Drug, steroid users have gained a step on NFL investigators

December 08, 1991|By Glen Macnow | Glen Macnow,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- In the prehistoric days of steroid testing -- back in 1988 -- a group of Philadelphia Eagles gathered at the home of a teammate to prepare to beat a scheduled drug test.

As the National Footbal League's former drug adviser tells it, a technician, flown into town by the players, inserted a catheter into each man and drained out his steroid-tainted urine. He then pumped the players' bladders full of clean urine, which he had brought on the plane. The players immediately drove to Veterans Stadium, where they all took -- and passed -- their tests.

Forest Tennant, who was the NFL's drug adviser from 1986 to 1990, said he was called by a player who had participated in the cheating and later felt guilty. Tennant said he informed Eagles management.

Harry Gamble, the team's president, has declined to comment. Otho Davis, the team's trainer, said he did not recall such an incident, but another player and a former team employee said they knew about it.

Such gruesome deception can't happen now, in these days of random drug testing, sophisticated detection techniques and strict controls by the NFL.

No.

Worse things happen.

According to drug experts and some players and trainers, the drive to bulk up -- without getting caught -- continues. They say that players have simply moved from easily detectable steroids to drugs that may be more dangerous: illegally procured drugs designed for growth-stunted children, undersize cattle and congested racehorses.

The new drugs build muscles, but they may produce side-effects ranging from enlarged hearts to grotesque facial disfigurement. They speed the aging process and increase the chances of stroke, heart attack and testicular cancer. They are not being -- or cannot be -- tested for by NFL police.

Think of football's war on drugs as an unending contest between the testers and the users. As the testers grow more sophisticated, the users find new growth potions and more creative ways to hide their use.

"It's a continually evolving process," said David Black, the forensic toxicologist from Nashville who designed the NFL's original steroid-testing program. "The players respond by using some new product or technique, and then we respond. Then the ball is back in their court. This is the game within the game.

"And in this game," Black added, "the bad guys are often one step ahead."

"There is a false sense of security that the problem is way down," said Tennant, who resigned from the NFL amid allegations of administrative sloppiness. "In fact, there may be just as many drugs being taken now for performance enhancement as ever before. It's just that they're different."

Tennant is most worried about human growth hormone (HGH), a synthetic compound whose medical use is restricted to children facing dwarfism.

"I think there's a huge demand for HGH," he said. "It's very extensive in the NFL."

Atlanta Falcons tackle Mike Kenn, a 14-year NFL veteran, is similarly concerned.

"The drug users are out there playing with a loaded gun," Kenn said. "For each individual, it just depends how many chambers he has and how many bullets are in the gun."

In the last few seasons, the NFL has focused on battling steroids, the muscle-bulking elixirs that infested the league for more than a decade. By improving the testing and toughening the penalties, league officials have been able to cut steroid use: The number of positive tests declined from about 150 in 1988 to just one this season.

Ironically, that crackdown has presented the league with even more vexing problems. Through a network of body-building newsletters, players have been led to untested alternatives. Some have learned to hide drug use with masking agents that can be bought in gyms or through the mail. Others have employed private labs to keep tabs on their drug-enhanced testosterone levels.

"I'd like to say that the problem is becoming less," said John A. Lombardo, the NFL's current drug adviser. "And I can say that in certain avenues, such as high-dose testosterone and synthetics that would definitely give a positive test. But anything further than that -- there's really no way of proving it one way or another."

Lombardo declined to speculate on how many NFL players might be taking performance-enhancing drugs. Other drug advisers and trainers typically put the number of cheaters at around 15 to 20 percent -- which translates to about 300 players.

In this game, the newest drugs of choice include:

* Human growth hormone, a genetically engineered protein that accelerates bone and tissue growth.

Officially, its use is banned by the NFL. But because it is identical to hormones already found in the body, there is no way to detect it.

"HGH is what scares me now because there are no tests for it," said Jim Williams, the Eagles' strength coach. "It's very difficult to tell who's on and who's off."

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