As a crowd gathered inside a New Hampshire addiction treatment center earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence boarded Air Force Two in Washington, ready to jet north for a speech about opioid abuse.
Then, just before noon on July 2, an apologetic spokesman took the stage to announce that Pence had suddenly turned around. The reason? A security concern, his office said. But local police insisted they hadn’t heard of any threats. President Donald Trump later blamed “a very interesting problem.”
“But I can’t tell you about it,” he said.
The truth, as Politico first reported on Monday, is that Pence’s staff learned he was about to visit a center where an official was under federal investigation for transporting mass quantities of illegal opioids.
Jeff Hatch, a former NFL lineman who has made headlines discussing his recovery from addiction, pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to smuggling 1,500 grams of fentanyl and selling some to an undercover agent, according to court documents. Hatch, 39, was the chief business development officer for Granite Recovery Centers, which Pence was scheduled to tour on his visit.
Pence’s office didn’t immediately return a message about Hatch’s guilty plea.
“I am shocked, disappointed, and heartbroken,” said Granite Recovery Centers CEO Eric Spofford in a statement to The Washington Post. “Neither me nor anyone at Granite Recovery Centers was aware of Jeff’s actions.”
The news ends one of the stranger recent mysteries in the Trump administration but also marks a dark chapter in Hatch’s once-inspiring tale of overcoming years of drug dependence that had been fueled in part by brutal football injuries.
Born in Annapolis, Maryland, Hatch switched from basketball to football in high school as he grew into a 6-foot-7, 300-pound behemoth. He starred on the offensive line at the University of Pennsylvania, earning all-American honors and becoming a rare Ivy League player drafted into the NFL.
But he’d also struggled with alcohol and drug abuse since high school, as he would later recount in speeches. He was drafted by the New York Giants in 2002, bought a house and an SUV, and realized those weren’t enough.
“I’d taken in all this information that said when I check off all these boxes, I’ll be happy,” he said at a speaking engagement last year. “I realized I checked all these boxes, and I’m completely miserable still. Now what?”
His problems only grew worse, he said, after a back injury in his rookie season led to surgery and a spiraling new addiction to opiates. As he played four seasons in the NFL, bouncing from the Giants to the St. Louis Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his abuse worsened.
“I would have to lie and say I had the flu because I’d lost so much weight because I wouldn’t eat,” he said last year. “I tried to overdose myself to death. I started self harming. I was cutting myself. The world got incredibly dark.”
In 2006, his parents discovered him suffering from an overdose in Tampa, Florida, and rushed him to the hospital. Soon after, he told audiences, he began his recovery. In New Hampshire, he later joined the staff at the Granite Recovery Centers in Salem, where he said he hoped his story inspired other addicts.
He used his perch to try to effect policy change. In 2017, he spoke in favor of a bill proposed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to fund opioid addiction education in schools and youth athletic associations.
“I know how devastating the misuse of prescription opioids can be,” he said in May 2017.
But just two months later, on July 25, 2017, an undercover federal agent listened in as Hatch called a dealer in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to buy hundreds of grams of fentanyl, a highly addictive opioid that has killed hundreds annually in New Hampshire. State, local and federal agencies had been probing a major fentanyl supplier in Manchester, New Hampshire, court documents say, when they learned that Hatch had been working as a courier and began investigating him.
Hatch transported the fentanyl shipment from Massachusetts back to his home in Manchester and later sold drugs to the undercover agent. He was promptly arrested, but the case was sealed as the former football star agreed to help the federal agents go after a larger supplier in the chain, Politico reported.
With his guilty plea on Friday, he faces up to four years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. Hatch’s attorney declined to comment on the case.
On his visit earlier this month to the facility where Hatch worked, Pence was scheduled to meet with patients and then give a speech about the opioid crisis. His staff suggested at the time that he’d try to reschedule the appearance.
Spofford, the center’s CEO, said Hatch’s downfall illustrates the awful tenacity of opioid addictions.
“Addiction is insidious,” he said. “This illness [affects] people from all walks of life. From the inner city poor to CEO’s, lawyers, and doctors. This situation highlights why those of us on the front lines need to remain vigilant and must battle every day against addiction and the opioid epidemic.”