The Godfather (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 11, 2008 12:07PM; Updated: Tuesday March 11, 2008 3:47PM
Fitton's approach was less a reflection of his audacity than of societal ignorance about performance-enhancing drugs. After his loss to Larry Holmes in 1980, Muhammad Ali revealed that he had shed weight after taking an excess of hormone, which had been prescribed for a thyroid condition. Today news of an A-list athlete who supplemented his training regimen with hormones would be an international scandal; at the time it was a newspaper story that died quickly. Drug testing that existed was rare and often ineffective. Fitton remembers a nervous NFL player calling him in the early 1980s for advice because he had taken the steroid Winstrol-V and was about to be tested. When the result came back, however, it was negative.
In 1981, Fitton was on his way to England with a stash of steroids to sell when two federal agents detained him in Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport and demanded, "Where are the uppers and downers?" Fitton explained that he was only transporting steroids: 22,000 doses' worth. The police confiscated his pills, which Fitton asked his lawyer to try to recover. He never got the drugs back, pleading guilty to illegal trafficking in anabolic steroids, for which he received a one-year suspended sentence. (The drugs weren't classified as controlled substances until 1990.)
After the arrest Auburn fired Fitton. Still, he remained in town, dealing and researching steroids as intensely as ever. He says he advised or sold drugs to athletes and coaches at Auburn, Baylor, Maryland, Nebraska, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin, among others. College players often found him through local weightlifters. "I called the cops on Fitton on several occasions because I knew what was going on," says Virgil Knight, an Auburn strength coach at the time. "But they had bigger fish to go after. They said, 'Steroids? That's a third-class drug.' "
One former Fitton client who played football at a major college program and went on to the NFL, who spoke with SI on the condition of anonymity, says that he never saw Fitton in person, instead placing his orders over the phone. And, though he never set foot on the Lincoln campus, Fitton alleges that several members of the Nebraska football team were regular clients, including Dean Steinkuhler, the 1983 Outland Trophy winner who later, wanting to come clean, admitted to SI that he used steroids.
Other college players, including Nebraska offensive tackle Todd Carpenter and Wisconsin center Dan Turk, were listed in the ledger documenting Fitton's steroid business. He recalls that before the 1984 Orange Bowl he received a call from a nervous Husker complaining that he and his teammates had mistakenly left their methyl testosterone -- a chewable supplement that rapidly increases testosterone levels and is thought to foster aggression -- back in Lincoln. Fitton says that he obtained a couple of bottles and sent them overnight in time for the national title game against Miami, which Nebraska lost 31--30.
Before the '84 Summer Games, Fitton consulted U.S. athletes and foreign Olympians training in the States and created a brochure of clearance times, a copy of which SI obtained from a former powerlifter. Athletes could consult the document to learn how long they had to abandon a cycle before a test. (Meanwhile, antidoping fervor was rapidly intensifying; with evidence mounting, the American College of Sports Medicine had reversed its stance and asserted that steroids "may" enhance athletic performance, and soon other fitness organizations followed suit.) Fitton affixed his name and number to the pamphlets and made photocopies for roughly 100 athletes and coaches. When a U.S. track and field coach left several copies in a training facility, Fitton received calls from ABC, NBC and CBS on the same day. Fitton remembers telling the careless coach, "You don't have to apologize, but you've got to realize that people aren't as open about this as you and I are."
After that incident Fitton changed his phone number and took inventory of his drug contacts. He realized that he had about 2,000 active clients and reckoned that by this time he'd talked to as many as 10,000 steroid users about their experiences, side effects and muscle growth. "It was like one big research trial," he says. "I kept all the [scientific] information in my head."
While hundreds of thousands of dollars moved through his accounts, Fitton lived simply. His biggest indulgence was paying for powerlifting friends to travel to international events. If clients couldn't afford a cycle, Fitton might give the product away. He claims that he let one Auburn football player open a metal cabinet in his apartment and take whatever steroids he wanted.
Fitton had little interest in currying favor with star athletes. He did most of his business over the phone, taking orders and giving advice starting at 8 a.m. Some days he mailed dozens of boxes of steroids. He'd sit and chat and drink Scotch and wrap up business by 11 p.m. He attended only one football game, reminiscing that a charm of living in Auburn was that on fall Saturdays, while 85,000 people flocked to the stadium, the rest of the town was quiet.