The Steelers, Steroids, and Profound Misconceptions

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The Steelers, Steroids, and Profound Misconceptions

During the NFL annual meetings in 2005, coach Jim Haslett (then of the New Orleans Saints) delivered a series of comments that set off a renewed firestorm about the Pittsburgh Steelers use of steroids in the 1970s. 

In an article that was carried by both the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Haslett claimed the Pittsburgh Steelers brought the use of steroids en vogue throughout the NFL.

"It started, really, in Pittsburgh. They got an advantage on a lot of football teams. They were so much stronger (in the) '70s, late '70s, early '80s. They're the ones who kind of started it."  - stated Haslett

Haslett (an admitted steroid user himself) carries respectable NFL credentials and admits to one year of steroid usage immediately after being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1979...not as a Steeler. 

Haslett further commented:

"You had so many people using them because they were legal."  Haslett went on to say "that when he played in the NFL, steroid use was rampant because the league had no policy banning such drugs" and he estimated nearly half the players were taking them. (Haslett says '70s Steelers made steroids popular in NFL). 

Jim Haslett fueled misconceptions about the beginnings of steroid usage in the NFL.  The Steelers did not start the use of steroids in the NFL.

Fran Tarkenton added to the fire in June of 2009, commenting during a radio interview on 790 The Zone in Atlanta -

"We’re playing the Steelers in the Super Bowl in ’75 or ’76, and I’m warming up with my center, Mick Tingelhoff, who’s an eight-time all-pro, Tarkenton said. “He’s my roommate … he’s about 6-2, 245 … we’re on the field warming up, and I see these Steeler offensive linemen with their sleeves rolled up, and they’ve got these bulging muscles....Later, we found out it that you know, it was Mike Webster and these guys were juiced … Steve Courson … these guys were juiced … all of them. We talk now about (former baseball stars) Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. But how about the Steelers of that era? Did that make a difference? Yeah, it made a difference. It increased their performance.

Tarkenton was mistaken however in his facts. 

Courson was in college during that Super Bowl.  In the '74 season he referenced, Webster was a rookie at 6' 1 1/2" and weighed only 238 lbs (smaller than Tingelhoff) and didn't play in the game.  Ray Mansfield, never linked to steroids, was the starting center.  Also, it was the Steelers defense that won the game, not the offense, and no Steelers defenders have been linked (only rumored) to steroids.

"“At that time we beat them, I would say this, none of our defensive guys did (steroids),” ex-running back Franco Harris said. “So, if Fran’s talking about our (offensive) linemen, if they did (steroids), probably only a couple. That would have been it." (Steelers of '70s dismiss Tarkenton's comments). 

Jack Ham and Jack Lambert absolutely refused to use the drugs.

If the Steelers didn't glamorize steroid usage, or introduce it as Haslett indicated, who did?

Steroid usage was actually introduced by a gentleman by the name of Alvin Roy, strength coach of the then AFL's San Diego Chargers in 1963, seven years prior to the Steelers decade of domination.  Alvin went on to introduce the use of steroids to the Chiefs, Cowboys, and the Raiders, spreading the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) throughout the NFL.

Who was Alvin Roy?

Alvin Roy was a veteran of the United States Army, having fought in the Battle of the Bulge, winning four battle stars and a bronze star.  While serving in the Army, Roy was assigned to be an aide for the US Weightlifting Team in Paris for the World Championships in 1946.  This is where he became associated with Bob Hoffman, coach of the team.  Bob was also the owner of the York Barbell Company and published a weight training magazine back in the United States and is renowned in the history of US weightlifting.

After serving in the Army Roy returned to his native Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1947 and opened a weight training studio, one of the first in the country.  While running the studio, he continued to be involved with the US Weightlifting team, serving as their trainer for the 1952 Olympics.

In 1954 in Baton Rouge, Billy Cannon (at that time, only a 168 lb sophomore high school football star) began his strength conditioning at Roy's studio. 

"By the time Billy entered LSU two years later, he was up to 193. By his sophomore year when he began varsity play, he weighed 200 and pressed 270, which was only 12 pounds off the Olympic record at the time...Coach Paul Dietzel (LSU) was so impressed that he sent his players to Alvin's studio since LSU had no weight room of its own. Roy never asked for compensation from the university. What he created is considered the first weight training program at any university and contributed greatly to the Tigers' 1958 National Championship success. Roy eventually opened 27 gyms around the country." (LSU Tigers Hall of Fame).

Cannon won the 1959 Heisman Trophy.

Coincidentally, the 1950s is essentially when steroids began to make their impact on sports in general. 

According to ESPN's article, "Pumped-up pioneers: the '63 Chargers" (Pumped-up pioneers: the '63 Chargers), scientists had begun experimentation with steroids in the early part of the 20th century.  In the 1950s, Soviet weightlifters were using steroids. 

In 1954, "John Ziegler, who worked with the U.S. national weightlifting team, was at the world championships in Vienna and had drinks with a Soviet doctor at the hotel bar. That doctor told him the Soviet lifters were using testosterone. Ziegler, according to historian John D. Fair, tried injecting Western athletes with it for years, but was discouraged by the results.

In 1958, the Ciba pharmaceutical company in Geneva developed an artificial form of testosterone called methandrostenolone. Ciba called it "Dianabol" and sold it in pill form. Ziegler started experimenting with it and, before the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he told his friend Bob Hoffman, the coach of the U.S. weightlifting team, that American lifters should start taking it if they wanted to catch up to the Soviets. Hoffman had his doubts, and the lifters themselves weren't sure there was any point to taking a pill, either. So they competed clean in Rome, and were crushed. The Soviets took five of seven possible gold medals.  The United States took one.  From that point on, the U.S. team used Dianabol as part of its training.  The trainer on that team was Alvin Roy.

While there appears to be no proof that Roy was using Dianabol with the LSU Tigers and Heisman Award Winner Billy Cannon, the timing is very close.  Roy was the US weightlifting team trainer and had been associated with the program since 1946.  John Ziegler had been trying to introduce the use of Dianabol to American weightlifters since the drug was released in 1958.  LSU won the National Championship that very season, and the following year Cannon won the Heisman Trophy.  The earliest documented proof that Roy was using Dianabol as a part of his strength training regimen at his studio in Baton Rouge was in 1962.

It was also in 1962 that the San Diego Chargers of the AFL suffered a dismal 4-10 season.  Legendary coach Sid Gillman, the Chargers coach, was frustrated and looking for a way to change the fortunes of his team.  Gillman took his team to Rough Acres for training camp, a ranch east of San Diego and introduced the league's first strength and training program and coach, Alvin Roy.

Per ESPN's article, Hall of Fame offensive tackle Ron Mix states,

"I still remember his speech, almost verbatim....He said, 'Because you're going to be lifting weights in addition to working out twice a day, you're going to need more protein.' And he said, 'When I was a trainer for the U.S. team in the Olympics, I learned a secret from those Rooskies.' And he held up a bottle of pink pills, and he says, 'This stuff is called Dianabol and it's going to help assimilate protein and you'll be taking it every day.' And, sure enough, it showed up on our training tables in cereal bowls.

Per Mix, the team that year made it "mandatory" that the players took Roy's pills with each meal.

"I think less than 5 percent of the guys never took them," says Paul Maguire, a former linebacker and punter and longtime announcer who now works for ESPN. "No one really understood what it was supposed to do for you. They just told you if you use this and lift weights, it will all come together. But if you weren't going to lift weights, you weren't going to take the pills."

Translation:  95% of the Chargers were taking the roids.

In 2005 at a Dole Institute speaker series discussion on steroids, former Chargers quarterback John Hadl was a panel member.

"Our strength coach (with the Chargers) was a guy named Alvin Roy. We called him the medicine man. He gave guys little cups with these pills in them.  None of us knew what they were, but I later found out they were steroids. About 10 of us didn't take them...They weren't illegal back then, but I know a lot of guys who did take them...But two months after taking them, they were huge. The guys who didn't take them, well, they weren't huge. And that's the problem. Do you risk your health to succeed in your sport?" (Bill Althaus, The Examiner).

The results of "The Medicine Man's" impact were immediate.  In 1963, his first season with the team, San Diego finished 11-3 and won the AFL Championship destroying the Boston Patriots 51-10.  Roy served as the strength coach in San Diego for another five years.  The team played in three AFL Conference Championships during this time, and won the city's only professional sports championship with the 1963 title. 

San Diego's only professional sports title came from a steroid-laden team, in a time when they were the only team using the drugs.

In 1968, Roy moved on and became the strength coach for Hank Stram and the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that had gone 9-5 in the 1967 season.  In Roy's first season as coach, the team improved to 12-2, losing in the divisional round of the playoffs.  In 1969, the team fell a game to 11-3.  In 1970, the Chiefs won Super Bowl IV. 

In 1972, Roy was lured to Dallas by Tom Landry to become the Cowboys' strength coach.  He remained through 1975.  The Cowboys won the Super Bowl that season, giving Roy his 3rd Championship ring.

In the late 1970s, Roy became the strength coach of the Oakland Raiders.  He died of a heart attack in April 1979, while still in tenure with the Oakland Raiders.  That upcoming season, the Raiders won the Super Bowl, which would have been Roy's fourth ring. He undoubtedly had left his mark on that franchise as well.

The question then becomes, just how pervasive were the use of steroids in the 1970s? The resounding success of steroids had made an impact on players throughout the league.  The use of steroids by the 1970s was widespread.  By 1964, players on other teams were aware of the Chargers quick turn around and championship success.  Adoption began on other teams immediately.

The late Steve Courson, former Pittsburgh Steeler offensive lineman (who wrote a book about his days with the Steelers and steroid usage), presented his case in front of Congress in 2005.  Courson admits to having begun the use of steroids in his college days at the University of South Carolina, before he was a Steeler.  His use of steroids continued and was at its highest at the end of his career in Tampa Bay in 1985. 

"By 1963, Courson wrote, steroids reached the San Diego Chargers through strength coach Alvin Roy, who worked before with the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team.  When Roy later joined the Chiefs, Cowboys and Raiders, steroid use followed in his wake, eventually reaching the Steelers dynasty and every other NFL team, according to Courson."  "By the time of our dynasty, it was pretty widespread throughout the league," he stated.

The evidence supports his claim.  Steroid usage was rampant in the 1970s. In September of 2008, the San Diego Tribune did their own "Mitchell Report" on steroid usage in the NFL dating back to 1962 (A Detailed History).  The list of names is large, encompassing 18 teams and countless players.  It's important to note that these are based only on players who have confessed or the very limited number of documented cases where players were fined for usage.  Without any formal testing, evidence of usage was and has been difficult to come by for that era. 

I've included the list (players from the 60s, 70s, and a 80s) as an appendix to this article.

It's important to remember that steroid usage was during this time period both legal in the United States and not banned in any form by the NFL.  It was not until 1983 (20 years after the Chargers began using them) that Pete Rozelle and the NFL wrote specific language banning the usage of steroids in the NFL. 

It wasn't until 1987 that the NFL began testing for steroid usage.  And it was only after the Ben Johnson Olympic controversy that the U.S. began debating adding steroids to the Controlled substances act.  Two years later, anabolic steroids were added to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act in the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990 (27 years after Roy introduce them to the NFL).

As long as a person had a prescription, using steroids was both legal in the United States and not against league rules.  Similarly, cocaine was legal prior to the 20th century, and found in Coca-Cola and health tonics, and could be used "as a matter of choice" by the individual.  Steroids were similarly a matter of choice for the individual in the 60s and 70s.

With competition pushing players and teams to win, steroid adoption was logical and its use was rampant.  Alvin Roy had clearly demonstrated, with his multitude of successes, the impact steroids could have. 

By the 1970s, steroids had already been glamorized and were in wide consumption.  Not by the Pittsburgh Steelers.  But instead by Alvin Roy, a man who helped four different NFL teams win titles, helped one college team capture an NCAA Championship, and help build a Heisman winner. 

Steroids aside, Roy was admittedly a great man and an innovator.  He was a decorated war veteran.  He was a pioneer in desegregation.  And he had the right intent and philosophy regarding health and conditioning.  He unfortunately lived during a time of steroid ignorance and adoption.

As the late, great Paul Harvey so famously coined - and now you have "the rest of the story."

Appendix

From "A Detailed History", Brent Shrotenboer, San Diego Union Tribune, September 2008.

This is not an all inclusive list, but does speak to the wide-spread usage of steroids and amphetamines during the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Note:  Players with an asterik were at least one time Pro Bowlers

CHARGERS

  • 1963 - Alvin Roy gave players Dianabol steroids in cereal bowls, according to players, as part of mandatory regimen, introducing them to the league
  • 1974 – Eight Chargers and General Manager Harland Svare fined by NFL in drug crackdown related to amphetamines investigation.
  • 1960s - *OT Ron Mix took Roy's steroid pills for about five weeks.
  • 1960s - DL Houston Ridge sued team in 1970 for injuries he attributed to drug use, including steroids. He settled for $265,000.
  • 1960s - *TE Dave Kocourek also was among players taking the pills until finding out their side effects.
  • 1960s - *OG Walt Sweeney said regular use of drugs and steroids led him to addiction. In legal case, a judge awarded him $1.8 million in benefits and attorney's fees from NFL pension fund.
  • 1974 - RB Bob Thomas - fined for amphetamine and drug use 
  • 1974 - *DE Deacon Jones - fined for amphetamine and drug use
  • 1974 - Coy Bacon - fined for amphetamine and drug use
  • 1974 - *DT Dave Costa - fined for amphetamine and drug use
  • 1974 - *WR Jerry LeVias - fined for amphetamine and drug use
  • 1974 - *LB Rick Redman - fined for amphetamine and drug use 
  • 1974 - *LB Tim Rossovich - fined for amphetamine and drug use

ATLANTA

  • 1980s - DL Tony Casillas said he used steroids in college at Oklahoma.
  • 1980s - *OL Bill Fralic said he used steroids in college at Pitt. He later told U.S. Senate committee that as much as 75 percent of NFL linebackers, linemen and tight ends have used steroids.

BALTIMORE/INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

  • 1970s - DB Nelson Munsey sued NFL retirement plan in 2000 seeking improved benefits. Complaint said he used steroids and amphetamines “consistent with the common usage of such drugs in professional football at that time.”

BUFFALO

  • 1980s - LB Jim Haslett told reporters he used steroids and said the Pittsburgh Steelers were known for steroid use in the 1970s. He later apologized about his Steelers comments.

CHICAGO

  • 1985 - *DT Steve McMichael (1985) told Sports Illustrated he took steroids briefly in the past.
  • 1980s - *OT Jimbo Covert (early 1980s) said he experimented with steroids in college at Pitt.

DALLAS

  • 1970s/80s - *DL John Dutton (1970s/80s) said he liked to take them during preseason, according to World Herald, before they were banned.
  • 1980s - DL Tony Casillas said he used steroids in college at Oklahoma.

DENVER

  • 1970s - DL Jim White (1970s) died of liver cancer in 1982, which was attributed to steroid use. He is possibly the first NFL player to die thanks largely to steroid use.

GREEN BAY

  • 1965 - *OL Bill Curry (1965) used Dianabol to increase to 240 pounds from 220, according to New York Times.

HOUSTON OILERS

  • 1980 - *OG Bob Young used steroids, according to teammate Dave Casper in 2002 interview. Young died in 1995 at age 52.
  • 1970s - *QB Dan Pastorini (1970s) said in suit he was injected with “drugs and/or steroids and/or other substances” during career.

MINNESOTA

  • 1964 - WR Lance Rentzel (1964) used performance-enhancing drugs before joining the NFL, according to biography.

NEW YORK JETS

  • 1988 - OL Dave Cadigan tested positive at combine before draft.
  • 1980s - *DE Mark Gastineau in 2000 admitted having used steroids.
  • 1978-81 - *DL Joe Klecko said he took steroids in offseason for strong-man contests, according to book by Charles Yesalis.
  • 1970s - DB Chris Farasopoulos said he took amphetamines before games.

NEW YORK GIANTS

  • 1965 - *DE Fred Dryer used steroids to get bigger in junior college. “I was told if I wanted to get better and gain weight I'd better (use steroids),” he told Parade Magazine.
  • 1963 RB Joe Don Looney took steroids before joining league in effort to bulk up, according to biographer.
  • 1970s - OL Jim Clack (1970s) spoke about taking steroids in book about Steelers by Roy Blount.

OAKLAND/LOS ANGELES RAIDERS

  • 1980s - OL Curt Marsh told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer he experimented with steroids.
  • 1972-85 - *DL Lyle Alzado became poster boy for steroid and HGH use in the NFL. He blamed his brain tumor on his use of those drugs. He died at 43 in 1992. He said he starting taking steroids in 1969.
  • 1970s - DL John Matuszak died at 38 in 1989 after life of partying, including drug use and suspected steroid use.

PITTSBURGH

  • 1982 - OL Rick Donnalley told Cincinnati Post he used steroids.
  • 1970s/80s - *OL Mike Webster. In suit against NFL pension fund, statements from doctors said Webster experimented with steroids. Died in 2002 at age 50.
  • 1970s/80s - OL Steve Courson admitted steroid use, developed heart problem and testified before Congress about steroid abuse in NFL.
  • 1970s - OL Jim Clack (1970s) spoke about taking steroids in book about Steelers by Roy Blount.
  • 1970s - FB Rocky Bleier told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he was prescribed small amounts of Dianabol. Bleier, a Vietnam vet, had shrapnel in his foot from grenade.
  • 1970s - DL Steve Furness (1970s) used steroids, as suspected by his brother Peter. Died in 2000 at age 49.
  • 1970s - Strength coach Lou Riecke (1970s) had experience with Dianabol as a weight lifter. He was hired by coach Chuck Noll, who was an assistant with Chargers in 1963, when strength coach Alvin Roy introduced steroids to Chargers. Riecke said he quit using in 1964 and did not know about any steroid use on Steelers.
  • 1960s - *LB Andy Russell (1960s) talked about taking “pep pills” (amphetamines) for energy rush on field. “We were led to believe they helped you play better,” Russell said. “Truth is they help you play much worse because you overreacted.” He said Noll discouraged such drug use.

SAN FRANCISCO

  • 1980s - OG Bruce Collie said he used steroids but lessened use after league started suspending players for it in 1989.
  • 1980s - TE Eason Ramson told reporters he used steroids as a player.
  • 1960s/70s - *DL Charlie Krueger said in a disability lawsuit he was “regularly anesthetized between and during games, and endured repeated, questionable steroid treatments administered by the team physician.” Settled case for around $1 million.
  • 1960s - QB Bobby Waters said he used Dianabol steroids to bulk up and used it as early as 1962. Team doctor Lloyd Millburn offered Waters Dianabol, according to author Matt Chaney.

ST. LOUIS/ARIZONA CARDINALS

  • 1980s - DE Kirby Criswell (early '80s) arrested in 1982 on charges of conspiracy to produce and distribute methamphetamines, sentenced to five years in prison.
  • 1960s - *OG Ken Gray (1960s) sued team in 1971 for $3.5 million, claiming the team made him take "potent, illegal and dangerous drugs” so that he would perform “more violently.” He settled for a smaller amount.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • 1970s/80s - OL Steve Courson admitted steroid use, developed heart problem and testified before Congress about steroid abuse in NFL.

WASHINGTON

  • 1974 - Coach George Allen (1974). Former player Walt Sweeney testified in suit that Allen told players, “If it takes amphetamines to win, I will bring it in by the truckload.”
  • 1974/75 - *OG Walt Sweeney said regular use of drugs and steroids led him to addiction. In legal case, a judge awarded him $1.8 million in benefits and attorney's fees from NFL pension fund.
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