In the months before his 2005 death, former NFL offensive lineman Steve Courson wrote a 5,000-word letter expressing disappointment that more players aren't open about their steroid use and saying the league's enormous popularity relies on a "myth" of its players as drug-free heroes.
"I believe the NFL is a prisoner to their own public relations myth," Courson said in the letter, which was found on the computer of his western Pennsylvania home after he was crushed to death at age 50 by a tree he was cutting down. "The level of deception and exploitation that the NFL requires to do business still amazes me."
Frank, personal and philosophical, the letter, obtained by The Sun, amounts to a treatise from the grave. "Steve deserves this chance to continue to speak, and it was a godsend in a way to get this," said friend and author Matt Chaney, who said he plans to quote from the document in a book titled Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, due out early next year.
Courson, who became one of professional sports' first steroid whistle-blowers by detailing his use in a 1985 Sports Illustrated interview, wrote the letter to a former Pittsburgh Steelers teammate he played with on Super Bowl-winning teams in 1978 and 1979. Chaney says he believes Courson never sent it because it was unfinished.
Chaney provided it to The Sun on condition that the intended recipient not be publicly identified. Chaney and others said it was not Courson's goal to ruin retired players' reputations, but rather to look broadly at steroid use in sports.
"He was upset at the fact that these guys wouldn't come clean for him," said Denise Masciola, who was Courson's girlfriend. "But if Steve really wanted names to be mentioned, he would have done it. He didn't."
In the letter, which was authenticated by Masciola, Courson suggested that many current and former players are, in effect, living a lie by denying their use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. He said those players were pawns to a sport that continually required them to be bigger, stronger and faster.
"It's not complicated; either you behave like a stand up person or you don't," he wrote. "Finally, I guess it gets down to whether or not we want to be remembered historically for being stooges to the myth or for being freed by the truth."
Courson's letter focuses more on his era than on the present day. But he said steroid use had persisted.
"In the old days when we played, the drugs were legal and penalties for use were nonexistent," he wrote. "The more size and strength played a role in your job, the more pressure there was to use, plain and simple."
Courson, who studied steroid use and its effects after his retirement from football in 1985 and testified before Congress six months before he died, said use of the muscle-building drugs continued as players competed for increasingly lucrative salaries. The league has become more popular and prosperous than ever before.
The NFL began disciplining players for steroid use in 1989. Random, unannounced testing began in 1990.
Apprised of Courson's main points, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy this week defended the NFL's steroid-testing policies.
"We have had year-round random testing with immediate suspensions since 1990, and we conduct approximately 12,000 steroids tests a year," McCarthy said in an e-mail.
Retired quarterback Terry Bradshaw, a teammate of Courson's, recently told Sports Illustrated's Dan Patrick in a radio interview that he used steroids. He later said he was referring to corticosteroids, which are used to reduce inflammation. One Steeler of Courson's era, running back Rocky Bleier, has said he took legal, prescribed steroids but didn't abuse them. Most other players have stayed silent, and a few have questioned Courson's claims.
Courson wrote that he came forward in 1985 because "it was so apparent with my physique and I thought it foolish to try to hide." He had told friends he was worried he had been a bad role model by using steroids.
After his NFL career ended, Courson was a motivational speaker, health-and-fitness educator and youth football coach.
He almost died in 1988 of an enlarged heart and related problems. But he wrote in his letter: "I have regained my health, conquered my addictions and re-affirmed my faith. The part that is upsetting to me is the realization now that I had to defend myself for almost 20 years for telling the absolute truth."
Below are excerpts from a 5,000-word letter that former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Steve Courson wrote to an ex-teammate. Friends recovered the document from the hard drive of Courson's computer after his death in a tree-cutting accident in late 2005. In April of that year, Courson - a Steeler from 1978 to 1983 and a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1984 and 1985 - appeared before a congressional committee to testify about steroid use in the NFL.