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SCORECARD
February 02, 1987
THE 49ER CASE
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February 02, 1987

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THE 49ER CASE

Ever since Lou Gehrig died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1941, this mysterious and usually fatal neuromuscular disorder has been popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. In recent weeks ALS has been gaining further prominence from another unhappy sports connection. As widely reported in the media, three former San Francisco 49er teammates from the early 1960s have contracted ALS. Two of them have died: former fullback Gary Lewis in December, two months after ALS attacked his respiratory system, and linebacker Matt Hazeltine two weeks ago, after a five-year bout with the disease. The third victim, a onetime backup quarterback with the 49ers and the football coach at Western Carolina University for the past 18 years, is Bob Waters.

Waters has a "mission," as he calls it, to get the medical community to examine the remarkable coincidence of three members of the same team contracting ALS. Except for an inexplicably high incidence of ALS on Guam, the disease, which strikes 3.500 Americans a year, has seldom appeared in such clusters. Doctors don't know what causes ALS, and they have yet to find a cure. Waters hopes there is a clue in the 49er case that might lead to a better understanding of the enigmatic killer.

Waters has talked openly about his disease and has tried to get in touch with former teammates so they can be medically checked out. "We'd like to talk to all of them and examine things we did in common," says Waters. "I took steroids back then. We took drugs for injuries and ailments." Perhaps there's even a clue in the herbicide that was used on the 49ers' practice field, Waters speculates. "All I'm saying is, Let's just find out."

Since he became aware of ALS symptoms four years ago, Waters has lost 40 pounds and the use of his arms. Medication seems to have at least temporarily arrested the disease's spread. "It might be that it's progressing slowly with me because I've gotten deeply involved in my job, which is coaching," says Waters. He goes to the office daily; he recently completed several recruiting trips. "I intend to be here coaching next year and the next and the next. I love it. That's why I'm working so hard to get well."

Whatever the explanation for the outbreak of ALS among the 49ers, Waters' admission about his long-ago use of anabolic steroids is surprising. A popular perception is that steroids were first used by Soviet athletes in the late 1950s and spread to American athletes much later; to hear officials of the NFL and the NFL Players Association talk, steroid use in pro football is a recent phenomenon. But here's evidence of a player taking steroids a quarter-century ago. "I came back 10 pounds underweight one year and the team doctor said, 'Here, take these, they'll help you gain weight,' " Waters says. "They were new in athletics at the time. No one had heard of them really, or knew what they'd do." Waters says he took steroids for two years. He doesn't know how many other players took them—Hazeltine, for one, said he never did—but Waters knows he wasn't alone.

BEAR UP, MICHIGAN
The decision may not sit well among football fans in Ann Arbor, but the state of Michigan's Sesquicentennial Committee has scrapped plans to use the wolverine in its logo. Although Michigan is officially nicknamed the Wolverine State, and University of Michigan students began calling themselves Wolverines as early as the 1860s, committee researchers could find no evidence that the wolverine has ever actually lived in Michigan's forests. So the state's 150th-birthday logo will feature a black bear.

LOOKING UP DOWN UNDER

In recent years the Australian Open has been garbage time in the tennis world. Held in December, just as the holidays approached, it drew too few of the best players. But the Open has gotten clever and moved to January. Now any player hoping to win the sport's grand slam—Wimbledon and the French, U.S. and Aussie Opens—must show up in Melbourne. Two weeks ago the cream of the tennis world did precisely that. The draw was sufficiently strong—the injured Chris Evert Lloyd and John McEnroe and the resting Steffi Graf were the only notable absentees—that neither of the world's No. 1 players was able to get a leg up on the '87 slam. Martina Navratilova lost in the finals to an inspired Hana Mandlikova 7-5, 7-6. And Ivan Lendl met a resurgent Pat Cash in the semifinals and was dismissed 7-6, 5-7, 7-6, 6-4.

Cash, an Aussie who single-handedly overcame the Swedes in the Davis Cup final (SI, Jan. 5), lost to the top Swede, Stefan Edberg, in Sunday's stirring three-hour, 40-minute final, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3. "It was the best Davis Cup revenge I could have," said Edberg.

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