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First-hand account of cheating's evolution in sports

Posted: Wednesday February 20, 2008 9:27AM; Updated: Thursday February 21, 2008 7:37PM
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I guess I've traveled the upward course of performance-enhancers in the 60 or so years I've been associated with organized sports. When I was 15, I saw kids on my high school football team cutting metal tape cans lengthwise and taping them to their forearms. A lightweight, high-striking power weapon, form-fitting.

I tried it myself, but two things were wrong. First, you had to have some skill in cutting metal and then taping it, and then, I could never get it exactly right. And there always was the telltale "bonk!" sound when a padded body, or a helmeted head made contact with it in a game, which would result in the embarrassing ritual of the referee stopping the contest right there while he inspected your arm for an illegal, performancing-enhancing substance.

And what followed was the disgraceful ritual of being banished from the field, if the ref were strict enough, with the expected denial from your coach, "I swear to God, sir, I didn't know what the boy was up to." And every fibre within you would scream, "Liar! Liar!" but let's face it, you were the one who'd been nailed.

Call it an early introduction to hypocrisy, and so, at a youthful age, you became a cynic.

There has always been spying in sports. In baseball, it was a badge of honor to be a successful sign-stealer. In football? Well, any advantage you could gain was an upper, especially if you were a fat, lazy kid who never bothered to get himself in tip-top shape.

I remember taking a knee on defense, cocking my head forward, straining to hear what was going on in the other team's huddle, especially if the quarterback were loudmouthed. And if our guys were into that hand-clapping, "let's go!" type of stuff, I would tell them to shut up so I could hear what was going on. Thus a sneak replaced a mere cynic, a sign stealer who turned his back on the very idea of team spirit and fair play.

Oh, I was a real mess. Ratso Rizzo in uniform.

And as I progressed upward through the levels of sport, the corresponding levels of malfeasance kept pace. In college, I learned about real performance-enhancers, the chemical variety that came in a bottle. Amphetamines, i.e., benzadrine, dexadrine, greenies, the kind of things we'd take to stay up for exams, now translated into energy boosters for the field of play. Not too much at first ... let's face it, I was scared ... but later, going up in football competition, first at army level, then in the minor leagues, it became a substance of choice. And this held true for club rugby, with a flavoring of international competition.

It was a heady time, young and carefree with little respect for the body. If someone would have come up to me and said, "See these, they're called anabolic steroids. Take 'em regularly and you'll have an NFL career. The only problem is that they might take five years off your life." If I'd have been given a choice like that I'd have said, without hesitation "Gimme all you've got."

Of course that was at the other end of the spectrum. Now that I'm peering down into the deep side, I'd have, in retrospect, turned my back and said, "Keep 'em."

I was a young sports writer. Steroids had appeared in San Diego. No one knew what they were. "Every day there would be this marble-sized thing by your locker and you were supposed to take it," said Jets guard Sam DeLuca, an ex-Charger. "I faked it. They scared the hell out of me."

Amphetamines were still the drugs of choice. The league had no policy about them.

"I was Cookie Gilchrist's teammate in the AFL All-Star Game," Jets linebacker Larry Grantham told me one day. "He used to take a shower between halves."

"How could he get in and out of his uniform in time?" I asked him.

"Didn't have much of a uniform," he said. "Just shoulder pads and enough greenies to fill the palm of one hand."

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