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John Underwood
August 28, 1978
Where coaching stops, chemistry steps in with encapsulated fury. It's madness
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August 28, 1978

Speed Is All The Rage

Where coaching stops, chemistry steps in with encapsulated fury. It's madness

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Analgesics as well as stimulants, amphetamines mask pain—pain Mandell says would act at least as a partial deterrent to such mayhem.

"An enraged person who does not feel pain is a dangerous human being," he says, "not only to others, but to himself. Early on I had one player who lost 20 pounds over a weekend. He was coughing up blood before games. I asked him how he could play in such a condition. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of 'black beauties'—street speed you buy in Tijuana. The next day he played super.

"This is not called stupid in the pros, it's called heroic. Amphetamines are controlled substances and therefore subject to stringent FDA regulations regarding their prescription, and their use without proper prescription is absolutely prohibited by the NFL. But even Fran Tarkenton has defended their use. In small doses, they give you the kind of workdrug high you might want to increase efficiency. But in large doses that nervous alert becomes something else, a rage players feel they must have in a game that requires violent aggression at a precise point in time.

"Amphetamines are certainly psychologically, and possibly physically, addictive. The post-use depression is severe. Sexual appetite diminishes. Some suffer temporary impotence. But you can't tell a veteran player that there is another way. He says, 'Doc, I'm not about to go out there one-on-one against a guy who's grunting and drooling and coming at me with big dilated pupils unless I'm in the same condition.'

" Harland Svare told me amphetamines weren't new at all in the NFL. The Giants [for whom he played during 1955-60] 'used 'em, like baseball players use 'em today—in moderate doses, when we were tired or hung over.' I can see that. I'm not a prohibitionist. But along about the mid-'60s the doses began to increase, and kept going up. I won't tell you who said it, but one Charger told me, The difference between a star and superstar is sometimes the difference between a dose and a superdose.'

"The older the player, the more likely his dependence. He gets desperate. I was trying to get one guy to lower his dosage. He told me, It's easy for you to talk, Doc, but I'm making $65,000 a year. If I lose this job, tomorrow I'm a bartender. I've got three kids, a home....' "

Mandell's evaluations coincide with the conclusion arrived at by Dr. L. Alan Johnson of San Diego in his doctoral thesis in psychology. Dr. Johnson's research dates back to 1970 when he questioned 93 players from 13 NFL teams and found 56 (60%) admitted using amphetamines regularly, the majority at that time getting them from trainers, doctors or teammates, but some from the street. Dr. Johnson says he had to abandon the study when the NFL allegedly instructed players not to cooperate with him.

"Quarterbacks hardly take them at all," says Mandell, who has examined "more than 100" players. "Amphetamines restrain adaptive capacity. You don't think or reason as well. A quarterback needs mini-second adaptiveness. Running backs and wide receivers might take only small doses for the same reason. But in the trenches it doesn't matter. They don't need that kind of coordination. The big users are the defensive linemen."

Mandell says that when he realized people were "buying tickets to see speed freaks try to kill each other, the ugliness really upset me. I think if the average fan could spend a game on the sidelines, he wouldn't go anymore. Svare told me once, This isn't the game I grew up with on the Giants. This is a cruel, win-at-any-price thing, without fellowship.'

"I tried to alert the league in 1973. I proposed urine tests. They told me it was an invasion of privacy. The players wouldn't stand for it. Why not? They do it in European soccer. They've got rules against amphetamines in the Olympics. You could do it with a simple saliva test. You wouldn't have to test everybody, just two or three on each team. A spot check. If a test is positive, you go further."

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