Chemical History: Anabolic steroids invade football in the ’50s-’70s

“I couldn’t understand why [rookies] felt making the pros was so tough, until the veterans arrived. … Two huge guys were standing in the locker room doorway. … Their arms looked as big around as my thighs. I was reluctant to ask them to move aside.”

David Meggyesy, former NFL linebacker, 1970


Contrary to a common assumption, athletes alone did not bring anabolic steroids into sport. Rather, the early predominant pushers were doctors, coaches and trainers, and especially in American football, a pioneer colony of a muscle-doping culture. During the 1960s, football officials and associates apparently instigated and nurtured the spread of anabolic steroids through every level of the game, professional, collegiate, and high school, and by decade’s end stories were surfacing in print.

A 1969 investigative series was landmark, by writer Bil Gilbert for Sports Illustrated, on the burgeoning use of performance-enhancing drugs across sports. Among revelations by Gilbert, he noted anabolic steroids entered pro football by 1963, when players for the San Diego Chargers began receiving Dianabol pills from team officials. The Chargers also gave Dianabol to at least one prospect in the college ranks, while another college player told Gilbert the majority of big-time linemen were juicing by 1968. The writer also learned of steroid programs in high-school football, part of product testing by pharmaceutical companies and physicians who provided the drugs to teens.

A steroids case in college football surfaced through David Meggyesy, disillusioned NFL linebacker turned author of Out of Their League, his acclaimed autobiography of football counterculture in 1970. Meggyesy had left pro football with no direct exposure to the use of anabolic steroids, later recalling that he neither witnessed nor heard of the practice. But while writing the book he learned about muscle doping through track-and-field athletes in California, and he met a college football player with sobering information.

Meggyesy was a guest lecturer for a class at UC Berkeley, a course on sport culture taught by critic Jack Scott, where one day the discussion turned to drugs in football. Jim Calkins, a Cal co-captain and tight end, said coaches and a team physician were providing him with anabolic steroids for gaining size and strength.

The author was alarmed but not surprised. In his football autobiography, Meggyesy asserted drugs like steroids were staple in a sport beset with risks for players. He blasted pro football, an easy mark, but Meggyesy also ridiculed the public’s naive notions of college football. “Young men are having their bodies destroyed, not developed,” wrote Meggyesy, a former player at Syracuse University, where he alleged football corruption extended across the campus in pursuit of national championships.

Meggyesy saw performance-enhancing drugs as another axle for football’s evolving gladiatorial function. The NFL and ABC-TV were debuting Monday Night Football, leading millions to adopt another cherished rite constructed around a television circus, but Meggyesy was dismissing gridiron indulgence as damaging for society. Drugs, he observed, were shaping modern football’s mediated illusion that smacked of comic-book characters, gargantuan heroes and villains performing superhuman feats in bloody clashes for victory. “The violent and brutal player that television viewers marvel over on Saturdays and Sundays is often a synthetic product,” Meggyesy proclaimed, unchallenged by credible rebuttal.


Dawn of Muscle Doping: Testosterone Synthesis

Anabolic or tissue-building substances in sport began with the male hormone, testosterone. Victorian scientists recognized testosterone’s potential to physically rejuvenate the human body, and by the 20th century a crude extract was harvested via methods such as crushing bull testes. Research progressed. In 1935, Dr. Charles D. Kochakian isolated testosterone in an experiment at the University of Rochester, confirming its chemical structure and anabolic or tissue-building nature.

American doctors sold this latest miracle drug for injection during World War II. Testosterone was considered beneficial as a treatment for medical conditions such as premature growth in infants, anemia, and male impotence. Women received it for menopause, premenstrual syndrome, and enhancement of sexual desire. Elsewhere, rumors surrounded the Nazi regime, with unsubstantiated reports that doctors performed research on prisoners, including extraction techniques. Adolf Hitler reportedly took testosterone for what ailed him physically and mentally.

Speculation focused on the effects of testosterone for athletic performance, and a researcher found an “athlete” to work with—a broken-down trotter horse, 18 years old, named Holloway. Benefiting from testosterone implants, Holloway resumed training and competing, winning or placing in several races, along with setting a speed record at age 19. In the 1945 book The Male Hormone, author Paul de Kruif discussed testosterone for improving human athletic performance. De Kruif, a former medical student turned writer who used the substance himself, wrote, “We know how both the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns have won championships, super-charged by vitamins [amphetamines]. It would be interesting to watch the productive power of an industry or a professional group that would try a systematic supercharge with testosterone—of course under a [doctor’s] supervision.”

American bodybuilders in California were injecting testosterone as the war era concluded, according to hearsay accounts, and competitive weightlifters likely were too. Evidence of anabolic augmentation in sport became more tangible during the 1950s, with documentation that athletes used testosterone for becoming bigger and stronger.

Russian athletes were competing in international sports for the first time, producing astonishing results in weightlifting. The U.S.S.R. lifters quickly dominated, scoring a convincing victory at the 1954 world championships in Vienna, and their American counterparts, deposed as champions, suspected testosterone as the opposition’s edge. An American team physician, Dr. John B. Ziegler, later said Russian athletes were using catheters to urinate in Vienna, inserting the metal devices themselves. Their condition was enlargement of the prostate gland, so swollen it blocked off the urinary tract, and Ziegler said a Russian team doctor confirmed synthetic testosterone as the culprit. Ziegler said the U.S.S.R. program administered injections to athletes for performance enhancement.

Inspired rather than infuriated, Ziegler returned to America and contacted parties for discussing testosterone’s applications in athletics. Ciba Pharmaceutical Company reportedly agreed to supply the drug. Ziegler tried injections on himself and U.S. weightlifters, conducting the trials in York, Pennsylvania, home of the Olympic program directed and funded by Bob Hoffman, a private businessman and leader of resistance training or “free weights,” barbell workouts for strength. Hoffman’s enterprises included York Barbell and supplement sales—his Hi-Proteen powder mix was widely popular—along with magazine publishing of titles like Strength and Health. Most of America’s elite weightlifters held jobs under Hoffman in York, where they trained, and Ziegler injected several with testosterone. Initial strength results were unsatisfactory, and those coupled with strong androgenic or “male-producing” side effects caused Ziegler to abandon testosterone.

Pharmacologists continued work in America for developing synthetic forms of the male hormone with no harmful side effects. A goal was to create strictly anabolic steroids, envisioned to enhance body and performance without testosterone’s androgenic or “male-producing” element, side effects such as acne, baldness, testicular shrinkage, and prostate ailments. Ciba technicians made a breakthrough, at least for mass marketing of anabolic steroids, by developing methandrostenolone, marketed under trade name Dianabol.

Released in 1958 for prescription treatment of medical conditions, “D-bol” pills exploded in off-label use as the classic muscle drug, even though production had failed to separate the androgenic effects from the desired anabolic mechanism. Dianabol was an anabolic-androgenic steroid, retaining adverse effects associated with testosterone injections, but bodybuilders and athletes flocked, nonetheless. Dianabol’s big sell was its pill form, the first anabolic steroid for oral consumption, timing perfectly with consumer belief and appetite for pills to fix anything.

During this period, Ziegler renewed ties with both Ciba and the musclemen at York Barbell. “Clearly the pharmaceutical age of sport was on the horizon,” wrote John D. Fair, weightlifting historian, in his book Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell. Later, many accounts would cite Ziegler as the creator of Dianabol. “What was Ziegler’s role in it? I would answer his role was simply as an experimenter with [Dianabol], with the athletes,” said Fair, who worked with papers of both Ziegler and Hoffman. Apparently, Ziegler obtained Dianabol from a Ciba plant in New Jersey and gave the new pill to weightlifters at York, who displayed strength gains.

Soon the town in southeast Pennsylvania was attracting steroid-seeking athletes from across the country and abroad. Medical prescriptions for Dianabol were readily available around York, many signed by Dr. Ziegler, and some U.S. lifters were “juiced” for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, with Hoffman’s approval. “It grew from a few people and spread into other sports,” recalled Bill March, a former U.S. lifter at York and Mr. Universe winner in 1965. “Everybody used it to some extent. All the guys on the [national] team took Dianabol. It helped all of them. Anybody connected with the Barbell knew what was going on.”

Drug companies began manufacturing new anabolic-androgenic steroids, and there was no turning back for the sports world. Available and usable, ’roids were the rage among elite strength athletes, who gobbled and shot-up whatever they could get, from D-Bol and Deca-Durabolin to Anavar and Winstrol V. And the drugs worked, making users bigger and stronger. Young athletes ignored warnings of danger, for they were winning.

Ziegler realized athletes were prone to abuse steroids, including lifters under his supervision in York. Ziegler would prescribe 5 milligrams of Dianabol one to three times daily, but athletes took as much as 10 to 20 times that amount, enraging him. The doctor started to backtrack on steroids, feeling less and less secure about the drug-sport phenomenon he helped spawn. The development of a certifiably safe anabolic steroid had not panned out. All creations that followed Dianabol turned out to be anabolic-androgenic, including nandrolone decanoate, trade name Deca-Durabolin. Ziegler had long heard of hazards associated with male-producing hormones, but his awareness heightened in the early 1960s, particularly about potential dangers to the liver and heart. He began publicly denouncing steroids through York’s muscle publications, but Hoffman’s weightlifters only increased their use in private.

Ziegler could do nothing to stop steroids’ spread through the sports of America and abroad, sealing his infamy for doping history. He left York in 1967, disgusted with steroid-abusing weightlifters and other jocks. “I lost interest in fooling with IQs of that caliber,” he said afterward. “Now it’s about as widespread among these idiots as marijuana.” Years later, the doctor expressed remorse. “I wish to God now I’d never done it,” Ziegler said in 1983, a few years before he died. “I’d like to go back and take that whole chapter out of my life. Steroids were such a big secret at first, and that added to the hunger the lifters and football players had to get hold of them. I honestly believe that if I’d told people back then that rat manure would make them strong, they’d have eaten rat manure.”

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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