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"Hey Brad," Alzado growled, happy to see his protégé. "Can I buy you a Coke?"
Alzado was protective like that with Leggett. He had known him for years, as Brad's father, Earl, was the Raiders' defensive line coach. Brad had grown up around NFL camps, and when puberty left the boy tall and strong, Earl asked some of his players to work with his son to enhance his chances of one day becoming a pro football player. Alzado was especially generous with his time. He took Brad to the famed Gold's Gym in Venice Beach, showing him the cutting-edge training techniques of weight lifters.
They never talked about the drugs that Alzado spent $30,000 a year on to get big.
|Watch Outside the Lines put HGH under the microscope on ESPN, Jan. 21, at 9:30 a.m. ET. Go to the "OTL" website for more information.|
But such musings are not enough to keep Leggett from using some of the same substances.
"I do it for a while, I back off, I do it for a while," Leggett says, describe his drug cycles. "You know, very low doses. One [unit] a day is all I do."
Leggett is 41 now, just another former NFL player dealing with everyday aches. Drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1990, Leggett was gone from the league within three years because of a back injury that wouldn't heal. The endless supply of Vicodin tablets passed out in the New Orleans Saints locker room where he spent most of his brief career didn't provide relief; if anything, the pills made the injury worse by shutting down his body's natural alarm system. He tried chiropractors and acupuncture. Nothing worked.
Finally, seven years ago, seeking quality of life in retirement, Leggett got his hormone levels checked. The test, he says, suggested he was clinically deficient in testosterone and growth hormone. He was prescribed replacement doses of those hormones that brought him up to normal human levels, as defined and monitored by a Los Angeles doctor.
"Within a month, I just noticed that I felt like I had more energy," he says. "I felt like I was able to go out and start exercising, doing things I haven't done for years."Now, Leggett would appear to be the picture of physical fitness. During a workout at the Atlanta-area gym where he runs his nutrition and fitness business, Venice Nutrition, sweat rolls down a 6-foot-5 frame that is more sturdy than bulky. He talks softly and smiles easily. Without pleading, he insists he never used growth hormone or any testosterone-based drug during his playing career, though he can see room for the NFL allowing waivers to use the substances when medically appropriate and under league supervision.
He says he does not doubt there are dangers associated with these drugs. Introducing high levels of straight testosterone to a body can shut down the body's natural production of the hormone. Major side effects from abusing anabolic steroids -- pharmaceutical derivatives of testosterone that Leggett says he does not use for safety reasons -- can include liver and kidney cancer, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems and fits of rage. In some cases, young athletes have attempted suicide when the drugs are stopped. Less is known about HGH, though there's some evidence that it can grow the size of an existing tumor.
No figure in the history of American sports defined these potential harms more than Alzado. He died of a brain tumor, which, although there's no proof of such, theoretically could have been exacerbated by his HGH use (medical research has not established a link between steroids and brain cancer). He claimed the drugs that he had used since 1969, when he was an undersized college lineman, were mentally addicting. Extreme bouts of anger could erupt at any time; he once ripped the helmet off an opponent's head and threw it across the field. In a first-person piece in Sports Illustrated shortly before his death, he wrote, "It wasn't worth it. If you're on steroids or human growth hormone, stop. I should have."
The legend of Lyle Alzado does not distinguish between use and abuse.
But Leggett does.
"I would look at his situation like that of a bodybuilder, where the mentality is if one is good, 10 is better," he says. He suspects Alzado experimented in a reckless manner, employing more trial and error than medical science. "That's not the way I would ever recommend anybody do anything with hormone-replacement therapy," he says. "Through a doctor is the only way to do it, off your blood panels. And with monitoring, so you know it's safe."
His notion about proper use is supported by medical professionals who treat injuries to the pituitary gland, which secretes many of the body's most important hormones, including testosterone and growth hormone.
"When you go to supra-physiological levels, they certainly can have all sorts of other adverse side effects," says Dr. Dan Kelly, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery. "But what we're talking about here is replacing [hormones] to the normal physiological level in someone who's deficient. So we're taking them from down here and getting them back up to where they should be."
Major industry debates surround the practice of hormone-replacement therapy in respect to who exactly should qualify for treatment, particularly as it relates to HGH. Leggett's personal physician, Mark Gordon, contends that blood tests that measure hormone levels are sufficiently accurate to make a diagnosis of adult growth hormone deficiency. But increasingly, a follow-up stimulation test, in which chemicals are injected into the body in an attempt to provoke function of the gland, are recommended -- some say required -- for such an assessment.
Whatever the method employed, retired NFL players are reaching out to doctors for prescriptions.
"I know quite a few," Leggett says. "And when they are on it, they can play with their kids and do things. When they are off it, man, they are in misery."Count Pat Harlow among that group. Leggett's former line mate at USC, Harlow was a first-round draft choice of the New England Patriots in 1991, the 11th player taken overall. Over the next eight years -- the last three with the Oakland Raiders -- he endured 13 surgeries, three on his back. He never kept track of the number of concussions he may have had, though there was the time in Cleveland when Pepper Johnson upended him and he was knocked out cold. That one he remembers. And when his career was done, so, too, was much of his body. Harlow is not the kind to complain. He's a football player, trained to suck it up. So let's put the positive spin on his daily grind. He hopes to be able to run again -- once his doctor says he's old enough to get the artificial knee that he needs. Two bad shoulders allow him to throw the ball in the backyard with his three grade-school age boys, for no more than 10 minutes. There are times when he sleeps well, in between the five- to six-week periods when the back pain is too extreme to rest. He's out of a job right now because, with the medical condition of his body so unpredictable, he doesn't feel he can make a 9-to-5 commitment to an employer; but he's hoping the real-estate license he recently acquired provides the necessary work flexibility. Three years ago, he began using HGH after a doctor determined his hormone levels had "bottomed out," he says. He goes on the drug for six months, gets off of it for a year, and repeats. He recently started using testosterone gels, as well, which he says have brought some relief. "My joints are pretty much trashed," says Harlow, who now lives in Flagstaff, Ariz.. "I never feel great. But when I'm off [the hormones], I feel much worse." Like Leggett, he says he never took any banned drug during his playing career. "I'd never advocate letting players using these drugs to get an advantage over some other player because I wouldn't want someone to do that to me," he says. But he does say the NFL should consider letting players use hormones for short periods to recover from surgery, given that they are under so much pressure from clubs to return to the field. (Under federal law, a patient has to be diagnosed with adult growth hormone deficiency to be prescribed HGH; there are no such legal restrictions on testosterone or steroids, so doctors can prescribe those drugs if they think there is a good surgical or medical purpose). Many other NFL veterans struggle mightily post-career. A 1994 survey from the players' association found that significant numbers were depressed, fat and managing chronic pain. As players have gotten larger over the decades -- the typical lineman now weighs about 100 pounds more than his peers during World War II -- more of them leave the game with injuries. A Scripps Howard check last year of 3,850 deceased players found that NFL players are more than twice as likely as Major League Baseball players to have died before their 50th birthday. Frequently, their much heavier bodies failed in retirement.
Growth hormone deficiency has been linked to obesity, weakened bones, loss of energy and lean muscle mass. And emerging medical research suggests that the head trauma seen in high-contact sports could in some cases be a cause of such deficiencies through damage to the pituitary gland, which sits in a bony cavity at the base of the brain. Football players have never been evaluated as a group, but the physical play of the NFL game has left Leggett wondering if that could have led to his shortfall of hormones.
"It's like being in a car wreck every day," Leggett says of the bodily collisions. "Unless you actually do it, there is no way to really understand what a player goes through."
There are anecdotal cases of athletes developing hormonal deficiencies after their heads got rocked hard. Sam Myers was a high school football player in Troup, Texas, in 1992 when he got hit on the helmet by two defensive backs. He stayed in the game after suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI), but later he fell into a coma and endured years of physical rehabilitation. Finally, in 2005, his pituitary was checked for damage as part of a medical research project, and adult growth hormone deficiency was discovered, according to Dr. Brent Masel, president and medical director of the Transitional Learning Center at Galveston.
Since then, Myers has received therapeutic doses of the hormone, supervised by doctors.
"When Dr. Masel told me that, everything made sense," Myers says. "I was always wondering why I was so tired. I had to work really hard to get strength and muscle mass back. It's been hard for me to get physically fit. Now, I'm more active."
Football accounts for nearly two-thirds of the estimated 62,816 TBIs incurred in high school sports each year, according to a 1999 survey published in the Journal of American Medical Association. Prep football, at its most dangerous, is the domain of 280-pound senior linemen occasionally pulverizing freshmen tailbacks half their size. Given the potential for pituitary damage, however rare, players should get checked for hormonal deficits when head trauma becomes a concern, Masel says.
But it's the violence of the game at the higher levels that compelled Leggett to act in a manner that at first blush would seem contrary to the parting message of Alzado.
Leggett thinks of his father, Alzado's coach, now retired on his sprawling Mississippi ranch.
"He played 12 years with the Bears, the Saints and the Rams," Leggett says. "Two artificial knees, two artificial shoulders, elbow surgery, ankle surgeries, carpal tunnel [syndrome in the hands]. I don't want to live like my father. I want to be able to do what I want, when I want and not be in the pain that he is in every single day.
"I look at my dad, and I do not want to be like that."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.