Steve Courson is used to battling 290-pound linemen. He did it for 13 years with the University of South Carolina, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But now Courson is battling his toughest opponent -- heart disease -- and is using his experience with steroids to educate high school athletes, especially football players, who might be .. tempted to use steroids.
Courson, who retired from the NFL in 1985, is suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy, a weakened heart muscle, a condition he blames on the combination of alcohol and steroids. He is a candidate for heart transplant.
He is scheduled to speak tonight at the Greater Baltimore Sports Medicine Conference for Coaches. Dr. Donald Ian Macdonald, drug and steroid adviser to the World League of American Football, and Dr. Allan Lanzo, an orthopedic surgeon and associate director of the Greater Baltimore Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation Center, will join Courson as guest speakers.
Courson is is working to educate high school athletes on the effects of steroids, something he said was not done when he started playing football.
"When I was growing up, drug education was not like it is today. It was nonexistent," said Courson, the offensive line coach at Trinity High School in Washington, Pa. "And what there was was not necessarily accurate."
Steroid use has been documented in children as early as fifth grade, said Dr. Charles Yesalis, head of research at Penn State who specializes in performance-enhancing drugs.
"These drugs can close down their growth plates and they can cause psychological dependence on the drugs," said Yesalis, who supplies Courson with the latest steroid research.
Lanzo also is skeptical about adolescent steroid use.
"Kids are hormonally and physically going through rapid growth," Lanzo said. "The steroids suppress the natural testosterone, and that's the vital hormone in the development of the male."
Courson, who said he was introduced to steroids after his freshman year at South Carolina to help him gain weight, is not optimistic about keeping youngsters off steroids.
"When a kid is 15 years old and he sees kids using steroids and gaining scholarships and winning body-building contests and being rewarded by society and he sees without them he can't compete at that level, why is it such an illogical decision to use drugs?" Courson said. "That is the educational nightmare.
"For many of them, they see the big glow in the sky of scholarships and success, and what I say goes in one ear and out the other. But if they pay attention, they will know inordinately more about anabolic steroids than before they came to hear me speak."
Ron Shultz, former football and basketball coach at Dundalk High School, tried to educate his athletes to the dangers of drugs. Two years ago, he ran a program for coaches and athletes and had Tom Matte, Johnny Unitas and Yesalis speak.
"We are just like the ostrich -- we have to get our head out of the sand and realize that it's happening and we have to be aware and do something to help," said Shultz, who coached in Baltimore County for 20 years before retiring last year.
"I tried to acclimate the parents, especially, to what is happening to their youngster when they release them into the school system and they start playing sports. I think the more you can communicate to the parents and help them understand the problems and what the problems are, that helps the coaches in the athletic departments."
Steroids is not just a problem generated by the athlete, Yesalis said, but rather by society.
"The public wants to see bigger, faster, stronger," Yesalis said. "They don't want to pay all of the money they pay to see an average-sized or an average-looking man or woman perform. They want to see world records."
Courson also said that society places too much emphasis on winning.
"We need to put sports in perspective," said Courson, who noted that the average size of the linemen for the Parade All-America high school team was 294.4 pounds.
When Courson was at that level, he was convinced that steroids were the way to stay competitive, and he told Sports Illustrated just that in May 1985 while he was with Tampa Bay.
"They can take you somewhere," he said. "I can't condone steroid use, but I can morally accept it as an aid. I know that if I don't use steroids, I won't be the best I can be. . . . I will keep doing steroids until I see adverse effects in my performance."
It did affect his performance, but it affected his health as well. At the Buccaneers mini-camp in 1985, he found out that his heart was 150 beats a minute while he was resting. That led to his cardiomyopathy.
Working with high school students has been therapeutic. Courson has been on a heart transplant list for 3 1/2 years, but said that he feels so healthy now that he would refuse a transplant if one became available.
"If you looked at me today, you'd wonder why I wasn't on the football field," said Courson, who walks two miles every day.
Facts and figures
What: Win Without Losing: Recognizing and Preventing Substance Abuse Among Athletes -- a conference sponsored by the Maryland Sports Medicine Foundation and the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
When: Tonight from 5 to 9
Where: Education Center of Greater Baltimore Medical Center
Guest speakers: Steve Courson, Dr. Donald Ian Macdonald, Dr. Allan Lanzo
Reservations: Call (410) 435-0283. Registration fee is $10 and includes lectures, course materials and a buffet dinner.