UPDATE: Jolly has since been given pretrial diversion, a form of probation, meaning the charge will be dismissed in a year if he doesn’t break the law and completes other requirements. He remains suspended for the upcoming season by the NFL for violating the leagues substance abuse policy.—August 3, 2010

Pro football has had its share of substance abuse issues, but typically the culprit is a failed steroid test or run-ins with recreational drugs like alcohol or marijuana. Recently, however, a different drug—with Texas origins—has pushed NFL players into the legal spotlight.

As a recreational drug, purple drank is a purely modern concoction, barely 20 years old and made with ingredients that you can get at your local convenience store. A soft drink like 7UP or Sprite and some Jolly Rancher candy are mixed with prescription-strength cough syrup. The codeine (a narcotic) and promethazine (an antihistamine) in the cough syrup provide a powerful sedative, while the soda and candy make it palatable.

Most credit Houston hip-hop producer DJ Screw (profiled by Michael Hall in “The Slow Life and Fast Death of DJ Screw,” April 2001) with popularizing purple drank in the 1990s. Screw’s signature chopped and screwed sound, created by remixing songs at a hypnotically slow tempo and punctuating them with skips and scratches, is said to mirror the effects of purple drank. Screw died of an overdose of codeine in 2000, but not before he had helped Houston become known as the “City of Syrup.”

Purple drank didn’t die when Screw did. Instead, it gained notoriety through other rappers from Houston and throughout the South. From Three 6 Mafia’s “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” to Lil Wayne’s “Me and My Drank,” purple drank became known throughout the South as an easy way to take the edge off.

Even though the price of codeine-promethazine cough syrup has risen high enough to push the drug out of reach for most young users, companies are still marketing “extreme relaxation” drinks with similar names (like Drank) and ingredients like melatonin and valerian root that have sedative effects on the body.

“That’s really sad and the worst thing that I’ve seen since candy cigarettes,” said Dr. Ronald Peters, an associate professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, who has been studying the effects of purple drank across the South since the drug first gained popularity. “It’s sad to watch companies make money off things that have killed many people.”

Someone had to be the first to carry purple drank across the threshold from entertainment to sports, and it appears that person was former Texas A&M player Terrence Kiel. That’s certainly the first time that former NFL star and current ESPN analyst Marcellus Wiley can remember it. Wiley and Kiel played together for the San Diego Chargers in 2003.

“Before that, it was more relegated to the entertainment world,” Wiley told the Associated Press. “I had heard that in the South especially some of the rappers mentioned syrup, purple drank. It was kind of part of that subculture, but it never invaded the locker room, it never invaded pro athletics, until the Terrence Kiel incident.”

That incident occurred in 2006, when Kiel was arrested at the Chargers’ practice facility after federal agents turned up a pair of boxes containing codeine-based cough syrup that Kiel was shipping back to Texas. Kiel pleaded guilty the following year and was released by the team. He died a year after that, in 2008, after flipping his souped-up Chevy Monte Carlo coming home from a Fourth of July party outside of San Diego.

Four days after Kiel’s death, his former Texas A&M teammate Johnny Jolly was arrested outside of Mr. A’s, a north Houston club with a reputation for drugs and guns. A police spokeswoman said Jolly was pulled over because the amplified bass music from the car was loud enough to be heard more than fifty feet away.

Jolly grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward, so he was no stranger to the hard times in that neighborhood. He became a standout defensive lineman at Forest Brook High School, good enough to win a scholarship with the Aggies. At 6-foot-3 and around 300 pounds, Jolly became a force in the middle of the noted Wrecking Crew defense. As a sophomore, he recorded more tackles than anyone in college football and won all-conference honors as a junior and senior. Although A&M never won more than seven games in a season during Jolly’s career, he made enough of an impact to be selected in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers.

As police looked through the car, they found a Dr Pepper bottle and two Styrofoam cups containing soda and ice. All emitted a strong smell of codeine, officers said. Jolly was arrested for possession of at least 200 grams of codeine.

Since his arrest, Jolly’s case has made its way slowly through Harris County’s overloaded judicial system. The charges against him were dropped a year after his arrest, but only as a technicality so they could be refiled in December 2009 when police had new equipment for measuring codeine amounts.

It’s ironic that in the two seasons following that night at Mr. A’s, Jolly has been playing the best football of his life. He started all 32 games in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the only Green Bay defensive lineman to do that as the Packers became the No. 1 defense in the NFC. But with his trial date looming, the NFL suspended Jolly this month without pay for the upcoming season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

Now as his Green Bay Packers teammates begin training camp, Jolly will report to a Houston courtroom Monday for his felony drug trial. If convicted, Jolly could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

As if to emphasize that Jolly’s purple drank trouble wasn’t an isolated incident, another NFL player got into legal trouble in the days leading up to Jolly’s trial. In July, JaMarcus Russell, the first player taken in the 2007 NFL draft, was arrested at his Alabama home for possession of codeine syrup without a valid prescription. Russell, a former star quarterback for the LSU Tigers, had been released by the Oakland Raiders a month earlier after three underperforming seasons. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on bond.

Following Russell’s arrest, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told USA Today that illegal use of codeine in pro football “is something we’re aware of and monitoring, (but) we don’t see evidence of a particular problem among NFL players.”

Perhaps now, it’s that NFL players are getting caught up in the wave that Peters said has been an issue and endemic throughout the South for nearly a decade.

“If someone is smoking crack, people look at that person like something is wrong with them,” Peters said. “But if someone has a cup of lean, a cup of purple stuff, that’s cool. For some people it’s like someone having a beer in a bar.”