Alcoholism, ayahuasca and the enlightenment of an NFL player

Alcoholism, ayahuasca and the enlightenment of an NFL player

LAUDERDALE-BY-THE-SEA, Fla. — The Buffalo Bills have a new safety this season.

He sometimes plays close to the line of scrimmage, even lining up in the gaps and banging helmets with interior linemen. They use him as a hybrid linebacker in a three-safety dime package. He has played free safety, strong safety, outside cornerback, inside cornerback, left linebacker and right linebacker. And more.

Physically and mentally, he is being challenged, but he’s grateful, content and all in.

The Bills’ new safety is Jordan Poyer. It’s the same Jordan Poyer who played for the team the previous six seasons, the only player in the NFL to have 500 or more tackles, 20 or more interceptions and 10 or more sacks in that time frame, a Bills captain for the fourth time, an Ed Block Courage Award winner in 2017, a Pro Bowl safety last year and an All-Pro the year before.

But this is a new Jordan Poyer because of ayahuasca.


In the spring of 2020, NFL team facilities were closed because of COVID-19, so Bills defenders met in Washington, D.C., for a few days to train, study and bond.

The first evening, cornerback Josh Norman welcomed the players to his home, and out came the shots of tequila. When Poyer was handed a shot, he looked at it and then at his teammates.

He put it down.

Norman and the others, who had never seen him turn down a drink, were taken aback.

“What?” one said. “Come on, Deejay Poyo!”

Deejay Poyo was Poyer’s alter ego. Inspired by tequila and a turntable, Poyer became someone else. And for Poyer, there was value in being someone else.

What his teammates didn’t know was that Poyer had not put alcohol to his lips in about three months, since he downed a shot of tequila on March 13 in the Puerto Vallarta airport bar during a 12-hour flight delay.

Poyer spent his childhood in Astoria, Ore., a picturesque town on the mouth of the Columbia River not far from the Pacific Ocean. His mother and stepfather worked at a juvenile detention center and raised him with a strict hand. When he was no longer under their watch, unsupervised as a freshman at Oregon State, Poyer drank. And drank and drank.

It never seemed to affect his play in college, where he was a consensus All-American. And despite his continued drinking, he made steady progress in his early NFL years.

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In his third season, when he was an emerging starter with the Cleveland Browns, he DM’d an Instagram model after she liked one of his posts on Twitter. She was a freshman at Florida Atlantic, a small-town girl from the Adirondacks who knew nothing about football but thought Poyer was cute. He traveled to Florida to meet her, and before the weekend was over, Poyer declared, “I’m going to marry this girl.”

Poyer made numerous trips to Florida that offseason. That spring as Rachel Bush was finishing her freshman year of college, she learned she was pregnant. After their daughter, Aliyah, was born, Poyer signed with the Bills, and the family moved to Buffalo. He and Rachel married in 2018.

His drinking was out of control by then. He would down a six-pack of IPAs in 20 to 30 minutes for a quick buzz. Blacking out was a regular occurrence. His behavior tested his marriage, but there was a draw between him and Rachel like a north pole to south.

After the Bills lost to the Houston Texans in the wild-card round of the 2019 playoffs, Poyer was crestfallen. He says he drank heavily every day for five weeks. At one point Rachel rid their home of all alcohol, but he would still sneak what he could.

Rachel says her husband hid alcohol from her beneath bathroom cabinets and other places “like a child.”

He was close to losing her.

The drinking, he realized, was an attempt to relieve stress — stress from football expectations and stress from family life. He was a worrier, except with a drink in his hand.

Poyer went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Then another, and another.

The get-together at Norman’s house was his first significant temptation.

“When I put that drink down for the first time, it was almost like I overcame a demon,” Poyer says.

The more time that passed, the less Poyer wanted to drink. He has no desire for it now, and the smell of alcohol almost makes him gag.


Despite a stellar career and a loving family, Bills safety Jordan Poyer “felt like there was something missing” as recently as last year. (Dan Pompei / The Athletic)

Being sober didn’t make him immune to anxiety and depression, however. In the 2022 season, he missed five games with elbow, foot, knee and rib injuries. When the Bills lost to the Bengals in the divisional playoff round, Poyer felt responsible for not doing more.

And his angst ran deeper than football.

“I still felt like there was something missing because I have this beautiful house, a beautiful family, everything anyone could ask for,” he says. “I still felt a sense of unhappiness, a sense of not understanding who I was, and why I was the way I was. A part of me felt guilty just because I was living this way.”

Poyer couldn’t come to terms with why, despite all his shortcomings, he was in such an enviable position. His football journey was improbable. No major college wanted him until Oregon State came in with a late offer to grayshirt, meaning his scholarship wouldn’t begin until January of his freshman year. He was chosen in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL draft, came into the league as a cornerback, was cut six games into his rookie season and then had to learn a new position with a new team. He took a blind-side hit that put him in the hospital for two days with a lacerated kidney and a concussion. His career could have been over then.

Yet by now he has outlasted 191 of the 217 players drafted ahead of him. And he hasn’t just survived in the NFL — he has thrived.

What had he done to deserve this?

Was he justifying his good fortune?

Would there be a greater purpose?

In 2018, Poyer saw a therapist for anxiety once a week. It was unfulfilling.

The answers were somewhere else.

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In the Quechua language, ayahuasca (pronounced ‘eye-ah-WAH-ska’) means “vine of the soul.”

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic drug made from the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub and the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. It has been used for more than a thousand years by Amazonian tribes. Ingesting it can induce a dreamlike feeling, an altered state of consciousness, mystical experiences and euphoria.

In the summer of 2022, Aaron Rodgers revealed he had taken ayahuasca and credited it with helping him have two of the best seasons of his career for the Packers.

Poyer had never heard of ayahuasca at the time. “My first thought was eff that,” Poyer says. “You crazy? I’m not doing that.”

The funny word kept showing up in different conversations on his social media feeds and podcasts. Poyer researched it and became intrigued.

After the difficult 2022 season, Rachel suggested Poyer take a “guys trip” after the season to check out. But “guys trips” usually involve alcohol, and he didn’t want that. Sightseeing isn’t his thing. “What I really wanted to do was work on trying to be a better me,” he says.

He discovered Resonance, a retreat center in Costa Rica on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific coast and the cloud forest of Monteverde.

To prepare his mind to enter a state of awareness, he was to eat only chicken, fish and salad for one month, with no oils and sugar added. Then he had to cut out chicken and fish for the week preceding the ceremony. He also was told to practice yoga and breathing exercises that would be useful if he experienced anxiety during the three ceremonies spread over a week.

In a tiki hut in a wooded, secluded area, a shaman presented each participant with a cup of ayahuasca brew, which is kind of like tea, but with benefits. Taste is not one of them. Poyer says ayahuasca tastes like earth.

“It’s brownish and really thick,” he says. “It almost looks like oil, but it’s darker and thicker. It’s one of the worst things you could ever taste.”

For the first hour after swigging it down, he lay in a bean bag chair in silence, setting intentions. Poyer’s intentions were to understand himself better and love better. Eventually, the shaman provided a second cup, and then, enchantment.

“At first what it felt like was my soul left my body for a good two minutes,” Poyer says.

Initially, it was unsettling.

“People try to control it, but you can’t,” Poyer says. “It took me about five or 10 minutes to figure it out. The ego has to die so the medicine can work. In order to let go and let the medicine do what it’s supposed to do, we have to just breathe.”

For about the next hour, Poyer says the highest version of himself lectured him out loud. It was, in his word, “crazy.” First, highest-version Poyer addressed his desire to understand himself better.

“He was basically saying, ‘Jordan, look at your life, bro — what are you mad at?’ ” Poyer says. “It was what I needed to hear because I wasn’t appreciating anything — not my wife, my daughter, my family, my house. It was all about me and what I wanted.”

Then he turned to loving better. It was, he says, as if a Pandora’s box opened on how to love.

The remainder of the ceremonies, which lasted nine hours each, were about curiosity, energy and connectedness.

“It’s about how to be a good human,” he says. “And it grounds you. Really grounds you.”


Jordan Poyer is the Bills’ second-leading tackler but hasn’t made as many big plays as he would like for a defense plagued by injuries. (Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

Two days before OTAs began last April, Poyer returned to the Bills’ headquarters and stepped on the scale. The needle settled at 179 pounds, about 20 pounds below his playing weight.

After resuming his regular routine, the weight came back quickly.

He discussed his experience with curious teammates, coaches and the team psychologist. Poyer hoped ayahuasca would elevate his football performances as Rodgers believes it did his, but it hasn’t worked that way for him.

He is the second-leading tackler on his team but hasn’t made as many big plays as he would like. What he has done, according to former Bills defensive coordinator Les Frazier, now an analyst for NFL Network, is enable his defense to be the best it can by lifting others through versatility, sacrifice, toughness and communication. Poyer wears his “C” well.

“I feel like I’m playing OK this year,” Poyer said during the Bills’ bye week on the patio of his Florida home. “I’m not playing the best that I’ve played in my career. There are probably two plays I really want back. But I’m doing a lot. And in a very deep sense, I absolutely love that I’m entrusted with doing as much as I’m doing on this defense.”

Ayahuasca gifted him in another way — with perspective.

Ego is a powerful force in professional athletes. It helps them ascend and often hastens their downfalls. In previous seasons, Poyer believes his responses to successes and failures were too ego-driven. Football was him — he has an NFL logo tattooed on his left shoulder — and he was football.

Not anymore.

“We still have games left that I’m excited about, but I knew some way, somehow, this universe was going to test me this year,” he says. “We lost DaQuan Jones, Matt Milano and Tre’Davious White for the season. It’s hard. This s— is hard. And it’s not just (the losses). I’m 32, not this young spring chicken anymore. You know, s— hurts all the time. But my perspective is I get to play a game that I love, and I’m healthy enough to play. Every time you come out of a game, that’s a win in its own way.”

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Poyer’s commitment is such that last season, when a rib injury precluded him from airplane travel, he took a 32-hour round-trip drive to play in a game in Kansas City. He wants to lift a Lombardi Trophy badly, as much as ever. But if it doesn’t happen, he believes he can handle the disappointment better.

On Fridays this season, Poyer, fellow safety Taylor Rapp and assistant strength coach Will Greenberg play crystal bowls at Bills headquarters. “The different tones that you can tune into can enhance chakras within you and help you heal,” he says.

Healing takes many forms.

When Poyer was 12, Louis Dunbar, who has done multiple stints in prison for violent crimes, called him for the first time and stunned him with the revelation he was his biological father. In subsequent conversations, Dunbar often said he wanted to see him or come to one of his games. He never has.

“I always had this hate and resentment toward him I was holding,” says Poyer, who doesn’t know where Dunbar is. “This experience enabled me to let that go. I realize I wouldn’t have anything — my daughter and my wife — if not for him. Even if it was just the seed he gave my mom. So someday I’ll meet him, give him a hug and tell him I’m sorry.”

Rachel has no interest in taking ayahuasca. But she is grateful her husband discovered it.

“After he did ayahuasca, he became like my dream husband,” Rachel says. “I was nervous about what it would do to him, but he came back a totally new man, so appreciative of me and our family.”


Bills safety Jordan Poyer with his wife, Rachel, and their daughter, Aliyah. (Courtesy of Rachel Bush Poyer)

Highest-version Poyer made Poyer aware he was not doing the little things — waking up with a smile, giving Rachel a hug on his way out, or being present even when his attention could be divided.

Poyer has turned off his DMs on Instagram and deleted his Twitter/X account. Instagram features a For You page  — a personalized feed based on user engagement patterns. In the past, Poyer’s was filled with posts of other girls, according to Rachel. Now there’s nothing on Poyer’s For You page except football and ayahuasca. She knows because they have one another’s passwords.

“His attention now is 100 percent on me, his family and his career,” says Rachel, who has more than 4 million Instagram followers, an OnlyFans page and a line of skincare products.

Some players feel more pressure when the end is closer than the beginning. The Bills have an out in Poyer’s contract after this season. He isn’t stressing about any of it. His focus is here and now.

Poyer has thought about becoming a football commentator after retirement. But he has more to offer than sports talk. He could talk about why he’s never had a vaccine, why Aliyah is homeschooled, or how he believes God transcends religions.

He could discuss why he has always thought he might be an alien. “I truly feel like I’m not from this planet, always being the odd one out, having different perspectives, thinking differently,” says Poyer, who is fascinated by stars.

Poyer has what philosophers call epistemic humility — he believes knowledge is limited and filtered by personal experiences. And now he is beginning to solve the mysteries of his existence.

“My life has been changed forever,” he says. “And my purpose is to be a bright light for everybody that I touch and connect with.”

In March, Poyer will return to Resonance for another retreat. Also planning to go are his cousin who went with him last year, and some first-timers — his mother, brother, a couple of friends and possibly a couple of teammates. He will be working on a documentary about ayahuasca.

A handpan is a steel musical instrument that generates sound through vibrations. Sound healers and meditators often play the handpan. In Costa Rica, Poyer heard one for the first time and was drawn to it. Now he plays his frequently.

Not long ago, Rachel returned home at about 10 p.m. and was tidying up the kitchen when, in the peace of the night, she heard something coming from the outside balcony upstairs — ethereal, haunting sounds.

“It was kind of like something you would hear in a dream,” Rachel says.

It was music the old Jordan Poyer never could have made.

(Photo: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)


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Jonas P. Jones

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