In 2008, University of Akron football player Tyler Campbell was leading the team in tackles. A year later, he had surgery on a mangled shoulder. He got hooked on prescription painkillers. Within two years, he was dead.
Tyler Campbell died last summer of a heroin overdose. By then, Christy and Wayne Campbell had spent two years trying to get their oldest son off the opiate oxycodone so he could keep playing football and keep his scholarship at Akron.
"Tyler wanted to stay in school and we wanted to keep him in school because we didn’t know," said Christy Cambpell.
Passion, drive for the game
Many college athletes play hard to earn a Division I scholarship, and even harder to keep from losing it when they’re injured.
The Campbell’s say Tyler was used to being an underdog. Playing through adversity was a part of his life. He was a varsity starter at his Pickerington high school outside Columbus, but got no college offers. Akron accepted him as a preferred walk-on, meaning he would have to compete with others for a scholarship. Tyler did earn a scholarship and played safety.
Wayne Campbell says his son played as hard during practice as on game day, and that left him constantly banged up. In 2009, Tyler had to have what’s called a Mumford procedure on his shoulder, which involves removing part of the clavicle bone.
Christy believes that’s when his addiction to painkillers started – when he left the outpatient surgery at Akron’s St. Thomas Hospital with a prescription for 60 Percocet.
"They prescribed him too much [pain] medication - looking back at some records that I’ve recently found and I was horrified by that."
Tyler's surgeon would not comment. But orthopedic surgeon David Geier says prescribing 50-60 pain pills after surgery is typical – and generally not enough to get someone hooked. Geier is director of Medical University of South Carolina Sports Medicine and has worked as a team physician for top college and pro sports teams.
"You figure if someone needs one or two every four hours from right after surgery, if you do the math, that’s probably going to last 7-10 days. And it’s quite normal for people to still have pain after that."
The NCAA's stance
Standards for prescribing pain medication to college athletes is often left up to team doctors – because the governing body of college sports – the NCAA - stays out of the issue.
The NCAA’s official list of dozens of banned substances includes everything from caffeine to street drugs – but there is no mention of highly-addictive painkillers like oxycodone.
Tyler Campbell never failed a drug test at Akron. What’s unclear, is whether he was clean or whether the university wasn’t looking.
Akron makes changes
Campbell’s death, and the death of another former football player and teammate, Chris Jacquemain, last year, prompted Akron to make changes.
Bill Droddy, Akron’s assistant director of sports medicine, says last year the school switched to a zero-tolerance policy – meaning that any trace of a substance, including painkillers, that shows up in a test is immediately addressed.
"You could have a student athlete [who] was essentially using narcotics on a regular basis. It would never get enough in their system to trigger a positive test then."
Droddy says Akron also switched from having drug testing done on campus to contracting it out to an outside agency in Columbus. Before thht, all testing was performed by Akron staff.
Akron’s drug testing policy is now in line with top Division I college sports programs like Ohio State whose conference, the Big Ten requires testing. But the NCAA still doesn’t require schools to have drug testing at all – for legal or illegal substances until a team makes it to post-season play.
Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea instituted an athlete drug-testing program a couple years ago, mostly as an educational tool in case teams get to playoffs. Twenty percent of athletes are tested randomly. But the tests are strictly looking for street drugs.
Baldwin Wallace is a Division III school that doesn’t give athletic scholarships. So, Athletic Director Chris Diaz says, the pressure is not as great for their athletes to try to play through pain.
Addiction takes hold
At Akron, Tyler Campbell’s passion for the game and pressure to keep his scholarship consumed him. After surgery, his performance – and then playing time – diminished as he continued to take painkillers.
His dad, Wayne, demanded he take a comprehensive drug test when he started burning through money and seemed depressed. It came back positive for opiates.
Tyler then completed just four weeks of a six-week outpatient treatment program to get back on the football field. His addiction continued, and a new coaching staff at Akron told the family to pull him out of school and get him help. Tyler came home and this time completed outpatient treatment.
"He calls the coach and the coach then tells him he no longer is on scholarship. And that forced him in a depression. Because the thing he loved, is gone."
With a year of playing eligibility left, Tyler got an offer to play at a small school, West Liberty University in West Virginia, but eventually stopped showing up to practice. Christy Campbell didn’t give up hope and enrolled him in intensive rehab back home.
"He was his old self… And we thought, he’s on the road to recovery."
July 21, 2011
Tyler came home on July 21, 2011 and was optimistic about the future, talking about being a drug counselor. The next morning, Christy found him dead in his bedroom. Christy and Wayne say they believe it was the first time he had injected heroin.
The Campbell's don’t directly blame the University of Akron for their son’s death. But they say their son was overprescribed painkillers and that the school did little to help once it knew he had a problem.
"There is something wrong with the dosage that we’re giving out in the United States," said Wayne Campbell.
Akron says it now better tracks athletes’ prescriptions and makes sure they get a non-narcotic painkiller after a prescription runs out.
The Campbell's have set up a foundation – Tyler’s Light – that spreads awareness about painkiller addiction.