Taking it to his grave

One of sports' first steroid whistleblowers, Steve Courson died without the satisfaction of seeing teammates confirm his accounts

Pro Football


GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- The message was important enough that Denise Masciola found the composure to deliver it even as her boyfriend of three years, former Pittsburgh Steeler Steve Courson, lay yesterday in an open, oversized casket in the next room.

"This is something he would definitely want written," Masciola whispered, leaning forward and making eye contact with a reporter.

Masciola then told the story of how Courson - a hulking offensive lineman who won Super Bowl rings in the 1978 and 1979 seasons - loved his teammates but felt let down by their prolonged silence after he risked his career by speaking publicly about steroid use 20 years ago.

"He said he was disappointed they would continue to live a lie," Masciola said.

As the "Super Steelers" grew into middle age together, Courson - crushed to death at age 50 by a tree he was cutting down last week at his western Pennsylvania home - waited for his teammates to confirm his accounts of rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs, but it never happened, Masciola and other friends said.

"I wish they could do that now to let him go peacefully," she said. "But I knew he would take it to the grave with him. They had talked of taking a walk in the woods together sometime and clearing the air."

At yesterday's memorial service, held at an old Lutheran church, there were plenty of tears for Courson, who was a motivational speaker, health and fitness educator and youth football coach after his playing days ended in 1986. But there was also a gritty sense of determination - almost a defiance - among Masciola and other close friends that Courson's efforts to uncover the truth about steroid use in the past and present not stop now.

"I know who they are, these guys who shot steroids with Steve," said friend Matt Chaney, a Missouri-based writing instructor. "And these guys continue to live in the past in a boy's game. In their minds, they want to continue the `Super Steelers' legend."

Courson's body was attired yesterday in a gold shirt and black tie - Steelers colors. Masciola said that outfit was chosen because he believed the team had given him a "platform" to teach youths to stay away from steroids. One of his giant, framed No. 77 jerseys was positioned near the casket.

But Masciola said Courson no longer wore Steelers jerseys, and it had been months since he put on a Super Bowl ring. "He wanted people to know who the real Steve Courson was," she said.

Courson had been torn, she and others said. His friendships with such fellow Steelers as Tunch Ilkin, Ted Petersen and Jon Kolb - who all attended yesterday's memorial service with a handful of other former teammates - meant too much to disavow. But he was frustrated with his old team and the NFL because he believed they wrongly treated steroids users as isolated examples instead of admitting to a broader problem and adopting an effective remedy.

"Steve, in the last six or eight months, said that given the hypocrisy that totally surrounds the NFL, he strongly regretted having played in that league," said Penn State University steroid expert Charles Yesalis, a pall bearer yesterday.

"He said he had made a Faustian bargain, but that some things are more important than Super Bowl rings. He would say of his teammates, `Jesus God, they're over 50! Why can't they have the guts enough to say, `This is what it was'? Are they still posturing to [former coach Chuck] Noll or to the Rooneys [the team's founding family]?' He wasn't mad so much as disappointed."

As the service was beginning, a white bus chartered from a limousine company pulled up to the red-brick church and nearly a dozen of Courson's former teammates climbed stiffly down the stairs.

They said they had spent four hours telling "Steve stories" as the bus rolled from western Pennsylvania to the Gettysburg church, near the Courson family home. The stories included how Courson had enjoyed wearing camouflage fatigues and showing off his rippling muscles with poses such as "The Crab." In his playing days, Courson had 20-inch biceps and could bench-press 600 pounds. He was 6 feet 1 and weighed close to 300 pounds. His teammates said Courson once embarrassed running back Franco Harris by beating him down the field on a run.

"We just had a lot of great times together," Ilkin said.

If Courson was disillusioned at the ex-teammates, none said he was aware. Nor, several said, did they know of plans - which Masciola said were in the works - to get together to revisit Courson's 20-year-old claims. Among Courson's claims, detailed in a book Chaney is writing, is that Courson would obtain shopping bags full of steroids for him and his teammates without a prescription.

"We believed in Steve, and he believed in us," said Gary Dunn, a defensive tackle who played for the Steelers in each of Courson's years with the team (1978 to 1983).

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