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The Life


January 21, 2003
Big Night
ESPN The Magazine

Welcome to the show. Just get here? Don't worry. The good stuff hasn't started yet. The guys are still backstage, waiting for the lights to come up. Out front, Auburn's Memorial Coliseum is bulging with armies of bodybuilders, here to watch eight NFLers compete for the title of "Strongest Man in Football." Two worlds, two cultures, are about to collide head-on. You can't possibly know it, but in this celebration of size, football -- heck, sports -- is turning a corner. Good thing the CBS cameras are here. This date needs to be remembered: April 18, 1980, the night strength went showbiz.

NFL strongmen
Their muscles brought them fame, but their methods may have cost them their lives.
Come peek behind the curtain, as the contestants game-face each other in the changing room. Three of them are Steelers -- Mike Webster, Jon Kolb, Steve Furness -- and gods to this crowd. They were the butt of jokes when they started pumping iron in the boiler room of Three Rivers Stadium. But they've won four of the last six Super Bowls, so who's laughing now? Over there is Bob Young, whose Cardinals uniform is on the event poster that hangs in the local coffee shop. At 37, he's the league's oldest lineman, the great hope of graying players. The guy wrapping his wrists next to him is his lesser-known linemate, Terry Stieve. And those three in the corner: Lyle Alzado, Joe DeLamielleure, and Joe Klecko? Each of these stars is the strongest in his locker room.

Talk about right place, right time. Reality TV is being born, on the sets of contrived sports shows like this one, not to mention cheesier relatives like Battle of the Network Stars. And what started a decade ago, with Broadway Joe, has trickled down. Every first-stringer with good cheekbones has an agent, and thanks to Pumping Iron, which has just made Arnold a star, Hollywood is rushing to cash in. (Klecko is just back from filming a cameo in the next Burt Reynolds flick, Smokey and the Bandit II.)

But this CBS Sports Spectacular isn't your typical afternoon filler. The guys here are pioneers. Soon, gyms will blossom into training complexes. Workout incentives will fatten contracts. Linemen will lug the weight of a first-grader in extra muscle. The (fore)arms race is heating up. That's one reason Strongest Man in Football will matter in 2003. Another? Half the eight men you're sneaking a peek at will be dead.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Announcer Tom Brookshier is saying, "Welcome, folks, to a highly unusual sporting event." And here's the man responsible for the show, just now walking onto the spotlit stage.

Terry Todd is an English professor at Auburn. He's also a well-known former weight lifter with an eye for opportunity. Todd cannily pitched this show to muscle in on the increasingly lucrative strength scene. In his invite to gym owners around the country, he wasn't shy about using the NFL stars as a lure. He hopes you'll stay overnight, too: Tomorrow he's hosting a meet with the biggest names in the weight game. Thinking big, he calls it the World Series of Powerlifting.

Todd also heads something called the National Strength Research Center, which is sponsoring the weekend (not to mention lending it an air of authority). He describes it as a place where "scientists and academicians can share ideas and learn from top-level athletes." Still, not everyone is sure the muscle tank belongs on campus.

See that flier at your feet? For tickets to the show, it says, see someone named Tony Fitton. The red-haired Brit calls himself a research associate at the NSRC, but tickets aren't all he can get you: He's one of the country's largest dealers of illegal steroids.

That's the underbelly of what's going on tonight. Behind the curtain of a TV show that celebrates hard work, short cuts are being sought and sold. Those seeking an edge, though, had better act fast. By 1985, Fitton will be doing time for trafficking -- and locker rooms will be overrun with guys who'll do anything to look like the eight men now strutting onto the Auburn arena floor.

***

Even from the cheap seats, you can spot Bob Young. A 295-pound hulk with a white-man 'fro and Cardinal-red workout shorts tends to stand out. He's the scariest looking guy in the house. He's also the most nervous. Over his first eight seasons, the Texan was better known to hotel bartenders than to NFL fans, subsisting on beer, devil's food cake and cigarettes. Then, in the summer of '74, he walked into a gym -- and walked out 50 pounds heavier. When he showed up at camp, his coaches were dumbstruck. Young's new body amazed even him; he seemed to have gained a step. "I was an average guard six years ago, and last year I made All-Pro at 37 -- probably the oldest anyone's done it," he proudly tells interviewer Jayne Kennedy during the show. Then he pauses, as if about to thank the gods. "It's mainly because of weight lifting."

What Big Bob isn't sharing with Kennedy is that he can't keep this up much longer. His back is killing him from a hit he took in February's Pro Bowl, and each one of his years appears in worry lines around his eyes. In deference, maybe you shouldn't watch as he steps in for the overhead lift, the first of tonight's five events. If you do, you'll see his legs quivering -- actually, his whole body is shaking. His eyes look this close to popping out.

As he limps off stage after mustering just four lifts, the end of his career is hot breath on his neck. In a few months, St. Louis will cut him. He'll already be living in the past when he meets his third wife, Dr. Mickey Bush, in 1985, and admits to her, "I never felt better than when I was on steroids." It's a gospel he'll spread as a line coach. In June 1985, Young will tell The Sporting News, "Steroids help you if you know what you're doing ... I don't know how many people on this team [the USFL Houston Gamblers] take them, and I've told them that I don't want to know." But soon, he won't be much of an advertisement for steroids. He'll be a 52-year-old obese diabetic and a two-pack-a-day smoker with a bad heart. In June 1995, four months after being fired by the Oilers, he'll be getting dressed for a party when his body heaves twice. And that will be that. He'll never have to answer his wife's questions about how he'll handle an autumn without football.

Today in Auburn, though, he still feels strong enough to handle a showboat like Lyle Alzado.

***

Alzado is odd man out here. Unlike Young or Klecko, the ex-truck driver, Alzado doesn't believe in power lifting. And he doesn't buy into Todd's scientific mumbo-jumbo. He's competing for the same reason he boxed in an exhibition nine months ago with the retired Muhammad Ali: He needs the stage. (He's arrived in a white three-piece suit, for heaven's sake.)

"I can squat a thousand pounds," Alzado's been boasting all day. But it won't take long for the others to make him for a poseur. As the second event, the 250-pound curl, winds down, he's leaking steam like a New York manhole. In the next couple of events, he'll simply give up, leaving the tote board to carry zeroes by his name.

Alzado won't shake tonight. Not ever. He's been painfully insecure about his body since he was a 190-pound kid in Brooklyn. It's why he started popping Dianabol at little Yankton College in South Dakota while turning himself into a 300-pound QB killer who didn't just threaten the lives of opposing linemen, but those of their kids. It's why he grew himself into the madman of the Broncos' Orange Crush. But after leading the team to Super Bowl XII, the 30-year-old defensive end also became a target for management, who shipped him to Cleveland rather than renegotiate his contract. "Lyle never had much self-esteem," his sister Janice will say years later. "That trade devastated him."

Tonight, Alzado is only a year removed from that trade. In the interim, he's moved into a mansion in Brentwood (around the corner from O.J.) and started hanging out with the likes of Goldie Hawn and the Hudson Brothers. He arrived at Browns camp last season in the only Rolls many players had ever seen up close. But he's still riddled with self-doubt, which is why he's let himself be lured to Auburn. And he's walked into a humiliation trap.

When Alzado leaves tomorrow, with the wide brim of his Superfly fedora turned down to deflect the snickers, he'll head back to his musclehead buddies in Venice Beach to play catch-up, taking ever-stronger steroid cocktails. And by the time he resurfaces at Cleveland's minicamp, he'll be down to a cut 250 pounds. He'll also slip in and out of moods faster than a soap opera diva. "A temperamental mess," Browns QB Brian Sipe will call him. Two years later, the team will beg the Raiders to take this roiling bundle of rage off their hands for an eighth-rounder. "Lyle always dreamed about being a star in LA," his second wife, Cindy, will say. Unfortunately, he won't get much time to dream -- not once he's locked into 12-week steroid cycles that have his body revving at warp speed. By the time he helps the Raiders take Super Bowl XVIII, that wiry Brooklyn kid is a hazy memory.

Only when he develops inoperable brain cancer in 1991 will the 42-year-old Alzado stop to reflect, telling a journalist: "If I had known that I would be this sick, I would have tried to make it in football on my own, naturally." He'll be buried less than a year later, along with the memories of this Auburn night, where he'll finish next to last and swear never to be so embarrassed again.

***

The only contestant to fare worse than Alzado doesn't feel any such pressure. To be fair, Joe DeLamielleure isn't feeling much of anything; he's too exhausted after the first two events. The ninth of 10 children raised by a Michigan bar owner, DeLamielleure lifts day and night. For the last seven years, he's been the most decorated member of the Bills' Electric Company O-line (so named because it gives Simpson his juice). He hasn't missed a start in 103 games. Although he's had plenty of opportunity to dabble with enhancers, his wife, Gerri, a nurse, won't let him. "She doesn't want to have kids with fins," is his joke.

But as the squat rack beckons in tonight's third event, DeLamielleure sees he's made a terrible mistake showing up here. "This is nuts," he thinks, watching Big Bob Young make up for his poor overhead lift by doing 22 reps with 550 pounds on his shoulders. "These guys are getting stronger." Just before his turn, DeLamielleure tells Todd, "I'm gonna skip this." Later, he calls his wife to grumble: "Either there's been a great leap in evolution, or some of these sons-of-bitches have found a pill."

The weekend isn't a total bust. DeLamielleure hits it off with Alzado, who goes to Cleveland singing his praises, and the Browns pick him up before the season for five more years. In retirement, he'll be happy -- and healthy. The only bitter pill he'll swallow will be waiting 13 years, until January 2003, to make the Canton short list. "I quit when I saw the guys getting bigger and I couldn't compete," he'll say. "No one remembers that I did it the right way. It doesn't count for a thing."

***

If you were to walk up to Terry Stieve and ask what "the right way" is, he'd shrug. The little-known guard is still struggling to balance the morality of using performance enhancers with competitive reality. "If you get beat on third-and-long on Sunday, the announcer doesn't say, 'Terry Stieve got beat by a guy on steroids,'" he says years later. "I guess if they take it, you need to take it." For two months during the 1979 season, Stieve used one of the newfangled anabolics making the rounds. Then he lost his sex drive. After seeing a doctor, he's decided to lower the dosage for training camp.

Stieve doesn't know whether to trust Todd, or what to make of the "strength symposium" he's attended this morning as part of the weekend's events. A lecture called "Pharmacologic Considerations in Strength Sports" clarified nothing. Stieve does wish the U.S. were more like Europe, where athletes don't have to sneak around to get back-of-the-envelope advice from gym rats and TV producers. Then he wouldn't have to guess about doses and side effects. But that's a discussion for a long-off day, when he'll sit at home, a healthy 48-year-old real estate agent, counting players he knows who have died; stopping at 27, too disgusted to go on.

***

One of them is that bushy-haired guy over there scoping the pretty girls in the crowd. Steve Furness is a second-stringer's patron saint. In eight years as a backup with Pittsburgh, he's been to four Super Bowls. Furness keeps plugging away at the Red Bull Inn, a tavern in the heart of deer country where the waitresses can diagram a stunt and where a little basement gym catches the smell of rib eye wafting through the vents, making you hungry for meat in the morning.

Furness is the ultimate Red Bull Boy. If he likes you, he'll flick towels at your open wounds, then let you yell back, "Cut it out, Buckethead." That's what Mean Joe Greene tagged him after Furness dared him to rush headfirst at his helmet. Too bad Buckethead's days at the Bull are numbered; the 29-year-old role player is about to be traded. It will take him a dozen years to get back to Steeltown (as an assistant coach), and then just two more to lose Bill Cowher's trust. He'll be out of the NFL by 1994.

Furness will try to sell real estate until he realizes he's bad at it. His marriage of 25 years will dissolve. Finally, he'll hawk synthetic turf to colleges, flashing a Super Bowl ring as a sales gimmick. Maybe by the time he gets back home from a business trip on Feb.9, 2000, he'll be feeling good about himself again. Maybe when he cracks that beer, a new girlfriend on his lap, he'll have put the Red Bull behind him. We'll never know. His 49-year-old heart will stop before the bottle reaches his lips.

"Is it reasonable to wonder if steroids had anything to do with it?" close friend and teammate John Banaszak will say years after the funeral. "Yes, I think it is."

***

Lyle Alzado
Alzado blamed steroids for his brain cancer.
There it is, the problem in a nutshell: We know some of the guys on stage tonight are using; how can we be sure the others aren't? As for what it will do to those who are -- well, after tonight, it's only going to get worse. Anytime anyone breaks a record or pushes an envelope, the whisper chorus will take note. Like secondary smoke, being around steroids is damaging enough. Even now, it's an unwanted distraction as we focus on the night's final battle.

Jon Kolb, the Steelers tackle with round cheeks that run like a river into a big ol' cleft chin, was supposed to take part in a rival NBC creation, The World's Strongest Man, but passed when he learned he'd have to wear a sumo suit. He accepted Todd's invitation only after being assured the event would be more "scientific." In the interest of science, he's brought linemate Mike Webster.

Webster is perfectly engineered for a high-rep endurance exhibition like this one. His arms are stubby, cutting down the distance of lifts; his fingers are like the sausages he ate as a farmboy in Wisconsin. He willed himself to Hall of Fame stature by pushing a weight sled through potato fields, and he can't stop pushing. The humid, thundering Three Rivers boiler room is his second home in-season. It's where the 255-pound Iron Mike bulked up to 265, soaked in sweat, refusing to yield a moment to idleness.

Webster is a humble champion. He cut his jersey sleeves so tackles couldn't grab him. His imitators -- a generation of men in the trenches -- mostly want to show off their biceps. Flamboyance is beyond Webster. When he comes off the stage, you could ask him why he's still going full-bore, but we'll save you the time. "It's because I don't want anyone taking my job," he'd say modestly. But if you could look deeper, you'd see a thin line between modesty and paranoia. It's what makes him cling to the barbells like a rosary. "We were awed by Mike," linemate Tunch Ilkin will say. "But toward the end, his obsessions weren't healthy."

Take a long look. Because when Webster hangs 'em up after 17 seasons and Lord knows how many head shots, he'll quickly fade away. His savings will dwindle with his memory, his life will darken as his brain dims. He'll spurn team reunions, not wanting anyone to see the teeth he's lost or the holes in his Kmart clothes. And on Sept. 22, 2002, he'll wake up, shivering and purple, as one side of his heart shuts down. The next day, he'll slip into a coma, and then away for good at 50.

Admit it: You're thinking what everyone else is, even some teammates. Steroids. Hold on to that thought. It's late in the show now, and bodies have dropped. The 350-pound bench press, the night's pivotal event, has become a showdown between two Steelers with eight rings. Shhh. It's Mike's turn. Lean toward the stage to hear the sound he makes as he raises the bar -- it's the sound of a horse itching to get out of a burning stable. Watch as he pushes the bar 10 times, then 11. He's in another place. Maybe he hears the sled runners pushing through a plowed field or the claptrap of a boiler. Or maybe he just hears us, pounding our hands together as he goes up for the 12th ... the 13th ... the 14th ... and, tell Mama and Jesus, the 15th time. It's way too much for runner-up Kolb, who guts out "only" 11. Iron Mike is the man tonight.

Later, when the crowds are gone, Stieve will find Mike in the hotel restaurant, alone. The two don't know each other well, but curiosity cuts through the propriety. "Mike," Stieve says, leaning forward. "What are you up to? What are you on?"

"For the next five minutes," Stieve will remember many years later, "I got the biggest lecture I've ever heard about the dangers of steroids. To this day, I don't believe Mike Webster touched them."

***

Not bad for a $6.00 ticket, huh? Be sure to catch the next few installments, because in 1983, CBS will air the last show and shelve the tapes someplace where they'll grow dusty and forgotten. Months after the final airing, Todd will experience a conversion. As San Diego prosecutors close in on his colleague, steroid kingpin Fitton, Todd will be reborn as a critic of performance-enhancing drugs. "I'm proud to have helped destroy the myth that weight lifting makes athletes slow," he'll say, from his teaching perch at the University of Texas in Austin. "But I wonder about my role creating a contest that was likely to be won by a steroid-using football player, and about the role I've played as a cheerleader for weight training in football." 

In January 1986, Pete Rozelle will add steroids to the NFL's banned-substance list. Of course, by then the genie will be long out of the syringe. The league will continue to grow into a land of giants. During the Cowboys' '90s reign, the average weight of its linemen will be 300 pounds. By Opening Day 2002, 315 players will dent the scales that deeply. Thirty-eight quarterbacks ... quarterbacks! ... will be as big as Iron Mike was when he first wore the black-and-gold.

If you're looking for the place it all started, you can do worse than the day Terry Todd brought eight NFL players to Auburn and signed them up for a public exhibition whose costs are only now making themselves known.

Welcome to the show.

This article appears in the February 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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