"Dianabol, first widely used steroid, turns 50 this year," New York Daily News
Dianabol, the first widely used steroid, turns 50 this year
Monday, June 16th 2008, 10:20 AM
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Throughout American football, a quiet movement was advancing through the game, emphasizing size and strength, defying convention. Just as "free weights" had already spurred irreversible change, the terminology "bigger and stronger" would take over football lexicon. Tissue-building drugs would then fuel everything.
In Northern California, in July of 1962, anabolic steroids had arrived in the National Football League.
The San Francisco 49ers' training camp took place in the scenic setting of St. Mary's College, whose bucolic campus lay amid the breezy hilltops near San Francisco, but for the football players trying to get ready for the season, the tranquility belied the brutality of two-a-day practices. Playing quarterback, third-year player Bob Waters already felt like the hunted in the summer of '62, but he was especially beaten-up after having lost weight, down toward 190 on his 6-foot-2 frame.
A tough, athletic Georgian, Waters nevertheless sought bulk to withstand the NFL gauntlet, and team physician Dr. Lloyd Millburn was offering a remedy: Dianabol, the first anabolic steroid in pill form, had hit the market in 1958, a new pharmaceutical prescribed for medical conditions and virtually unheard of in pro football, insiders say today.
"I know Bob used steroids because he was slight," recalls Sheri Waters, the former player's widow. "He was not a brawny person at all. So Dr. Millburn, I think he prescribed it to help Bob gain some weight."
The physical gains were apparent. "I think Bob got up to like 210 (pounds)," Sheri says. "At that time we were unaware of complications from any (prescription) drug that was available."
Dianabol turns 50 this year, and while U.S. trademark production has ceased, generic "methandrostenolone" remains in use by athletes worldwide. Now, steroid use by athletes is widely condemned, branded amoral, a cheater's easy fix. But that was not the case in the early 1960s, and particularly not in football, according to witnesses and historians interviewed for this story. America, after all, rolled on mass consumption of pills that purported to fix anything.
Bob Waters remains the earliest confirmed anabolic-steroid user in football, but he likely wasn't the first. In 1987, Waters, speaking to reporters including Bill Brubaker of the Washington Post, suggested he wasn't alone among users on the 49ers, but he gave no further details. One former 49ers teammate, Charlie Krueger, says he hadn't heard of anabolic steroids in 1962 and never used the drugs; another didn't respond to inquiry.
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"I doubt that Bob was the only player using anabolic steroids," Sheri Waters says, "but I truly don't know who else. There was some talk, but not much." Credible information, meanwhile, indicates anabolic steroids were elsewhere in football, even at the high school level.
One anecdotal report by a late physician, speaking confidentially to drug historian Dr. Charles E. Yesalis, places steroids within Texas prep football by 1959, the year following Dianabol's release by Ciba Pharmaceutical Co. Then, in the early 1960s, "a high school team physician, working in cooperation with a pharmaceutical company, gave anabolic steroids to members of the football team," reported Bill Gilbert in Sports Illustrated in 1969, for a landmark series on doping in athletics.
The gridiron trail of steroids firms up in 1963, when college players and an entire pro team hit the juice - under the direction of Louisiana strength coach Alvin Roy, pioneer of free weights and earliest known steroid guru in football.
On Sept. 22, 1962, in Norman, Okla., in the Sooners' season-opener against Syracuse, transfer tailback Joe Don Looney stewed on the sidelines, buried in the depth chart. The irreverent, troubled young man occupied the coach's doghouse entering the game, but he ended the afternoon a national sensation and an enduring gridiron legend was born.
Oklahoma trailed 3-0 in the fourth quarter when Looney confronted stone-faced coach Bud Wilkinson. "Put me in, Coach, and I'll win the SOB," Looney declared. Wilkinson complied, and Looney promptly took a pitch left, blasted through tacklers and bolted 62 yards to score. The Sooners won, 7-3, and Looney went on to All-American honors and cult hero status.
J. Brent Clark was a teenager attending the game, and 31 years later authored his acclaimed biography of the enigmatic Looney, who died in a motorcycle crash in 1988. "Looney was an early day power-speed back," says Clark, an OU alumnus and a Norman attorney. "He had it all."
Looney, the weightlifting son of erstwhile football star Don Looney, was a chiseled 6-2, 210 with about 9.8 speed in the 100. But Looney wanted to become bigger and stronger in the summer of 1963, Clark learned, so he joined college players in Baton Rouge training under Roy, renowned for producing Billy Cannon, LSU's Heisman Trophy winner.
The college boys banged iron for months in Roy's gym, and Looney was among those who consumed Dianabol pills. "Looney put on 20 pounds of solid muscle, so that when he returned in August to Norman, he weighed 230," Clark says.
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Although Looney continued clashing with Wilkinson and was eventually kicked off the team, OU had more juicers. At least one other player used Dianabol in 1963, Clark found, while star receiver Lance Rentzel later said in his autobiography that he juiced in 1964.
Roy, meanwhile, took his free weights and drug protocol to the American Football League, becoming the game's first strength coach at San Diego in 1963.
Dianabol wasn't the original synthetic anabolic steroid but the first in pill form, released in 1958 by the old Ciba Pharmaceutical labs in New Jersey. Most of the inventory was distributed through prescription channels but some departed out the back door, notably ending up with U.S. weightlifters at York Barbell, the fitness equipment manufacturer whose founder, Bob Hoffman, underwrote and coached U.S. Olympic weightlifting, in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The York gang included Dr. John Ziegler, who delivered Dianabol from Ciba, although he did not create the drug, as is often wrongly cited, and Roy, who died while strength coach at Oakland in 1979.
According to numerous accounts, Roy was packing steroids upon arrival at Chargers camp in rural Southern California in July of 1963. Roy joined Chargers head coach Sid Gillman in presenting Dianabol to the players, who were told the pink pills were "assimilated protein."
"If Alvin had said ‘steroids' we (the players) wouldn't have known, anyway," recalls Ron Mix, a Hall of Fame lineman who was the Chargers' captain. "They had the pills set out in cereal bowls. We were told to take a pill after every meal, and we did. And they actually worked. Normally in training camp, I'd feel my strength going down, but it actually increased."
After about five weeks of team steroids, a player mentioned it to his family physician, who opposed Dianabol use. Mix heard about the doctor's warning of suspected dangers and confronted Gillman, who endorsed the drugs as safe but granted a players meeting. "I told the guys about (risks)," Mix says, "and the vast majority stopped taking it. I never took it again."
The spread of "D-bol" and newer anabolic steroids continued through football, muted but steady. In 1965 Green Bay rookie Bill Curry juiced to gain about 20 pounds - he says he took Dianabol for about two months, getting it from a gym owner, while knowing no other users on the Packers - and prep players in Bloomington, Calif., were administered various steroids by a doctor. Soon after, college player Lyle Alzado consumed Dianabol at Yankton, S.D., while coaches at Cal-Berkeley dispensed steroids to players.
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Football's muscle doping began to accelerate around 1970. Contributing factors included the general establishment of weightlifting in sports and increased availability of steroids following the Mexico City Olympics, which paraded juicer models for all athletes.
"The question of whether it was going on (in the NFL)? Uh, yeah," says Bruce Laird, a Colts and Chargers safety from 1972-82, adding that he didn't juice. "How many people were doing it? Quite a few."
Decades ago, Bob Waters defied the stereotypes of the steroid-using jocks of today. Waters was a gentlemanly NFL quarterback in 1962, not a frothing lineman. There was no steroid scheme, mostly cluelessness; Waters didn't know the term "cycle," obtaining the D-bol intermittently for about two years from Dr. Millburn. And no amount of drug use meant success in the NFL, where Waters' shelf life was short but typical - five years - ending on injuries that included a shattered forearm stabilized with a metal plate.
Waters never blamed anabolic steroids for the dreaded disease he contracted in the 1980s - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, even as he became part of a shocking three-man ALS cluster from the 49ers' roster of 1964. Matt Hazeltine and Gary Lewis were old teammates and fellow ALS victims who preceded Waters in death, while he continued coaching college football at Western Carolina, unable to use his arms.
Waters battled ALS for several years, serving as a public spokesperson, helping raise funds and inspiring a medical inquiry that found no cause for the 49ers' cluster, but did dismiss steroids as a possibility. He died in 1989, honest, honorable, with no grudge against football and proud of the 49ers' franchise.
For others from that period, mystery and health questions linger, but even today few discuss the issue outside the inner circle.
Secrecy always shrouds football doping, for reasons primarily rooted in money and ego, even though NFL retirees from all eras wonder about the health toll from the use of steroids and growth hormone. Curry, Mix, Krueger and Laird worry about the ever-increasing size of football players, the companion injuries and conditions that are emerging.
Muscle doping, however, is conspicuously absent from the contemporary debate over NFL disability: Steroids and HGH represent the elephant in the room. "The league is like, ‘We don't want to go to this (topic),'" says David Meggyesy, a 1960s Cardinals linebacker and retired western director of the players union. "And the union is in a difficult spot, because if a player doesn't want (doping) revealed, can you reveal it? No.
"Everybody's scared to death of this thing for different reasons."
Journalist and author Matt Chaney compiles a history of muscle doping in American football for his upcoming book, "Spiral of Denial." Chaney used anabolic steroids as a college football player at Southeast Missouri State University in 1982.