SALT LAKE CITY — On his knees, his head aching, his body shaking, his stomach churning, Golden Richards, in a cold sweat, would hover in his bathroom over the toilet in desperate search.
He had to do something. There were no more painkillers--no more Percodan pills--in the medicine cabinet or under the bed or in whatever hole he had chosen as the latest hiding place for his drugs.
His demons demanded immediate satisfaction.
He had consumed the last of his stash. But it was morning and, as was its habit, his body was in the throes of rebellion. He couldn't keep the damn capsules down.
So after retching, he would clutch the toilet bowl and search and pick for traces of the drugs he had taken minutes earlier. When he had salvaged what he could--sometimes he would be fortunate enough to find whole capsules--he would rinse his reclamation in the sink, pop it in his mouth once more and pray his stomach would not reject it again.
Then, when the aching and shaking and churning subsided and he felt whole and ready to face the world, Golden Richards would dress, put on the smile that turned on a city and go to work as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.
Still, Richards, who depended on painkillers to play, believed he wasn't a drug addict. Addicts lived in tattered clothes in dark alleys, mostly in New York City, he thought. Addicts shot heroin into their veins and stole or mugged to get the money to feed their dirty habit.
He was a Dallas Cowboy, which was all he had ever dreamed of being. He used drugs only to stop the pain. And his drugs came from doctors' prescription pads and friendly pharmacists eager to be of service to a Cowboy star. His drugs were not recreational. He didn't take them to escape reality.
He took his drugs because they went with the job. No matter how much his head pounded or his back throbbed or his ribs ached, he wanted to play in what he called "Showtime." His drugs made Sunday afternoons bearable.
A drug addict, he believed, could not play in two Super Bowls. He could not catch the game-clinching touchdown pass in what remains the Cowboys' last Super Bowl victory. Certainly, if what he was doing was really wrong, someone in the NFL would have noticed and his career would be over.
But no one said a word. The NFL had no drug policy. And so he continued catching passes, allowing his drugs to mask one kind of pain while creating another.
"I never took drugs to get high," Richards is saying on a January night, one day shy of the 15th anniversary of his Super Bowl XII touchdown catch that clinched the Cowboys' 27-10 victory over the Denver Broncos. "I took drugs because I couldn't stand the pain."
No matter the reason, Richards has learned a new reality. Sitting in a downtown Salt Lake City restaurant, his public defender attorney at his side, Richards acknowledges that he is an addict, dependent on the prescription drugs he started taking, he says, as a Cowboy.
His old coach, Tom Landry, might say he never noticed anything unusual about Richards' behavior and never suspected the player he worked with for five full seasons had drug problems. But others in the organization, including at least one team doctor, suspected or knew Richards had a problem.
"The organization knew there was a dependency," said one of the doctors, who declined to be identified. "We tried to help. But a person has to want help. He did not."
Said former Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach, "Every player has taken pain pills. Obviously, players take them when they have pain. Toward the end, I had a feeling that something wasn't right with him. But I didn't recognize the severity of Golden's problems until much later. I had lunch with Golden about 10 years later, and I understood soon after we sat down."
Tex Schramm, the Cowboys' president and general manager during Richards' tenure from 1973 through 1978, says he doesn't "have a recollection" of Richards' problem.
"But I'm not saying it's not true," he added.
Richards was still a Cowboy when he had to be taken by ambulance to Baylor University Medical Center on an April night in 1978 for what he and his former wife call a drug overdose.
And it wasn't long after the Cowboys had traded Richards to the Chicago Bears--five months after the overdose--that Jim Finks, then Chicago's general manager, learned of Richards' drug problem.
Finks, now the president of the New Orleans Saints, said that the Bears' trainer and team doctor told him that Illinois drug enforcement agencies monitoring prescription drug sales were looking into Richards' propensity for buying large quantities of Percodan, a strong pain-killing narcotic. He knew, he said, as he knew the Cowboys had known before him.
But now, on this snowy winter night, as he chain-smokes cigarettes and eats a steak dinner, all that matters little to Richards.