CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Some Carolina Panthers knew that former defensive end Jason Peter was abusing drugs while in the NFL. They just didn't know the extent of his problem.
Peter, a former first-round pick who played for Carolina from 1998-2001, discussed his drug use in a feature running this month on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.
What started as an addiction with painkillers led Peter into the use of crack cocaine, heroin and eventually the mixture of both drugs at once.
"What was surprising to me was the heroin and the cocaine -- some of the other stuff wasn't as big of a surprise to me, but the hard drugs, that was," defensive end Mike Rucker said Wednesday. "That stuff is dangerous. Once you get started, it takes you down a different path. It's a slippery slope."
Both Rucker and safety Mike Minter played with Peter at Nebraska and said they believe his abuse of painkillers started in college. It followed him into the NFL, and many of his teammates were aware of it.
"I knew he had a problem, but I didn't know he had gotten that bad," Minter said. "That was the biggest surprise."
Peter told Real Sports that he got to a point where he was relying on up to 80 Vicodins a day while in Carolina.
"My relationship with the pills was I needed them more than I needed anybody in my life," he said. "I was married to those pills."
Peter said his addiction began at Nebraska when he was given a painkiller to treat a knee injury his freshman year. By the time he reached the NFL, he was receiving "endless prescriptions" from doctors he would meet at parties.
"They love it -- they love having a jersey hanging on their wall or a helmet sitting on their desk, a team ball or something," he said.
The prescription drugs led him to harder drugs -- cocaine and Ecstasy -- while he was with the Panthers and heroin once he was out of the NFL.
'When I started smoking crack, I could stay up for four or five days at a time," he said. "Then, eventually, that didn't work for me anymore. That's when I started getting into heroin. Combining the two was like kissing God."
The bottom fell out for Peter after he was out of the NFL. He mixed pills and alcohol one afternoon and then passed out on his parents' couch. When he woke up, Peter knew he needed help.
Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said the Panthers' management was unaware of Peter's drug use until the TV program aired. Players backed that up, saying they believed former coach George Seifert did not know.
Although Peter left the league in 2001, Rucker ran into him once and knew immediately the problem had spiraled out of control.
"I bumped into him about a year and a half ago, and he was really thin," Rucker said. "He just didn't look like the guy I knew. He had totally changed. He didn't look good."
Peter was an All-America defensive end when the Panthers made him their first-round pick in 1998. But his time in Carolina was injury prone, particularly with a nagging neck injury.
He left the NFL after the 2001 season, alleging his neck injury was forcing him to retire early. Peter has a younger brother who was temporarily paralyzed after suffering a neck injury, and he often spoke of his fears of doing further damage.
Peter, who has been in and out of rehabilitation centers, said he wonders if his addictions shortened his career.
"What would have my career been like if I didn't do the drugs?" he said. "How much harm did that do to my body?"