Among the football mementos Ray Nettles has strewn about his Southside home, his personal favorite is a large framed picture of him standing on the sideline in the closing moments of the Toronto Argonauts losing 21-16 to the Ottawa Rough Riders in a 1977 Canadian Football League playoff game.
His Argonauts uniform has mud spots, and Nettles is wearing a large neck collar. After watching Toronto's quarterback get sacked to seal the defeat, the image captures a bearded Nettles looking despondent and totally exhausted, like a warrior on his last legs.
That picture is a perfect illustration of how Nettles has spent his entire existence, always pushing himself to the limit. Whether as a hard-hitting middle linebacker, a bouncer, a carouser, a restaurant manager, a beer drinker or just driving that trademark Harley motorcycle, Nettles lived and played at full speed, doing almost everything to excess.
Now as he approaches his 60th birthday on Aug. 1, Nettles has come to realize what an ill-fated path he's been traveling all these years. As much as he reveled in being that notorious tough guy - earning him All-Southeastern Conference honors at the University of Tennessee and being elected to the CFL Hall of Fame in 2005 - Nettles' penchant to constantly experience life on the edge didn't suit him so well off the field.
After years of abusing alcohol and feeding a cocaine habit that nearly killed him more times than his family cares to recount, Nettles, who is now battling Stage 4 cancer in his liver and lungs, acknowledges how much of a golden opportunity he wasted. The Englewood High graduate understands all about misplaced priorities, the price of addictions, manipulating people and, most painful of all, hurting the ones who loved him the most.
But in a life in which Nettles - ranked among the top 50 athletes in First Coast sports history -has endured so many extreme highs and lows, the fiery leader of UT's 1970 and '71 defenses is trying to make up for lost time in what may be his final season.
"God has given me the chance to sit here and talk about this," Nettles said. "I want my story to matter to somebody."
Nettles has packed a lifetime of hardship and redemption into the past two years. He was diagnosed with liver cancer in August 2007, saw it go into remission and return, and now his terminal illness has spread into both of his lungs. Within a span of one week in 2007, Nettles lost his mother, Lucille, to cancer and fell off his motorcycle, breaking his neck and causing him to go back on pain medication, which reignited a longtime cocaine habit.
Last September, a tenant at his rental property (now in foreclosure) was arrested for drug possession. Nettles admits that, for several months, he allowed the tenant to pay rent with cocaine. That complicated scenario led to Ray being angrily confronted by his wife, Bonnie, when she discovered a voice mail of an unidentified caller asking if her husband wanted to purchase drugs.
The next day, after years of Nettles living in denial about his addictions, a determined Bonnie and his sister, Dale, drove Ray to Statesboro, Ga., for a life-changing rehabilitation at Willingway Hospital. What has transpired in Nettles' life since then - sobriety, his Tennessee football fraternity rallying to support him, repairing his broken marriage and turning back to his faith in God for guidance - is one of those comebacks for the ages.
"It's been something tremendous to witness," said Anne Cummings, Nettles' older sister and a nursing supervisor at Flagler Hospital. "It's a shame you wait to the end of your life to get where you can enjoy it. Ray is aware that he had some wasted years. You see this with a lot of football players. They try to play with pain, and after they shoot these guys up [with painkillers], then they learn to manage pain chemically. It's not too big of a step to addiction.
"We're just so thankful to the Lord that Ray is back where he is. Underneath all the mess, Ray is a fine person with a good heart. He still wants time to do something worthwhile before he leaves us."
As the terminal illness keeps weakening his body, Nettles acknowledges he's "in overtime" of his life.
An extreme makeover
Nettles was the epitome of a rough-and-tumble linebacker and did everything to live up to that reputation on and off the field. Before and after his pro career (1972-80), when the long-haired country boy played for five teams and won the Schenley Award in '73 as the CFL's outstanding lineman, Nettles acknowledges he routinely consumed beer in large quantities.
But when he tried cocaine for the first time, according to Nettles, in the hotel room of 1972 Heisman Trophy winner and then-Montreal Alouettes tailback Johnny Rodgers after a CFL awards banquet, Nettles didn't think it was a big deal. Nettles was 24 and figured it was just an experiment that would go away like some passing fad.
After 35 years in the fast lane - which includes being on nearly every medication or painkiller possible, a 1996 diagnosis of hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver and a statement from a doctor to Bonnie in 2004 that her husband had "enough cocaine in his system to kill two people" - Nettles has finally come to understand what a dangerous game he was playing over that time.
It's little wonder that he could never sustain a lasting relationship with women, including Bonnie, who divorced him in 2001 after five years over his alcohol abuse. She remarried Ray in 2004, only to come home to their apartment in Atlanta from a plane trip (she's a flight attendant with Air Tran) and find her husband crawling to open the door. Ray had injected cocaine into his knee, which later swelled up like a volleyball and put him near death in the hospital.
Bonnie left Ray again, moved back to Jacksonville without divorcing him, and spent the next four years wondering if the man she never stopped loving could ever get off the addiction train.
During their first marital go-around, Ray carefully kept his on-again, off-again cocaine use hidden from Bonnie. "Ray never did any drugs in front of me," she said. "I was totally oblivious to it."
Because he was on all kinds of medications and painkillers anyway, Nettles, who endured 11 surgeries because of football-related injuries, had a convenient alibi to explain his sometimes erratic behavior.
"Oh, I was good. I was a manipulator," Ray said. "People accepted me as being normal. Very seldom was I out of line or off balance. I had the cat-and-mouse game thing down.
"You know when you're an alcoholic, you climb in your own bottle by yourself. Well, that's the way I was with cocaine. It got to the point where I wasn't a social, recreational user anymore, and it haunted me."
Jamie Rotella, a UT player living outside Atlanta and Nettles' closest friend from his college days, understands the transformation his fellow linebacker has undergone as well as anyone. Rotella conquered his own alcohol problems just as his parents were passing away in 2001 and 2002.
"There's so many bells and whistles and shiny things out there that you forget your upbringing and teachings," Rotella said. "I had given up on Ray for a while, because he had such a poor [health] diagnosis. It's a miracle that he's finally sober. I don't know what God has in store for Ray, but his time on this earth isn't done yet."
Wife's fierce loyalty
Bonnie Nettles has known her husband since she was 11, living across the street from him in the same house in which both of them now reside. She admittedly "had a crush" on him back then. Bonnie remained good friends with Ray and his family through his career at Tennessee and beyond.
During Bonnie's teenage years, her mother gave Bonnie an ominous forewarning about Ray Nettles. "She said, 'Stay away from him because he'll break your heart,' " Bonnie recalled.
For a period of about 30 years, there was no connection between the two, because they were living different lives far apart from each other.
Bonnie married a man who was stationed in the Navy in Jacksonville and moved to his native Wisconsin in the 1970s. They had two children.
Ray bounced through the CFL and had two brief marriages to Canadian women, including a Miss Nude Ottawa. He never had children.
As Bonnie's first marriage was ending after 17 years, she came home to visit her mother in 1993 and ran into Ray while visiting his family. They went out to dinner. Much to Ray's shock, hours of conversation ensued in which Bonnie confessed that she was smitten with him.
But Ray wasn't the long-term commitment type.
Less than a year after that chance encounter with Bonnie, he married a girl he picked up hitchhiking while driving a truck back to Jacksonville from South Florida. She enticed Ray into returning to his old drug habit, and his third marriage ended even quicker than his first two.
It wasn't until 1996, a time when Bonnie thought Ray's biggest vice was nothing more than drinking beer, that a courtship developed and the two married. But until Ray finally completed the Willingway program last December - he had to suspend treatment for three weeks because of gall bladder problems - Bonnie thought it'd be impossible for them to stay together.
Alcohol sabotaged their first marriage. They remarried in 2004, largely because Ray's health was in decline and Bonnie couldn't resist his need for her. That threatened to unravel again last year when Bonnie discovered Ray was using drugs again.
"I drew that line in the sand," Bonnie said. "I felt so violated emotionally. I gave him 24 hours to commit to getting help, or I was done with him forever."
Ray didn't want to go to Willingway, but the thought of losing Bonnie scared him more than rehab.
"If I didn't take heed to this person who loved me as much as she did, there would have been a whole different tune to this song," Ray said.
Ray's friends and family agree that, cancer or not, Bonnie has been his lifesaver.
"I've only known Ray for less than a year, after he's seen the light," said Frank Cerisi, the pastor at University Baptist Church, where the Nettles attend services. "The first time I had lunch with him, he said, 'I believe [Bonnie] was an angel sent from God for me.' She's the constant in his life. She's loved him through thick and thin."
A Volunteer rally
Perhaps the most amazing part of Nettles' fight with cancer and his addictions is the unconditional support, emotionally and financially, he received from his Tennessee teammates and coaches.
"The hair on the back of my neck goes up every time I talk about it, because it was so touching," said David Allen, a former UT cornerback and a urologist living in Athens, Ga.
During a 52-day stint at Willingway, Nettles discovered that the team concept extended far beyond the football field. It also had no time limits.
Just as the Volunteers rallied around their fiery defensive leader in the 1970-71 seasons, they did it again nearly four decades later.
After Bonnie confronted Ray about his drug use, she put the word out to former UT offensive lineman Bill Emendorfer that Ray needed help. Emendorfer mobilized other teammates, and soon it was like the Volunteers were preparing for another big game. Emendorfer and Allen knew about Willingway's success rate due to past family experiences, so the wheels were put in motion to get Nettles there immediately.
Soon thereafter, defensive end and Palatka native Carl Johnson organized a "catastrophic illness trust" with a Tennessee bank to fund Nettles' recovery. Soon after Nettles checked into rehab, many teammates he hadn't talked to in several years or decades reopened communication lines.
"It brought a lot of old friends together," Emendorfer said. "We rallied around a cause, which is what a team is about."
While many addicts struggle with loneliness in their recovery, Nettles rarely felt alone once the mail carrier arrived at Willingway. Hardly a day went by when he didn't receive a card or letter from the UT football fraternity.
"Every day when it seemed like things were toughest, I'd get one of those letters," Nettles said. "God was sending them through so many people."
Nettles usually received his mail around 2 p.m., but he waited until near bedtime to open them, because the nights were always hardest on his psyche.
"You have a bunch of friends who are excited about helping you help yourself to get well and live a long, happy, rest of your life. Addiction is tough and cancer is tough - but I've never seen anyone TOUGHER THAN YOU!!!" - UT head coach Bill Battle, Oct. 17, 2008.
"The Ray Nettles I know met every fight head on and won! There has never been a better example of toughness and fight that has worn the orange than you were at your middle linebacker position in that old Bubble defense. Now go to work and win this fight as well." - UT guard Phil Fulmer, Oct. 3, 2008.
Every message from Nettles' circle of Volunteers had words of encouragement. However, it took Nettles' best friend from his playing days, Rotella, to express the tough love that people with addictions need to hear.
"It's my understanding that the people running the [Willingway] program are all ex-users and know when you're conning them. Thank God! You're good at telling a person what they want to hear. How about dropping all the bull and help yourself. And if you don't want to do it for your own health, how about doing it for all the people that paid for the program, care enough to write you letters, and pray for you. If that's not good enough, how about doing it for your family who loves you very much and wants the healthy Ray back in their lives. ... This is the fourth quarter! Step up and be the man I know you are, but more importantly, be the man God made you to be! I'm always your brother." - Jamie Rotella, Oct. 29, 2008.
Ex-teammates and coaches opened their wallets as well. The recovery at Willingway, a place Nettles calls "The Betty Ford clinic of the South," is expensive.
Just for Nettles to walk through the door and be admitted cost $15,000. Allen, who phoned Willingway and urged officials to admit a reluctant Nettles, put it on his credit card. Within two weeks, Nettles' teammates collected enough money to reimburse him, Allen said. Since Bonnie's insurance only covered the original detox, that left approximately $45,000 to cover the rest of Nettles' treatment. The Volunteers also took care of that debt.
"If [Nettles] was a sorry person, he wouldn't have gotten that kind of response from players and coaches," said former UT head coach Bill Battle, who coached Nettles for two seasons. "Ray is a great human being that demons got a hold of for a while."
For all of these Volunteers, most of whom played when Tennessee was a perennial top-10 football program, seeing Nettles conquer his addictions has felt like one of the greatest victories of their lives.
"I don't think any of us want to take credit for something that was a natural thing for teammates to do," Emendorfer said.
Walk toward redemption
There's no definitive timetable on how much longer Nettles can last with his Stage 4 cancer. Doctors gave him a best-case scenario of one year back in April, though Bonnie fears the disease might be advancing at a faster rate.
Nettles recently had to stop taking Nexavar, a commonly prescribed drug to combat liver cancer, because the side effects were too extreme. He was removed as a liver transplant candidate two years ago, because of his alcohol use. Breathing has also become a big issue. He can no longer walk any significant distance.
He's scheduled for CAT scans on his liver and lungs Monday in Gainesville. That diagnosis is expected to give him a clearer picture, but any trepidation Nettles might have about the future has gradually eroded.
The prospect of death, almost like pain on the football field, doesn't seem to faze him. After years of addiction, he's just happy to not be running from a previously flawed lifestyle.
"I want to try to make a difference in people's lives in the right way," Nettles said. "I'm still taking a lot of baby steps in my walk with Christ. Now, even though I don't always feel well, I don't have anymore bad days. My life was a total mess, and I'm just relieved that all the lies and deception is over with.
"I'm not afraid of what tomorrow brings. For years, I dedicated myself to being the hardest, baddest guy in whatever I did, whether it was right or wrong at the time. I finally realized through my recovery and God's grace that I had been doing it all wrong. Once I could admit that to myself and the people who loved me, I had such a relief like I've never felt before."
Because of the drinking that led to his liver problems, his cocaine habit, the motorcycle accidents and the other bad choices, Nettles never dreamed he'd make it anywhere close to his 60th birthday, which is three weeks away.
So whatever time he has remaining, Nettles wants his better-late-than-never turnaround to impact as many people as possible. The same guy who stood up in the locker room at the 1971 Liberty Bowl, exhorting his UT teammates in loud, obnoxious terms to stomp all over Arkansas, is now sending a different kind of message. He wants people to understand that redemption is possible for anyone who cares to seek it because, well, he's living proof.
"I'm not here to preach about what to do and what not to do with your life," Nettles said. "I'm just saying if you think you don't have another chance, you have one. ... We hop back and forth, taking whatever road is hottest at the moment. But you can always get on that right road, stay on it, and your life will grow tenfold."
Ray only played 9 years in the CFL, but the way he played he condensed a 20 year career into those 9 years. He knew only one speed - all out and all his opponents can agree that he was one of the fiercest players they ever faced. He was the consummate teammate, never giving less than 100% and through his play, was a constant source of inspiration for all those around him.
I can remember his first year when he came to the Lions as a highly prized rookie from the University of Tennessee. He was part of the Big 3 rookie signings that year along with Ron Estay and Johnny Musso. He made an immediate impact in the CFL making the All-Star team in his first 3 years and capping it off as the Outstanding Lineman in 1973. He was the CFL version of Dick Butkus.
Unfortunately he lived his life off the field as hard as he did on the field and at age 59 it has caught up to him. 11 surgeries for football related injuries, 35 years of substance abuse and now he is battling Stage 4 cancer in his liver and lungs. His ex-teammates at the Univ. of Tennessee have been very supportive - both financially and morally. As former UT head coach Bill Battle, who coached Nettles for two seasons says, "Ray is a great human being that demons got a hold of for a while." I am sure a great many of us can say the same about ourselves or other friends we have in our own lives.
Ray's 60th birthday is at the end of the month and I believe that a fitting tribute to Ray would be for the BC Lions to acknowledge Ray's contribution to the Lions by having a 50-50 draw at one or more home games with the proceeds going to Ray's treatment.
Ray was one of the toughest SOB's to ever play in the CFL and is now in for the fight of his life. He has his life back on track, and with the support of a wonderful woman I'm sure he can make it.