Ex-NFL, Badgers LB Casillas aims to ease pain with cannabidiol

Jonathan Casillas stepped in front of the microphone and told the audience the truth: He wished he could “pull out a fat doobie and smoke it.”

But even here at, yes, the Cannabis Business Awards, this was a no-no.

This was no scene from a Cheech & Chong movie, with smoke billowing throughout the air. These awards were a formal affair and being held at the Denver Hilton. There was no vaping or smoking allowed and as the co-host of the event, Casillas had to make this perfectly clear to everyone — especially Table 4, which hadn’t gotten the memo.

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A little over a year after his final game, Casillas, who played linebacker at Wisconsin and for three teams over nine years in the NFL, was in his element and loving every moment being on stage.

After suffering a serious neck injury in 2017, for the first time in his life Casillas started thinking of the “R” word — retirement. That meant, also for the first time, he had to start figuring out what he wanted to do once he was done with football.

“And of course everything pointed towards cannabis,” he said.

***

Casillas never played football before high school. His sport was basketball. But he saw all his friends playing the sport — and succeeding — and he wanted to play as well. He told his mother, who did not approve.

“She said you’ll get hurt. And boyyyyyyy was she right,” Casillas said. “She was right. I’ve literally been hurt ever since I started playing football.”

Those injuries ranged from minor things like jammed and dislocated fingers to ankle sprains, broken bones, concussions and damaged ligaments. Casillas noted he’s had “epidurals all up my spine from C2 to C6, all the way down to my lumbar.” There have been four surgeries. A Lisfranc injury in his second year in the NFL sidelined him for a year-and-a-half.

Asked if he could name all the injuries he’s suffered playing football, Casillas admitted he’d “probably forget a couple because there’s been a lot.”

As a rookie with New Orleans, Casillas got a quick indoctrination to how to deal with injuries and pain. One teammate, whom Casillas says was one of the most “well-respected” players in the NFL, introduced him to Toradol.

“He was like, man, you got a little foot thing going on, an ankle, a knee, whatever it was, you take that thing and you’ll be fine,” Casillas remembered.

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Toradol can be taken in pill form, but more commonly is shot into, well, the butt. Casillas was a bit unnerved when he first saw players doing this but said he eventually got enough nerve to try it himself. It quickly became a part of his routine.

On Sundays, Casillas would get the shot of Toradol an hour before gametime. If he had swelling in his knee, for example, it would lessen the inflammation and, as he noted “it will basically take it down to where you don’t feel it.”

After playing without pain Sunday, Casillas would still feel great Monday and be able to do a light workout or some running. But then the Toradol would wear off.

“Tuesday, when you wake up, holy crap, it’s like you got hit by a bus, bro,” Casillas said.

Wednesday and Thursday would be a “struggle.” Hopefully Casillas would feel better by Friday, if not Saturday. But then Sunday, there was the shot and the whole cycle began anew.

Casillas understood why trainers gave players (or even doctors to patients) Toradol or opioids. Simply put, it’s because they work.

But Casillas also said over the years he learned a lot about his body, what worked and what didn’t. He also understood the perils of dependency.

“I had seen the stories of Brett Favre, I played against Brett Favre,” said Casillas of the former NFL quarterback, who by his own admission became dependent on painkillers, in particular Vicodin, and alcohol.

There had to be another way. There was — cannabis.

***

Casillas aims to be transparent and truthful. So it’s easy for him to say that he enjoys smoking marijuana. Well, easy for him now. That sort of admission would have been frowned upon by the NFL when he was playing.

Casillas said he started smoking marijuana while at Wisconsin. But, believe it or not, it was harder to smoke in college than in the NFL.

“If I’m not mistaken, college (drug testing) is really random and the NFL is random only for a certain part of the year,” Casillas explained.

In the NFL, Casillas said if they were smart, players knew how to balance their personal and professional lives. For a mature adult, there were ways to smoke marijuana during the season without being caught or failing a drug test. It also didn’t hurt that when he was with the New York Giants, teammate and fellow captain Zak DeOssie would send emails to remind players when offseason drug testing was going to begin.

And make no mistake, Casillas did smoke during the season. He isn’t in the only one in the league who did. He estimates 80 percent of players have tried cannabis in some form (smoking, vaping, pills, accidentally eating a “funny” brownie, etc.). Casillas said that number is lower for those who smoke (he’d heard people think 70 percent, but he thought it was lower than that). Those who just use cannabidiol (CBD), much less.

And that’s where Casillas’ new life begins.

***

Using CBDs while he was in the NFL “helped protect my career for at least the last 3-4 years I was in the league,” Casillas said.

Once Casillas decided his NFL career was over — he admitted he worked out hoping to get back in the league, but persistent neck pain while doing so helped seal his decision to retire — it was then time to decide on a new line of work.

“I’m like what am I passionate about, what do I want to do when I wake up in the morning and it all pointed to helping people, but also what do I enjoy doing,” Casillas recalled. “And all of that was like, OK, I like to smoke, I like to enjoy cannabis. And then I started researching cannabis and I was like if I can get into this business, it can be something that I actually like to do, participate in, and I can help people.”

Attending the Cannabis World Congress and Business Expo at the Jacob Javitz Center in New York City, Casillas took a class — “basically Cannabis Business 101,” he said — where he was eventually introduced to Chloe Villano.

Villano has been in the cannabis business since 2007, is the president of Clover Leaf University, which she said is “the only occupational university approved, regulated and licensed by the Department of Higher Education’s school board,” and is the founder and host of the Cannabis Business Awards.

“It was funny because when we were all done I said you’re one of us, which is not normal,” said Villano of initially meeting Casillas. “A lot of times people come in and they don’t have the heart of an advocate or somebody who wants to make change in the world, and Jonathan does.

“But Jonathan definitely stands out and I think he’ll be a pioneer in this industry.”

When talking about cannabis and CBSs, Casillas will often mentioning wanting to help people. Knowing what his product did for his own health, he wants to help other athletes recover and get off opioids. And his product — Jade’s Garden, so named after his daughter as well as himself (his nickname is Jade), aims to do just that.

Casillas said his product will have no THC. This is about healing, not getting high. Also, unlike Toradol, this isn’t a short-term masking agent but a longer-term help.

“Once you get CBD into your bloodstream and get it reacting to your endocannabinoid system, which everyone has in their body, once you get that going, I feel like you will see a lot of medicinal benefits,” Casillas explained. “And not like a quick two-hour mask where for 24-36 hours you don’t feel a damn thing. It’s not like that.”

While Casillas would love to get his product sanctioned and distributed by the NFL, he also said Jade’s Garden will be for more than just the athlete. While cautioning that “everybody responds to things differently,” Casillas said CBD can help with such things as epilepsy and anxiety.

“What he’s found with CBD and hemp is he can operate at full function and can remain an athlete,” said Villano, who has partnered up with Casillas in the business. “What we’re doing with Jade’s Garden is we’re creating a line of CBD products that are tailored for the pro athlete, so you can train for your muscles, for your mental health, for your endocannabinoid system. So it’s pretty awesome.

“It’s going to be well-advanced beyond other products and I think it’s something that’s going to be beneficial for many demographics.”

Casillas also said that when he was taking CBDs during his latest injury rehab, his mother was fighting off breast cancer and he gave her some of the product he was taking.

“Not only did I use it personally but my favorite person in the world, my mom, who was struggling with the cancer, she was able to use it,” Casillas said. “So like I said there was a lot of things pointing in that direction. Basically helped save my mom’s life. … There’s a lot of benefits. Look up what CBD or cannabis can do. It’s very powerful.”

Jade’s Garden is still in the initial phases, in part due to regulations. While the 2018 Farm Bill signed in December is expected to help, there’s still a lot of legislation and standards to fight through, including who can ship and sell cannabis and hemp. When the product is ready to roll out (he is just starting a social media presence), he knows he wants a charity to be involved. As an NFL player, Casillas was involved with, among other things, Reading Across America, holiday drives and soup kitchens, and for the past five years has operated a forward progress camp.

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He also wants to help break the stereotype of those who use cannabis-based products (again, think Cheech & Chong), which is one reason — for now — he doesn’t plan on selling products with THC. “I want to promote wellness,” he said.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and also a lot of time to spend with his daughter, who he didn’t see enough of while playing. It didn’t take long for Casillas to come to grips of life without football and he’s excited for the future.

“Right now I’m not trying to put too much on my plate. I’m trying to be a good dad,” Casillas said. “I like where I’m going right now, I like where everything’s at and I’m just trying to enjoy this thing called life.”

Dave Heller is the author of Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow (a Larry Ritter Book Award nominee), Facing Ted Williams – Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns