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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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"The NFL won't get involved because it has to protect its image. I offered to conduct a workshop on amphetamines at an NFL team physicians' meeting in 1973. I got an invitation. A week before I was to go, Harland called and said Rozelle didn't want me there. That it was 'bad public relations.' Congress was going to have hearings in 1974. They got quashed."

The drug subculture that exists in sport has been examined by this magazine in the past, with expert testimony from men like Dr. Robert Kerlan, former team physician of the Los Angeles Dodgers (SI, June 23, 1969). Professional athletes, reflecting society as a whole, are well tuned to drug use, to the proposition they might need help to face extreme pain, or to mask it. Team physicians stuff them with codeine, pump their knees full of Xylocaine, shoot their inflamed joints with cortisone. Jim Lynch, the former Notre Dame and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, says he found pro football such a "cold business" that he was not surprised by amphetamine use. "It's peer pressure. It's a badge of courage to play with pain, even if it's not always courageous. It can be stupid. But it's done because if you sit down you're an outcast."

The incidence of drug use in pro football, which is absurd to deny, is not the question here, however. The injuries it causes is the issue. Other doctors besides Mandell have spoken out. Dr. Donald Cooper of Oklahoma State has expressed in medical journals his concern over the "agitated, aggressive, sometimes paranoid behavior" of players high on amphetamines. "I've been on the sidelines in pro games where the physician watched a guy on his team jump offsides two or three times and said to me, I know that guy's problem—he's so high on amphetamines he can't see straight.' Sam Huff [the former All-Pro linebacker] told me the two times he tried them he got thrown out of the game for hitting late. He thought he was playing great."

The recent literature of pro football is laced with drug confessions. Chip Oliver [ Raiders], Dave Meggyesy [ Cardinals] and Bernie Parrish [ Browns] gave graphic accounts of amphetamine use. Johnny Sample (Colts and Jets) said "most pro football players eat pep pills like candy." Meggyesy wrote that "most NFL trainers do more dealing in [amphetamines and barbiturates] than the average junky." He said the "violent and brutal player that television viewers marvel over on Saturdays and Sundays is often a synthetic product."

In They Call It a Game, Parrish said that when he and a teammate first tried amphetamines at the University of Florida, "We put some licks on people they won't ever forget.... Both the players and coaches were wondering what in the hell had got into us.... I never played another game in my college and professional career without taking either Dexedrine or Benzedrine." He said at the end he was up to 15 five-milligram tablets before each game "in the never-ending search for the magic elixir."

Although amphetamines are prohibited by the NCAA, Dr. Cooper says there is no telling how much speed is used by college players, but he knows it is available because "every exam week we get kids brought in who are zingy on them." There are indications of considerable use. Both Mandell and Johnson found that about 30% of the pros they studied took amphetamines in college.

Amphetamines aren't the only drug afflicting football. Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times said the more affluent pro players now opt for cocaine and called it "perhaps the biggest drug problem facing sports today." But part of the problem with coke is what happens if the police catch you with it. Randy Crowder and Donald Reese of the Miami Dolphins were nailed trying to sell a pound of cocaine last year and have just been released from the Dade County Stockade. Pittsburgh Defensive Tackle Ernie Holmes was found not guilty by an Amarillo jury that believed him when he said he didn't know that a souvenir silver bullet purchased "from a stranger in a rest-room of a motel" contained cocaine. Although cocaine is generally used as an after-hours mellower, the Sun-Times said that players under its influence are known to have "ripped apart their lockers while working themselves into an aggressive mental state for a game." The newspaper said that among its other wondrous attributes, coke leaves no chemical traces, has a less profound downer effect than amphetamines and results in no loss of sex drive. But it does cost $2,000 an ounce.

There is another cost players might well consider when they start filling their bodies with exotic chemicals as a means of getting "up" for games. That is the possible cost of their careers. So far, the users have also been the victims. Houston Ridge, a former San Diego defensive lineman, collected $302,000 after settling a suit against the Chargers in which he contended, although it was never directly ruled upon, that he had "been so high on amphetamines" in 1969 he didn't even know it when he broke his hip. In January 1971 former All-Pro Guard Ken Gray filed two lawsuits charging that his former employers, the St. Louis Cardinals, and team trainers and physicians caused him to take "potent, harmful, illegal and dangerous that he could perform more violently as a player." The cases were settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.

But what happens, says Dr. Cooper, when the users make someone else the victim? What happens when a defensive lineman high on speed clubs a quarterback into a coma and the quarterback sues? What happens then?

The NFL maintains a stiff upper lip through all this. There is no "drug crisis" in the NFL says Jack Danahy, director of security for the NFL. "Alleged drug use in the league has been overstated in the past." NFL Director of Information Joe Browne cites the league's "strong drug preventative program," which has been educating players since 1971, as well as weekly counts of pills distributed by team physicians and trainers. Amphetamines? "As far as we can tell," says Browne, "they are not taking amphetamines."

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