A former University of Southern California football player from Elk Grove charged in a lawsuit Thursday that team doctors shot him up with a painkiller that gave him a heart attack.
Then, when he recovered, the school obstructed his efforts to transfer, the suit said, at major cost to his professional career.
Armond Armstead, now 22 and playing in Canada, said the injections of the prescription painkilling drug Toradol were forced on him by coaches and doctors without his knowledge.
USC coaches, administrators and medical personnel endangered him as well as other players to propel a nationally prominent football program that last year generated a profit of $29 million, according to his lawyers.
"Such a level of financial success depends on fielding superior players game after game," said the suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by Sacramento attorney Roger A. Dreyer.
Ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll, the USC program "had a strong financial incentive" to provide Toradol to the football players, even though its use came with clear warnings that it "exposed Plaintiff and other similarly situated players to the risk of heart attack and stroke."
USC officials declined comment Thursday, saying in an email that "it would be inappropriate at this time for USC to make a comment about the lawsuit."
The suit names the university, an unnamed pharmaceutical company, football team physician Dr. James Tibone and the University Park Health Center as defendants.
It does not quote a damage figure, but Dreyer said the case's "potential" could run into the tens of millions of dollars.
That estimate is based on Armstead's lost value as a result of his not being able to play his senior year at USC, which the lawyer said destroyed the 6-foot-5, 295-pound defensive lineman's chances to become a high-level National Football League draft pick.
"This kid has dead heart tissue that's never going to regenerate," Dreyer said. "He can go out and play football, he can do physical work like people can after having a heart attack, but he's always going to have that shadow that he's going to be looking at into the future."
Toradol is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory generic painkilling drug, similar to ibuprofen. It also goes by the name of ketorolac and is supposed to be used for short-term relief for severe pain.
Its label warns against use for more than five days at a time and that medications in its category "may cause an increased risk of serious cardiovascular thrombotic events, myocardial infarction, and stroke, which can be fatal."
Despite the warnings, the drug has proved to be a popular painkiller among some pro athletes.
Sacramento Kings team physician Dr. Jeff Tanji, the associate medical director for sports medicine at UC Davis, said surveys have shown recently that as many as eight to 12 players on college and professional football teams are given Toradol injections before their games to allow them to play through pain.
"It's gaining momentum," Tanji said. "Probably five or 10 years ago, it wasn't being (widely) used and probably only one or two athletes even talked about it."
Dr. Margot Putukian, the director of athletic medicine at Princeton University, said she has had outside physicians ask her to provide preventive painkiller injections to the school's athletes – requests she routinely rejects.
"We need to educate athletes that this practice is not a safe one," Putukian said in an emailed response.
Both doctors said they had never heard of an athlete suffering a heart attack as a result of Toradol.
Armstead's 37-page suit said the USC staff first shot him up in mid-2009, when he was coming back from a broken foot.
The next year, Armstead sustained an early-season shoulder injury. Team doctors instituted "a series" of Toradol injections, the suit said: two on the day of the Sept. 11 Virginia game; two when the Trojans played Minnesota a week later; two for Washington on Oct. 2 and one the next day; one for Oregon State on Nov. 20; one for Notre Dame on Nov. 27; and one for UCLA on Dec. 4.
USC officials made it clear that "these injections were mandatory," the suit claims.
In February 2011 during early season workouts, Armstead complained of chest pain three times. Medical personnel at the on-campus University Park Health Center center injected him with Toradol twice, according to the suit.
It wasn't until he was taken on March 3, 2011, to USC University Hospital – which is not named in the suit – that doctors discovered he had suffered a heart attack.
The lawsuit says the Toradol injections "were a substantial factor in causing the myocardial infarction." It does not say how Armstead's lawyers came to that conclusion.
Armstead's parents said in an interview they and their son didn't find out about the use of the Toradol until about a year ago, when they intensified their queries after an examining physician asked if he'd been using street drugs.
Christa Armstead said the suggestion her son used illegal substances such as cocaine "was totally crazy and ludicrous." But she said when she pressed their son on what he was taking, he said, "Mom, the only medication I took was the injections."
Christa Armstead said university officials gave the family his medical records, "but those shot records were mysteriously never a part of that disclosure."
Dreyer said the university "finally produced the information relative to Toradol" last September.
Armstead went into the 2011 season hoping to have a big year on the field, but the school and its football medical staff "precluded Plaintiff from playing despite his medical and physical ability to do so," the suit said.
USC then "obstructed" his efforts to transfer to another school, according to the suit, and would not allow him to participate in "Pro Day" workouts for NFL scouts.
Armstead eventually did work out for NFL scouts at Sacramento State, but the "uncertainty" about his medical condition fostered by USC "essentially eliminated his prospects of being selected in the 2012 NFL draft," the suit claims.
Armstead later signed with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and is playing regularly on the team's defensive line, where he is making $46,000 for the year.