Memoir: Upton Bell’s Road Back

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upton bell addiction recovery

Photograph by Toan Trinh

It was a cold and windy day as I walked to Harvard Square to pick up my rental car. It was January 23, 2015. What did I expect, Red Sox spring-training weather? I was going to NECN to do an interview with Jim Braude on his show Broadside. The subject was Tom Brady and the beginning of a disease that has finally settled, known as Deflategate. It was the week before the Super Bowl between the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. I had also brought my 1970 Super Bowl ring (I won it as the director of player personnel for the Baltimore Colts) to show the audience. When the show finished, I got in my car and headed home. While driving the short trip in 6 o’clock traffic, I thought about how the original plan—my longtime girlfriend, JoAnne O’Neill, was to drive me to the show and have dinner with me afterward—would have been much better, considering the traffic and the weather. But she had come down with the flu and couldn’t do it. Little did I know the role fate would play.

As I approached Route 2 off of 128, the traffic was fairly light, and I noticed the Channel 5 helicopter overhead. Whether my mind wandered or I hit a patch of ice or had a mini stroke, something happened that I still can’t explain. My car veered off Route 2, up an embankment, through a guardrail, flipped over, and landed upside down on top of another car. In the brief time my car was airborne, I had the feelings of flying and invincibility. I could hear the air. I was totally at ease and felt happier than ever before. Was it part of a near-death experience?

Quickly, this dissolved into severe pain. My first thought was, “Am I dying?” Luckily, somebody at the scene called 911. A police officer later told a TV crew that if my car had landed 5 or 6 feet in any other direction, both I and the woman who was driving the other car would have been crushed to death. I was much relieved when I found out she had suffered only minor injuries.

When the EMTs arrived, one of them carefully placed a collar around my neck, which was broken in two places. I remember nothing about the ride to Mass General, but after X-rays there, I learned I had a total of 39 fractures, including in my spine, sternum, ribs, and coccyx. I also had a concussion. I was very lucky I wasn’t paralyzed, beheaded, or dead.

After 37 years in pro football (including stints as general manager of the Patriots and owner of the Charlotte Hornets in the World Football League), then 39 years in radio and television in New England, here I was in the most frightening moment of my life. In just a few seconds, I went from Upton Bell the media personality to Upton Bell in the intensive care unit.

I’ve always tried to live by the words of the playwright Edward Albee: “If you have no wounds, how can you know you’re alive?” In the coming months, that outlook would be sorely tested. For the first time in my life, I was helpless. I got to see how inadequate our healthcare system is, particularly Medicare and its many ways of saying “no.” I also faced the great danger of becoming addicted to opiates.

At the same time, I learned the powerful role an advocate can play, and was lucky to have two in JoAnne and my son, Christopher Bell.

I hope you’ll take this trip with me. It’s not always pretty, but it may help. The questions we all have to ask ourselves are, Do I want to live? and How valuable is life?


During my first three days in the hospital, besides vivid dreams brought on by morphine and other drugs, I was aware of very little except visits from JoAnne, Christopher, the novelist William Martin and his wife, Chris, and my cousin George Bell. One of the more surreal things that happened was a visit from a camera crew following people who had been brought into the ER. I’m told I was euphoric, outgoing, informative—all the things I would be if I were on Charlie Rose. The people shooting the documentary seemed to like the interview so much, they said they’d be back. I never saw them again. I should be used to this given that, in my profession, one’s career can end very quickly.

Snow began to fall heavily in what would be one of our worst winters, though because of my injuries and concussion, it would be a long time before I could withstand any light or go outside. I do remember one of the early days when Christopher visited me. He told someone at MGH that it was a shock to see me. I still had blood on my face, my front teeth were all chipped, and I looked like I’d been hit by a train—after which somebody had finished me off with a baseball bat. I had been outfitted with a brace that fit snugly under my chin and around my neck and was attached to a piece that stretched across my chest and back. I called it my cage.

Another problem began to develop. I started to hallucinate and tried to take out my IV and unhook the cage apparatus, so the nurses had to restrain me with ties. I called both JoAnne and my son and told them I felt there was a plot against me. This was right out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

As the week progressed, my body shut down. I could no longer eat and developed aspiration pneumonia. The doctors said I needed to have some form of feeding tube. This was one of the most agonizing parts of my journey. For the next few days, at least four different times, the doctors attempted to insert a tube through my nose into my stomach. It felt like I was choking to death. Finally, after a fourth try, they were successful, but it was only temporary. Ultimately, I was whisked away to surgery, where a feeding tube was inserted directly into my stomach.

After my time at MGH, I spent some often-frustrating days at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital before ending up at NewBridge on the Charles. NewBridge is a combination of a rehab hospital and an incredible assisted-living facility. It was like entering the Emerald City after the tornado. There was a feeling of warmth and laughter, and I could sense my stay would be safe. Most important, I met some of the best human beings—nurses, doctors, and particularly aides. The characters were right out of a great novel.

Most memorable is Virgilio Agustin, who was educated in the Philippines. He was a man of a thousand places and a thousand jokes, none of which was particularly funny but all of which were punctuated by an infectious laugh I’ll never forget. He, along with many others at NewBridge, helped to ease my pain and prepare me for what would be my lifelong journey.

My pain was so debilitating that doctors at NewBridge took me off morphine and started to administer oxycodone until an examination of my stomach contents, done daily through the feeding tube, showed that I was not absorbing the new drug. I was switched back to morphine and then, finally, to the dreaded but necessary fentanyl, which helped with the pain but brought on extreme nausea. Drugs were dispensed three times a day, and I anxiously awaited each dose. In my case, begging at times became necessary.

Because pain ebbs and flows, one’s mental state is very important. Mine was greatly helped not only by Virgilio and the nurses, but even more by the steady stream of friends who came to visit. Bill Martin was there practically every day. I was also visited by Ron Borges, Herald sportswriter and my coauthor on an upcoming history of the NFL, who pleaded, “Please don’t die before we finish the book.”

The great Saturday sentinel was my friend Nate Greenberg, formerly of the Boston Bruins. The first time he came, he brought Kevin Paul DuPont, of the Globe. Remember the famous book Tuesdays with Morrie? I’ll always remember my Saturdays with Nate.

One of the most famous visitors came in the middle of the night. While up late—I didn’t sleep much at NewBridge even with heavy sedation—I heard a noise that became very familiar to me: the sound of someone retching in pain. As it turned out, it was Milt Schmidt, one of the greatest hockey players of all time, who’d been admitted after breaking his ribs in a fall. The next day I went down to see Milt. I was in awe that somebody who was 97 years old at the time still had all of his faculties and a bright outlook on life, despite his injuries. Milt was there for the next two or three weeks, but what I remember most was Nate going down to Milt’s room with me. Nate slipped out and called Bobby Orr in Florida, and Orr, as only he would do, flew to Boston and on a Saturday, with little fanfare, came in to see Milt.

One of the things that I was always fearful of was the onset of night—a time when you are finally alone. My nightly routine would involve a nurse removing the cage and substituting a different neck brace that would keep my neck in a certain position. This procedure was reversed each morning. The routine was very painful, and there was no way to do it other than to have me carefully roll side to side while they tried to make sure they were not jarring my spine or neck. At night this was followed by the administration of a tranquilizer and a sleeping pill. By this point, I was dreaming more than I ever had, and one particular night, two voices emerged. The first assured me that the pain would all end if I just let myself slip away—that maybe death would be easier than rehab. The other reminded me of all the football players I saw in my younger days who were in various states of distress, but always got up for the next play.

Pain can dominate one’s life to such an extent that reason no longer holds sway. Fortunately for me, on one night the desire to live overcame the desire to just let things slip away. I remember thinking that if I could just make it to daylight, I would survive for another day because I would begin my drug routine and the pain would abate. Why do I bring this up? I can understand better now how people become desperate and do things to themselves that they wouldn’t ordinarily consider doing.

As my stay at NewBridge continued, JoAnne, along with the social worker there, Gina, became breakers of the Medicare code. Medicare was the constant foe. I was walking all through the corridors to keep some sort of exercise routine. Medicare’s stance was, If he can walk and talk, he’s out. However, part of my therapy was to learn how to eat all over again. We worked on this with a therapist, Caitlin, who taught me how to chew and swallow as if I were a child. Every other week I had to pass a test of whether I could swallow food without choking. A medical truck would arrive at NewBridge, and I was lifted in a wheelchair into the truck for the test.

Months later, before I was to leave NewBridge, I had lunch with JoAnne. By that time, even though I was getting better, I had dropped almost 40 pounds and had no desire to eat. I had lost all sense of taste. While sitting in the cafeteria waiting for my frappe, I said to her, “There are a lot of things I can no longer do. If I can’t eat, taste my food, drive a car, what’s the sense in going on?” I could see that really frightened her, and I didn’t bring it up it again. If I could keep my sense of humor and try to be somewhat positive, I might be able to go home, understanding I could never again be the same.

Although I had lived in my apartment for many years, I thought of the title of the famous Thomas Wolfe novel: You Can’t Go Home Again. To a degree, he was right. In the nearly five months I was gone, JoAnne made my place look almost organized and less like an obstacle course. No longer were there books piled higher than the Hancock Tower.

My training at NewBridge—climbing 100 steps daily—came in handy since there’s no elevator in the building of my fourth-floor walkup. One slip or fall would undo everything. JoAnne, Christopher, and his girlfriend, Tracey, were there to try to ease me back into reality. A nurse would also visit every few days to check my vital signs. I have to say, after everybody left, I felt a sense of loneliness. Twenty-two different forms of medication were my only company.

The final mountain to climb was actually descending from 80 micrograms of fentanyl down to nothing. I knew that would be the worst. Was I addicted? I’m not sure, since usually my only addictions are chocolate and the Three Stooges. I found a copy of my cousin George Bell’s very moving and anguished story, written for the Globe two years earlier, about the death of his brother (and my cousin) Jamie from an overdose of fentanyl. He died alone in a hotel room in Philadelphia. The image haunted me. I decided to seek out expert advice on kicking this drug.

There were three doctors who were extremely important in my life: MGH’s Roman DeSanctis, one of the great cardiologists in the world; Nancy Akbari, my primary-care physician; and Mary Lee, a former associate provost at Tufts. I called Mary and told her I was desperate. I knew I had to deal with the fentanyl, and she made it clearer than anyone that although it was helping with my pain, I needed to get down as quickly and safely as possible. I told Mary that I could walk no more than 10 minutes before the pain made it too difficult to go farther. She advised me to continue walking, and said every time I felt I couldn’t go farther, I should sit down for 10 minutes, then get up and try again.

My first priority was to walk, walk, walk. My second priority—even though I was still suffering severe nausea—was to try to regain the 40 pounds I had lost, since my clothing no longer fit. The third priority was to stay in touch with friends, via phone and computer. I would tweet constantly and accepted any and all Facebook friends, along with all criticism on Twitter. I lived by the axiom “Love me or hate me but don’t forget me.” What I was learning is that the longer I walked, the lesser my pain and nausea became. Eventually, at the two-hour walking mark, natural opioids set in instead of the manufactured ones. The natural ones lasted about four hours, which was almost the same amount of time the drugs lasted. (Later, doctors at MGH and Tufts Medical Center clinics became very interested in my experiment.)

In the meantime, MGH enrolled me in its pain clinic, and the doctors there tried to monitor me as I came down from fentanyl. The first day, I walked into the office and saw people who were suffering in various degrees. For the first time, I thought, I’m lucky and not as bad as they are. The decision was made to drop my fentanyl dosage from 60 micrograms to 45, then to 30, 25, 15, and 12.5. Each plateau brought on its own psychological and physical dangers.

Part of the plan I developed was to walk as long as I could and sit down when I had to. My training as an athlete and my experience watching performers from every walk of life kicked in. What made athletes like Unitas, Brady, Ortiz, Bird, and Russell great was their extreme discipline and desire to always get better. I began to make mental images of goals and adhere to the Bill Belichick mantra: “Stay on message.” Visualization was also very important. I tried to never picture stopping, quitting, or giving in to anything. You’ll find that many of the greatest performers—dancers, musicians, athletes—always keep going, in both victory and defeat.

Still, my health challenges were daunting. I remember taking off my shirt and looking at myself for the first time in the mirror and seeing nothing but bones. Because of the nausea, I had no desire to eat anything. Most of the time, the nausea was worse than the pain. I survived on frappes— morning, noon, and night. Everyone at Ben & Jerry’s knew me; I was there so often, they started to give me free frappes. I told Dr. Akbari that the nurses all seemed very tall at NewBridge. She kindly told me the reason for that: I had lost 5 inches in height because of the accident.

As I was coming down from fentanyl, I saw the major reason why nobody stops taking it totally. One jolt, one misstep, and you’re going to go right back to the dose you were on. I kept setting goals, and my final two were as much physical as mental. Could I climb the famous steps at Harvard Stadium, long a tradition among people of all ages? The goal of getting to the top without falling—and understanding that I could be a whole person again—was important.

My final goal, despite not being totally off fentanyl and other drugs, was to return to one of the most beautiful places in America—Mount Auburn Cemetery—to climb its famous tower, which looks out onto the mighty Charles River and Boston. I knew it could be somewhat treacherous because the stairway is winding and dark until you reach the top, but I was determined to do it. I picked a good day to walk over to the cemetery and began my slow climb up the stairs. Every step represented a step toward ending my dependence on the drugs. When I finally got to the top, a sense of joy washed over me. I’d come a long way since that dark January night seven months earlier. I called as many friends as I could from the top and tried to thank them, for they were the reason I made it.

To this day, I continue to be treated by the MGH Pain Management Center and Tufts Craniofacial Pain Center. One of the great pieces of advice I received was from a Buddhist monk, who told me the first step in getting better is to recognize that some of your wounds and pain will never leave; the minute you understand that, you’ll be on the mental road to recovery.

So what have I learned from this whole experience? That in the end, only you can help yourself. If you don’t begin with that, no amount of medicine will cure you or help with your addiction. Also, what I found most important is friends and love. You can’t live without either one of them. After all, isn’t that what we’re all dying for?

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