Sam Hurd was a only a pretty good football player—better on special teams than in his role as a wide receiver with either the Dallas Cowboys or Chicago Bears. But apparently he was a great drug dealer. That might seem counter-intuitive: Hurd was arrested just before Christmas in 2011 after attempting to set up a distribution deal for 10-kilos-a-week of cocaine and 1,000-pounds-a-week of marijuana with a pair of undercover federal agents, and that isn’t necessarily something that people who are great at being drug dealers do. But as the Sports Illustrated story on Hurd, a San Antonio native who “smokes high-grade California marijunana ‘all-day, every day'” while he was in the NFL, illustrates, there are a number of complicating factors that suggest that Hurd is probably a guy who got caught up trying to appear like a bigger player than he was. Because when he was content to just provide pot to his friends and teammates, Hurd sure sounds like a champ

“Whatever was considered the loudest weed in California—I wanted a notch above that,” Hurd explains in a white cinder-block interview room in Seagoville, with only a hint of the pride he used to express on the subject. “I had educated myself on different strains and potencies and growing techniques. I was very selective. It was like wine.”

Most of the marijuana Hurd had shipped in from California, he says, he smoked himself or shared at cost with friends, including 20 to 25 teammates over his five years with the Cowboys. A two-year federal investigation into Hurd’s activities conducted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division has produced no evidence that Hurd made a profit selling this marijuana. “I was what you call love,” he explains, using the slang for those who provide marijuana to friends without keeping score. “I’m in the NFL, and I’m gonna ask people for a few hundred dollars on top of what I paid for it? Nah. Slide me what I got it for and take it. Enjoy it.”

When the news about Hurd broke in 2011, it was shocking. Given the amount of weed and coke that Hurd talked with the undercover agents about buying, the story essentially went from “A guy in the NFL wants to buy some drugs” to “Apparently a major drug trafficker also plays in the NFL.” The SI story casts a fair amount of doubt on that interpretation of events, but it also demonstrates something interesting about the role that marijuana plays in the culture of the NFL: namely, that it’s everywhere.

Hurd’s is the voice of a postmodern NFL in which “at least half” of all players, by Hurd’s “conservative estimate,” smoke marijuana at some point during the season, and members of two teams, the Broncos and Seahawks, live and pay taxes in marijuana-legal states. Players smoke (or vaporize) cannabis for various reasons, according to interviews with NFL veterans: to get out of bed easier, to manage stress, to relax, to alleviate pain or simply to get high. Hurd began smoking heavily while rehabbing after ankle surgery in 2008. He never knew a day when his job wasn’t on the line, so once he got healthy again he smoked to reduce stress. But mainly he smoked to get high.

Early in his career Hurd had been entrusted with a secret known by only a few of Dallas’s veterans: Tests for marijuana occurred at roughly the same time each year. 

The story goes on to talk about the way that pot served to strengthen bonds between teammates. 

“He wasn’t making any money off players—I know that,” says one Cowboys teammate who spoke about Hurd under condition of anonymity. If a teammate didn’t pay Hurd, which happened a lot, he’d let it slide, although the friend’s chances of receiving more weed would diminish. That is, until he again found his way upstairs to the media room at Hurd’s Irving house, with Wiz Khalifa bumping and everyone taking brain-stinging rips from a Big Chief joint Hurd had rolled as the window ventilating unit tugged their exhalations out into the sky.

All of this is especially interesting given the way that pot-smoking NFL players are still talked about. Longhorns legend Ricky Williams will probably never live down his reputation as a guy who had to choose between getting high and playing football, and chose getting high. Three rookies with the Houston Texans were reportedly cut last month for smoking pot in their hotel room before a game in Kansas City. Also in Kansas City, Chiefs star wideout Dwayne Bowe was arrested yesterday for marijuana possession after he was pulled over for speeding. And former Detroit Lions tackle Lomas Brown told NFL sources last year that he believed 50% of the players in the league get high, which he claims is an improvement from his playing days in the 90’s, when it was closer to 90%.

If Lomas is to be believed, most of the guys you cheer for on Sundays—that is, the men whose bodies get battered in serious ways for your entertainment, and who line up for shots of Toradol in order to get onto the field—feel the need to be high as kites in order to get out of bed on Monday morning. That’s something that the story on Hurd makes explicit.

One day earlier Hurd had withdrawn $55,000 in cash from two banks in Dallas, most of which he gave to V in exchange for roughly 20 pounds of the best of the best. The order included a couple pounds each of Hurd’s personal favorites: Louis XIII (aka Louie, his daily smoke, which he says allowed him to function and even “practice better and study film better”) and Mr. Nice Guy (a purplish hybrid that Hurd and his teammates found eased the headaches common among NFL players).

There’s probably a compelling argument out there that says that NFL players are role models for children, and unless you’re a fan of the Seahawks or Broncos, it’s illegal for your favorite player to smoke weed, but we’re not going to make it: It seems weirdly inconsistent to insist that smoking pot is bad for NFL players, but the massively concussive hits that they take are normal. If we’re going to watch football, a game that involves men doing unfathomable things to their bodies on a weekly basis, it is hypocritical to condemn them for getting high, if that’s what it takes to get through the season. (Possible exceptions may be made for kickers and long snappers.)

In any case, there are a few indications (having nothing to do with Sam Hurd) that maybe the perception of this part of the game is changing, too. Not only do two teams play in states where marijuana is legal now, but there’s a mainstreaming even in the ultra-conservative NFL of the idea that it’s just not that big a deal. Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid declared earlier today that Bowe, despite his marijuana arrest on Tuesday, will play and start Sunday night’s game against the Denver Broncos. (And while stars typically play under different rules than guys fighting for roster spots, anyone who drafted Bowe for their fantasy teams knows that this isn’t a big year for the guy.) Even more telling is this year’s mainstream embrace of the draft guide written by Rolling Stone political reporter Matt Taibbi, which centers around advice like “draft the weed guy.”

Taibbi has been publishing his “NFL Draft Decoded” column since 2010, and rule number one in Taibbi’s guide is “dope smokers are a bargain“: 

Before the draft, teams spend far too much time worrying about the “character” issue, when the real question to ask is much narrower: “Can this player make it through his four- or five-year rookie contract without missing actual games due to incarceration?” Guys with drinking problems or who throw cell phones at their girlfriends’ heads or get pulled over driving 110 with loaded unregistered pistols in their glove boxes are bad bets. Guys who just stay home and smoke weed while giggling at Manswers are not. Thus: Always draft the guy who falls in draft position due to a positive weed test. In fact, if a guy is regularly smoking buttloads of weed and he’s still kicking ass in Division I football, grab that motherfucker quick. Teams who pass on such players almost always regret it; Randy Moss and Warren Sapp are two classic examples, and last year there was Percy Harvin, Minnesota’s fast-as-hell wideout, a steal at pick 22. But what about the NFL’s drug policy, which makes league suspension or banishment a consideration? The reality is that in the age of the Whizzinator and delightfully rare random testing, not many guys are going to make it all the way to their third (i.e., banishable) positive drug test before their rookie contract ends. Hell, even Ricky Williams didn’t get suspended until after his fifth season, and nobody, not even Tommy Chong, likes smoking weed more than Ricky Williams.

That excerpt is from Taibbi’s 2010 guide, but in April, his 2013 column made him a star of unconventional NFL thinking, and “draft the weed guy” was suddenly embraced by mainstream sports figures like Dan Patrick and Rich Eisen. (Two of the “weed guys” in that draft, Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and San Diego Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, are strong defensive and offensive Rookie of the Year candidates, incidentally.) 

Given all of that: That Hurd’s story reveals how common marijuana usage in the NFL is; that players seem to embrace it as self-medicating for doing an absurdly demanding job physically; that it’s now legal in two of the states that NFL teams call home; that a respected coach like Andy Reid has no interest in making an example out of a struggling former star busted a few days before a game with pot in his car; that a guy like Taibbi is suddenly considered a draft genius by actual NFL experts for recognizing that it’s not that big a deal; and that the players who have been considered risks because they like to get high regularly play at a high level, there’s a pretty strong argument that the NFL should be among the first workplaces to officially sign on for a “who cares” policy when it comes to marijuana. 

AP Photo/Michael Thomas