The early days of steroid testing in athletics

steroidIn late August 1983, doping controversy struck at the Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, where new urinalysis was unveiled for detecting testosterone levels. The upgraded steroid testing surprised athletes and coaches, and 15 competitors tested positive, mostly weightlifters. Even more athletes withdrew from the games before facing testing, led by a dozen Americans who checked out and returned home, inviting press attention.

In the United States, athletes were regulars in drug news but for street narcotics, not performance enhancers. And while steroids and amphetamines were commonly accepted within American sports, news accounts reaching the public were scattered; fewer still accurately depicted reality of the big picture.

The Caracas scandal was met in America by anger. Stark facts were exposed about doping, tainting U.S. track and field, and speculation quickly moved to other sports. Football players were obvious suspects, and a big story broke in New York on the NFL.

The Times obtained an internal letter by the league’s medical adviser, Dr. Walter F. Riker, Jr., who wrote that he believed use of anabolic steroids to be “extensive among football players at all levels.” Times reporter Michael Janofsky contacted active NFL players for a story. With no drug policy and sanctions in place, players were able to discuss doping freely, and several told Janofsky that steroid use was a part of pro football, occurring mostly among offensive linemen, defensive linemen, and linebackers.

“Sure, it’s being done,” said Jeff Van Note, Falcons center and president of the NFL Players Association. “You would have to be naïve to believe they’re not being used.” Van Note said he did not view the matter as a problem, but “more a quiet thing.” Tom Condon, Chiefs’ offensive guard, said, “Usually the people who need to hold their weight, the people in the big-man positions, are the ones who would take it.”

Two players requesting anonymity spoke with Janofsky. “I’ve used them under a doctor’s care and made great gains,” said a Raiders lineman. “I wouldn’t consider it a dangerous drug. But I would consider it, in some ways, damaging if misused.” A defensive player on the Chargers had recently changed positions, needing massive weight fast to keep his NFL job, and he reported adding 45 pounds using Dianabol. “Sometimes the game dictates drastic measures,” he said. “It’s sad, but you have to make a choice. If someone asked my opinion about using steroids… I wouldn’t make any recommendation that somebody else take them.”

The players generally viewed steroid usage as minimal in the NFL, The Times reported, and other than Riker’s written observation, coaches and officials downplayed the notion that it was widespread. Jim Williams, strength coach for the Jets, said that he was unaware of any steroid use by his players, but those on the fringe were susceptible. “Most of the time I’ve seen steroids used on this team have been by rookies who didn’t make the team,” said Williams, presumably oblivious to veteran line stars Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko, who would later confirm their steroid use. Pete Rozelle, NFL commissioner, expressed concern about anabolic steroids, but he also noted “a firm policy” had to be hammered out with the players’ union. “We have to start out with education, tell the players the potential bad effects,” Rozelle told Janofsky.

The NFL’s monitoring system for steroids relied on reports by team physicians, who had produced little information. Rozelle ordered a fresh internal assessment, but before he could release the results, another story blew up in Dallas, where young sportswriter Skip Bayless had gathered extraordinary information about the Cowboys.

Steroids were important for many players on America’s Team, Bayless revealed in a column for The Morning News. Bayless, a marathon runner and weightlifter, had struck up a friendship with Cowboys strength guru Robert “Dr. Bob” Ward, a former coach in collegiate track and field who held a doctorate degree. Ward, rippling at 225 pounds, told Bayless he used steroids and that about 25 percent of Dallas players had cycled or were doing so. “Man was not created equal,” Ward said, “so why shouldn’t he use every form of technology to get better?” The strength coach would be reprimanded by superiors for his interview with Bayless.

Bayless continued, quoting Dallas defensive lineman John Dutton, who cycled during preseason two-a-day practices. “I felt real strong,” Dutton said. “I’d get a second wind in the afternoon practice. I was looser. Lifting was easier.”

All-Pro and future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White “was the most successful of several Cowboy steroid users in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” Bayless wrote in his book God’s Coach. White had packed on heavy poundage beginning in his college days at Maryland, but claimed on-the-field pressure to use began for him in the NFL, pointing the blame at the usual suspects, the Pittsburgh O-linemen who fired at him in face-offs in the Super Bowl. “Man, I’d look across the line at those Steelers with their sleeves rolled up on those huge arms and, well, I had to do something,” White said. “I figured they were using steroids, too.”

Bayless checked with Landry, the famed Texas Methodist, one of America’s most respected Christian speakers and a top draw on the Billy Graham circuit. Bayless called him Mount Landry, describing a man who consciously cultivated his public image. Landry devoted himself to Christian religion as much as to a Sunday game plan, the popular storyline went, but he was in a fix over Bayless’ nailing down steroid use on his Cowboys. Bayless wrote, “Landry, who tightropes between his religious image and Super Bowl realities, takes a see-no-evil stance on steroids.” Landry preferred not to address drug use of any sort on his team while, at the same time, he preached against narcotics, alcohol, premarital sex, and adultery in his Christian ministries. Landry did nothing about the same issues plaguing his football team, according to Bayless’ research, and he opposed intervention at the league level: “We don’t want to develop a police state,” he had said, in discussing possible NFL urinalysis for drugs.

Facing Bayless, Landry said the Cowboys organization did not dispense steroids, so team officials had no knowledge—besides Ward, apparently—of any use by players. But Ward confirmed his knowledge while Dallas general manager Tex Schramm apparently knew as well, based on comments by Charlie Waters in 2005, during an interview with Mike Fisher, for Web site Waters, star Dallas safety of the 1970s and 1980s, said Schramm told players he condoned their use of performance-enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids, but not street drugs.

Landry talked with Bayless of opposing the use of anabolic steroids on the Cowboys, citing associated health hazards, but he added: “The bad thing about sports is that people are afraid to get behind. If they hold, you gotta hold, too. That’s not right, but that’s the American way.”

Bayless’ scoop on juiced Cowboys went national, and Rozelle tried to counter the negative publicity from NFL headquarters in New York, announcing that a new league assessment had found that the “non-medical” use of steroids by players was not a problem. In a letter to NFL teams and players, Rozelle stated: “The League recognizes that in certain circumstances physicians may prescribe anabolic steroids for valid medical reasons.” The commissioner had never said much about anabolic steroids in the league; media had rarely inquired, and he had fairly evaded any questions asked. Now, in staking a significant stance on the topic, Rozelle said anabolic steroids were OK when legally prescribed. “When it is under a doctor’s care, steroids can help rehabilitate injuries,” Rozelle told media. “We have never found a heavy order by the clubs for it, but that’s not to say they couldn’t have gotten (steroids) on their own.”

Meanwhile, in California, newly hired Raiders internist Rob Huizenga was trying to sort out the team’s messy distribution of prescription drugs. Oakland players were accustomed to powerful painkillers in unlimited quantity, for example, and they often found Huizenga unwilling to go along, he would later recall in his book “You’re Okay, It’s Just a Bruise.” The administering of pain-deadening cortisone also concerned Huizenga; the shots were routine for Raiders players, especially at the hands of Dr. Robert Rosenfeld, long-time team physician. Regarding amphetamines, Huizenga encountered heavy use among the Raiders, including alarming consumption by mammoth defensive lineman John Matuszak.

Abuse of anabolic steroids became apparent to Huizenga, of course, throughout the NFL, and he broached the topic upon meeting other team physicians at the 1984 league combine, his first. “I was struck by the fact that none of the doctors had looked into the effects of anabolic steroids, though they acknowledged their universal use in the league,” Huizenga wrote.

The internist dealt with Lyle Alzado on the Raiders, a mercuric personality prone to keeping everyone on edge. That year at training camp in Santa Rosa, Huizenga happened onto a bag of used needles in the hallway outside Alzado’s room. Huizenga, a former All-American wrestler in college, had already exchanged words with Alzado over steroids; now he confronted and berated the defensive tackle, who rationalized the doping. “Doc, I’ve been taking steroids since college,” Alzado said. “I wish I didn’t have to. But it’s a decision I’ve made, something I’ve gotta do to stay competitive.”

Steroid use in pro and college football could neither be stopped nor kept quiet. Players, coaches, and more insiders were talking too much. Not until both the NCAA and NFL established random testing, however faulty, would the public be appeased and the allegations be diminished in the press.

Click here to purchase Matt Chaney's latest book

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About the Author

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, publisher and teacher living in Missouri. A former college football player, Chaney specializes in issues of sport, producing reports and commentary for publications such as The New York Daily News and The Kansas City Star. For his master’s degree thesis, Chaney analyzed media coverage of anabolic substances in American football from 1983 to 1999. His previous nonfiction books are: My Name Is Mister Ryan and Legend In Missouri. Chaney and his wife, Laura, operate Four Walls Publishing. For more information, visit