Steroid Use in the NFL

In this installment of the Steroid Interviews we're going to take a look at steroid use in the National Football League (NFL). This inside look is provided by a lineman I met while working as one of the assistant strength coaches at the University of Houston. He was not a University student/athlete, but trained in Houston during a few off season months when this interview took place. I met him several years prior to the interview through a mutual contact who told him about the book I was working on.

Initially, the lineman agreed to be interviewed without anonymity. He respected Ken Caminiti's 2002 outing of steroid use in Major League Baseball, and thought the same should be done for the NFL. His agent, however, was vehemently opposed to him openly discussing his drug use.

The NFL athlete interviewed in this excerpt from the book informed me that he'll be playing football for only a few more years (possibly less depending on his mental and physical conditioning) and by his own admonition, has a "fuck it attitude." This is one NFL player's story behind the scenes and is not the usual locker room news item you'll read in your local sports page or see on ESPN.

While we spoke, the interview quickly became more than just about his steroid use, we spoke about his rational for using drugs and about his emotions for a game he once loved and was preparing to leave.

Player Description

This individual played college ball at a major Division I school. He began using steroids as a junior in high school when it became apparent he had the chance to get a scholarship from a big school. In his senior season he kicked ass and was heavily recruited. While in college, he continued using drugs. The college program where he played was not what he called a drugged program (the coaches did not sanction drug use), but, there were many players using and the strength coach would assist the football players in designing drug cycles when they requested help.

The strength coach would also allow players to use his university account to make long distance phone calls for drugs, even though he did not directly procure steroids for his athletes. Interestingly, our interviewee said the best advice he received in college was from his collegiate offensive line coach.

When it became known to the coaching staff that our athlete was using drugs, the line coach took him aside and said, "Steroids do not make a great athlete, it takes more than steroids to make a football player." It was advice that stuck with him throughout his career, and while he continued to use, his application of performance enhancing drugs is only a part of the overall program (see cycle below). His drug use compliments his hard work and is not the sole reason for his success in the league. The drugs, along with his dedication to training and work ethic are what have made him a force in the NFL.

Our interviewee was a late round draft pick in the 90's (specific year and order of selection will not be provided). Despite not having a great showing in the draft, he has far outperformed what was predicted of him, which he attributes to hard work more so than drugs.

For around a decade, he's had a great career fighting each Sunday in the muddy, blood-soaked trenches of the NFL. As a lineman, he's got to be strong, quick, and mobile, especially in the offensive scheme run by his present team. His physique exemplifies athleticism. He is also known as a ferocious hitter and is a man who commands respect from other athletes and management around the league. Weighing around 295 pounds (+/- 20 lbs.), he benches close to 600 pounds and runs the 40 in under 4.8 seconds.

Stop and think for a minute about what you've just read. This is a man who weighs in excess of 300 pounds but can run like the wind and has unbelievable strength. Spending time around any pro athlete is a humbling experience, but this is especially evident when you spend time around a defensive or offensive lineman who has successfully played in the NFL. These men are amazing physical specimens.

Sitting with him, I became uncomfortably aware that genetics is an unfair son of a bitch. To a large degree everyone's physical potential is a matter of genes. Some of us get the genes, some don't. This athlete and the others who have taken part in the Steroid Interviews have a gift. I try not to engage in idol worship, especially when the deity comes in the form of a million dollar athlete, but it was hard not to feel like a little kid when I was in his presence (at least for the first few meetings). To see a man weighing close to 300 pounds move with the quickness and agility of a cat is something I'll never forget.

The truth is, when genetically gifted athletes take performance enhancing drugs, the results are quite incredible. Giving drugs to NFL athletes is like supercharging an already high performance engine. It makes the best unreachable.

Who's Using?

Despite what you may believe, not every athlete in the NFL takes performance enhancing drugs. But a lot do. By the interviewees' estimate, 75% are taking some type of performance enhancing drug on a regular basis (anabolics, stimulants, pain killers, corticosteroids). By no means is the NFL drug free.

As far as anabolics, the most commonly used drugs are Testosterone and recombinant human growth hormone (rHGH). He said that there are more players using rHGH than any other drug. During the writing of the book I spoke with several physicians who treat NFL players and they confirmed this statement. One doctor relayed a story to me of the highest dosage of rHGH he ever saw. It concerned an NFL quarterback who was taking 26 international units (I.U.'s) of rHGH per day. This is an astronomical number!

For your reference, most professional bodybuilders will use between 6 to 12 I.U.'s per day. This guy was taking double what most IFBB professional bodybuilders take. The doctor told me that the quarterback was suffering from severe water retention and gynecomastia and initially came to him for symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. The athletes in the NFL are some of the most gifted physical forms placed upon this Earth, but they aren't necessarily the smartest.

One of the major reasons NFL athletes take drugs is not to be bigger, faster, and stronger, but to maintain their physical health and to quickly repair musculoskeletal injuries when they occur during the season. Drugs are not used anymore to gain the winning edge, but simply to stay in the game. This is a fact of modern life in the NFL which has yet to be discussed openly.

Initially, steroids in the NFL were the domain of lineman. These users were also for the most part, white. But this dynamic has changed. It was in the mid 80's that black lineman in the NFL begun to increasingly use anabolics. Before this period of time, black players had little interest in performance enhancing drugs. It was believed blacks did not need them; it was the white guys who used/needed them to stay competitive. This is no longer the case as described by the interviewee. Whites and blacks in the league are equal opportunity users.

In the last eight to ten years, steroid use and the use of peptide hormones has become commonplace to those athletes in the high skill positions: running backs, receivers, safeties and cornerbacks. Looking at all positions on the football field we can see that gradually over the past twenty years player's weights have increased well beyond what improved training and nutrition alone can accomplish.

Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game

A change in the monetary rewards of the game and a generational shift in mores appear to be responsible for most NFL players believing steroid use is okay. In the press, we often read quotes from players saying they're against drug. According to our lineman this is pure posturing. Even NFL guys who are not using drugs aren't against drug use. Most guys understand the NFL is a business and these players just want their paycheck and really don't care who is using what.

I believe the answer to the accepted use of steroids in the NFL lies in how sports, especially football, have changed over the last 35 years. With the merging of television and football, money has become the driving force behind the game. This is noted clearly in the biography of Vincent Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, by David Maraniss.

In the last part of the book, Maraniss describes the shift in the mentality of both management and players as then commissioner Pete Rozelle brought football from a game played for peanuts to a game played for huge amounts of money. The point is made quite clearly by Mariness that salaries of modern day players would make even St. Vincent of Green Bay ask, "My God, what have we done?"

In Lombardi's time, there was money in the game, but players made nowhere near the money paid today. Take for example the Packer's 1963 first round draft choice, Dave Robinson. He signed a modest 2-year contract for $45,000, a $15,000 signing bonus, and the use of a car from one of Lombardi's pals in the auto business. Compare that with the salary in 2003 of the Chicago Bear's Brian Urlacher. USA Today reported Brian's salary to be $15,055,600, not including endorsements.

Before football and television consummated their marriage, most players had jobs outside football to supplement their income. As described by Mariness, these men played for love of the game and not a whole lot else. Make no mistake, America will always have a love affair with football, but to say money hasn't changed the mindset of the players and the game itself is denying reality. Money changes men, and these modern day gladiators are no different from other mortals.

What draws NFL players to steroids? The answer is the almighty dollar. For many NFL players, football is the means to provide a better life for their families. The rewards of success buys mom a new house, gives dad the sports car he always wanted, puts little sister through college, and helps older brother start his own business. Football is enabling many NFL players to finance their family's American dream. The whole idea of steroids as dishonest business practice doesn't even enter the mindset of the average steroid-using NFL player. Here lies the great divide between society's sport moralists and the players. On the line are: money, social status, security, and glory. For these reasons, telling players that steroid use is cheating falls upon deaf ears. Players just don't see it that way.

The Drug Cycle

The cycle outlined below began in the off-season and follows a yearly plan that takes our lineman through the regular season and post-season if needed. Its design is basic, yet highly effective for developing strength and mass in the spring and summer, then shifts focus to maintenance and injury prevention during the fall season.

Orals and short acting injectables are used when drug testing is not a factor. For the in season cycle he relies solely upon Testosterone and rHGH. Side effects experienced from his drug use are as follows: HDL/LDL cholesterol ratio shift, temporary abnormal liver function values (only seen during off-season cycle), and gynecomastia. He has had no major health problems to date as a result of his steroid use. As with all of the athletes interviewed for the book, only time will tell if their current drug use impacts their health status later in life.

Drugs are procured from several sources including two doctors (one in Texas and one in California), from Europe, and from a family member who travels frequently to Mexico. He said he has no problem getting rHGH in large quantities from physicians in the United States. For the most part all his drugs are procured domestically from physicians who treat athletes, members of the entertainment community, and other wealthy individuals.

From his training log, here is his yearly cycle as it was provided

Off-Season Cycle

In-Season Cycle

Drugs and the Politics of the NFL

If the NFL were to stringently use high-resolution gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy (GC/MS), carbon isotope ratio testing (CIR) and emerging technologies to detect rHGH, this protocol would result in a positive drug test. In all honesty though, drug testing in the NFL is not what one would call stringent.

To clarify this statement, look at it from an NFL owner's perspective. If you pay an athlete millions of dollars, you're not going to be especially vigilant about instituting and enforcing drug testing that would keep your investment from doing what you pay him to do.

There's also the issue of television revenue that weighs heavily upon the quantity and quality of steroid testing. Lose your team's popular players to drug suspensions, and fans turn somewhere else. Advertisers don't want to buy television time if people aren't watching. Positive drug tests are also a public relations nightmare. This leaves the league and television networks in a tough spot.

The media, in covering professional football and drugs, is always walking a dangerous line. If a network does a major steroid story damaging the league, the NFL could very easily find another network to sell its product. We are talking hundreds of millions of dollars here. Losing this type of money is not something a network will risk, even to tell the truth.

By keeping the status quo, no one gets upset, and everyone still gets paid. The game goes on. As a sports journalist or media personality, you don't want to piss off the NFL. How many in-depth steroid stories do you see on those networks that show the NFL? To keep this in perspective, all one has to do is think about what professional sport once was, and what it has become.

The NFL has become a money game for our interviewee and nothing more. He reminded me several times that the NFL is nothing more than a large, very profitable, and often a ruthless business. There are days when he loves the game as he did when he was a child, but there are many more days where he views it as nothing more than a nine to five job.

Jaded by years in the league, he has indeed reaped the monetary rewards of a professional athlete. However, his chief complaint is that the NFL owners and the huge sums of money paid to athletes have ruined professional football. In his view, life in the NFL is not the same game he dreamed of playing as a boy, and it is not the same business as it was when he entered the league after college.

The days of sport simply for the sake of sport are gone. Despite what critics will say in regard to this statement, its veracity remains. One word provides all the insight needed to sift through the double talk and newspeak concerning the NFL, fairness, player drug use, and soft drug testing. That word is money.