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Pills for pain put BYU star in a tailspin

Bryant Atkinson felt the push to return to the football field at Brigham Young University after each of his three knee surgeries.

Repairing a torn meniscus is a rather routine operation nowadays, and players are expected to jog within a day or two and run sprints in about a week. Atkinson followed the prescribed workouts, though his knees didn't feel right.

"You really don't have a choice but to get in and start running," he said. "I knew I shouldn't be doing it, but there's so much pressure to get on it and practice."

Atkinson also followed the prescribed dosages of Lortab or Percocet he was given, at least after the first two injuries. It wasn't until his third surgery that he started swallowing pain pills for more than pain.

"You know what it does. You know that it can be a problem," he said. "You don't think it's going to be a problem for you."

But opiates did become a problem for him, eventually leading to a heroin addiction, an arrest and jail time.

Once teammates were aware Atkinson had narcotics, he became a magnet for other players seeking painkillers as did his wife, Mindy, who always had pills on hand due to chronic back problems from high school soccer and basketball.

"There were so many players abusing it. Players would call me on the phone (saying), 'What did you get? Can I have some?"' Mindy Atkinson said.

To those who read the court briefs in the newspaper or caught a 15-second TV news story complete with Atkinson's mug shot, he appeared to be another self-indulgent athlete hooked on drugs.

But there's more to the story of how an Eagle Scout from a good family got engulfed in drug addiction.

A 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker, Atkinson was the state's most sought-after player coming out of Timpview High School in 2001. His prep coach believed he would become a college star. BYU won the recruiting war for him over Utah, Oregon, Arizona State and Texas Tech.

Atkinson, 24, the grandson of former BYU coach Chick Atkinson, redshirted his first year but saw a lot of action the next two seasons. He earned Academic All-Mountain West Conference honors in 2002 and 2003 and was BYU's special teams cover player of the year in 2002.

Things were lining up for him to be a starter his junior year under second-year defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall. At the same time and unbeknownst to anyone, Atkinson began losing his passion for football.

Though his knees ached all the time, he didn't say anything to coaches or trainers. Like other players, he said, he took pain pills to get through Mendenhall's brutal practices. He often got prescriptions from doctors outside the football program who knew he was a BYU player. Sometimes, he said, they gave him more than they should have.

Driving to practice in August 2004, he blacked out and crashed into a ditch. He suffered a mild concussion but no other injuries. That same day he decided he'd had enough of the game he'd played since elementary school.

"Football was to the point that I hated it. I hated everything about it. It ruined my life," he said.

Scott Atkinson recalls his son phoning with the news.

"Dad, I'm going to quit football. Football is not worth my life," he said.

"I was just in shock," said Scott Atkinson, who played baseball and basketball at BYU in the 1970s. He didn't know the extent of his son's battle with painkillers.

Bryant Atkinson didn't think of himself as an addict when he quit the team. He thought of himself as someone who needed medication for his banged-up knees.

"Obviously, you get introduced to it that way. It's hard to say. I can't blame it on that," he said. But he concedes taking pain pills escalated after his third knee surgery.

It didn't help that Mindy also had a steady supply.

"He just started taking them a lot. He was really depressed. His body wasn't feeling good. He was hurting. His life was out of whack," said Mindy Atkinson, 24, who has known Bryant since seventh grade.

Within six months, Lortab, Percocet and OxyContin became a daily ritual. Atkinson's knees still hurt, but he didn't take pills to ease the pain, though that's the impression he gave physicians who prescribed the drugs. He used them to get high.

"You find out which doctors don't ask questions," Atkinson said.

Doctors weren't his only source.

Atkinson bought Lortab online after moving back to his parents' Provo home. The pills showed up in FedEx packages. Scott Atkinson confronted his son about the deliveries, but he denied they were drugs. The packages stopped arriving after that, at least to the house. Bryant Atkinson had them marked for pickup at the FedEx office instead.

"We found Lortab by the hundreds," Scott Atkinson said, estimating he flushed some 400 to 500 tablets down the toilet.

Bryant Atkinson's habit quickly became expensive. One OxyContin 80 goes for $40 to $60 on the street. Atkinson was taking 10 a day "just to stay out of withdrawals."

He said he can't remember how he paid for the pills, but in his drug circle buying and selling was common.

All that came to an end last March when Atkinson and his wife were arrested in their Provo apartment in what amounted to a fluke they now consider a blessing.

The couple had just returned from a drug run to Salt Lake City to find their front door kicked. They called police to report a burglary. A balloon of cocaine was mixed in with the 16 balloons of heroin they bought. Atkinson tossed it on the kitchen counter never intending to use it. A police officer spotted it, and a subsequent search of the apartment yielded their drug stash.

Atkinson spent 28 days in jail; his wife 14.

"If (our parents) had bailed us out after a day or two, I wouldn't be clean and neither would Bryant," Mindy Atkinson said.

On their way to their first court appearance, Bryant told Mindy, "We need to change our lives."

The Atkinsons were charged with felonies for possessing and intending to distribute a controlled substance and a misdemeanor for having drug paraphernalia. Both entered pleas in abeyance last month. Charges against Atkinson will be dismissed if he stays clean for 36 months. Mindy Atkinson must complete a drug court program. He said his only relapse was last June. He attends weekly treatment sessions.

Two semesters shy of a degree in health sciences, Atkinson hopes to return to college — not BYU — to become a physical therapist. He works in the warehouse of his dad's engineering firm. He and his wife hope to start a family. He doesn't hold his coaches, doctors or trainers responsible for his addiction.

"I think it's definitely my deal," he said. "I'd never blame anybody for it."

His father doesn't quite see it that way.

"There was so much pressure to be back on the field," said Scott Atkinson. "I have a hard time still not being angry about that."

BYU and his son share the blame equally, he said.

Coaches, he said, demand "body and soul" of players.