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1980 strong-man show portended steroids rage

Thursday, January 30, 2003

The steroid genie was let out of the syringe, writes ESPN Magazine, April 18, 1980, in a CBS-televised trash-sports event. Three Steelers linemen participated then. Two have since died.

There is no conclusive evidence that Mike Webster or Steve Furness used the drug to excess, if much at all. There is no convincing evidence that such use contributed to their deaths. The implication is questionable, but this story from the magazine's Feb. 3 issue makes an intriguing, if not inarguable hypothesis: That nationally broadcast "Strongest Man in Football" competition was a critical juncture in the NFL's performance-enhancement continuum.

Of the eight participants that day in Auburn, Ala., two later admitted to abusing steroids. Bob Young became an All-Pro lineman for the Cardinals at age 37 thanks to the juice. Defensive lineman Lyle Alzado gobbled Dianabol so he could escape Yankton (S.D.) College for a life of NFL riches in Denver, Cleveland and the then-Los Angeles Raiders. Young was a diabetic and a two-pack-a-day smoker with heart trouble when he died at 52, though his family believed the earlier drug abuse took its toll. Alzado died at 42 of brain cancer, wishing until his end that he had never taken that unnatural football course.

Steroid abuse "is an important issue," author Shaun Assael said yesterday of the story available on newsstands now or online at espn.go.com/magazine/vol6no03strongmen.html. An unspecified NFL lineman sent him a tape of the show, he said, after Webster's death Sept. 22 of a heart attack at 50. "It didn't take long before the light bulb went off," Assael continued. "I just had done a lot of work on steroids. Here's a perfect story about warning players not about the present, but what they might have to look forward to in 20 years.

"It looks like a cheesy TV show that you kind of laugh at. But, in fact, it was a bellwether for an era. This was a stop on the timeline for the sweep of performance-enhancing drugs through sports. In this instance, it was the jointure of the weight-lifting and football communities. This was a key moment, because as the football guys started to take [steroids], and they went out and they coached and they spread the gospel, and it exponentially increased."

Young condoned steroid use when he coached with the USFL Houston Gamblers, but the story proffers nothing on the subject in which the coaching careers of Webster and Furness were concerned.

As for their Steelers careers? Well, John Banaszak yesterday said he was misquoted in the story as suggesting that it was "reasonable to wonder if steroids had anything to do with" Furness' death from a heart attack Feb. 9, 2000. When he was with the Steelers, Banaszak worked out regularly with Furness, Webster, Jon Kolb, admitted steroid-user Steve Courson and others at the former Red Bull Inn in McMurray. He spoke at Furness' funeral. "There's no way I would ever make that assumption," he said yesterday. "Not a chance." Assael the author said he stands by the quote.

Kolb, the third Steelers competitor at the "Strongest Man in Football" event, said, "Hopefully, young people will look at that and say, 'Is it worth it?' "

Not that he was saying these Steelers used. "My locker was two away from Mike's. Steve's was not that far away. I don't think they traveled down that path. But I don't know."

That's just it: Nobody knows for sure. Assael said one former teammate had no doubt about Webster's use and that one family member wondered if it contributed to Furness' death at 49. But, the author added, "With Steve Furness, his family had a history of heart trouble. ... And I was not trying to indict Mike Webster for using steroids. I was using the ambiguity to make a point. Some people thought he used; others didn't. When his family applied to the NFL Pension Fund for disability, they got all of Mike's medical records together ... and no doctor had found any evidence of steroid use."

As for Furness, I knew him, and I can still hear the contempt in his voice when he spoke of steroid abusers. I have a hard time believing he was guilty of much more than perhaps occasional dabbling. After all, he was lighter and less defined than the rest of the Red Bull bunch, relying more on speed and that buckethead of his. He unquestionably lost almost all of the bench-press contests within his own workout group, let alone the strongman competition.

Sometimes, a lineman's life is simply shorter. Kolb ticked off the list of former Super Steelers no longer living: Joe Gilliam, Ray Mansfield, Tyrone McGriff, Furness, Webster. All but Gilliam were linemen, all forced to lift massive weights and endure thudding collisions and strain hearts that ultimately failed most of them. A study a decade ago by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that NFL linemen were more susceptible to heart disease than the general population.

As Assael reported, league officials reacted (sort of) against steroid abuse six years after that strongman show. Today, 300-pound linemen are the NFL norm and, as the author pointed out, about 38 quarterbacks this season weighed more than Iron Mike in his rookie year. Maybe, in another generation, a certain ESPN Magazine reporter will be writing about the after effects of today's build-up cocktail of choice: ephedra and creatine.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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