Dan Daly: Sticking a needle in the Steel Curtain

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The last thing the NFL needs right now is Terry Bradshaw prattling on about using steroids - any kind of steroids - in the 1970s. The Spygate scandal, after all, continues to reverberate like a helmet-to-helmet hit, and hardly a day goes by, it seems, when some player, past or present, doesn’t wind up in the poky.

The league has been only too happy in recent years to let baseball look like the one with the performance-enhancing-drug problem. But now here comes Chatty Terry talking on Dan Patrick’s radio show about using steroids to hasten the healing process - but not, he claimed, “to get bigger and stronger and faster.”

Bradshaw later said he was referring to cortisone shots - corticosteroids - which aren’t illegal and, in football, are about as common as Ace bandages. And maybe he was. I mean, when I look back at Terry in those days, I don’t think “Dianabol,” I think “Propecia.”

But Bradshaw quarterbacked one of the most famous teams in history, the Steel Curtain Steelers, and some of his mates, we later discovered, had dealings with anabolic steroids. Steve Courson, an offensive guard for Pittsburgh from 1978 to ‘83, wrote a book about his abuse, “False Glory,” and several others have also been linked to the stuff, including Hall of Famer Mike Webster.

So with aspersions being cast on the Patriots’ three Super Bowl wins because of their Robert Ludlum tactics, the NFL certainly doesn’t want the Steelers’ four titles in the ‘70s being revisited. Especially because - who knows? - there might be more disclosures.

And then where would we be? Before long, people might want to dig up Jim Thorpe again, just to make sure he wasn’t On Something when he ran for all those touchdowns for the Canton Bulldogs.

The story of the NFL and steroids - the whole story, that is - isn’t widely known, and the league would just as soon keep it that way. Fortunately, some good reporting has been done on the subject by various publications, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and York (Pa.) Daily Record among them.

It might surprise you to learn, for instance, that the San Diego Chargers were being dispensed steroids during their training camp in 1963. Ron Mix, the Chargers’ great offensive tackle, wrote a camp diary for Sports Illustrated that year, and the July 22 entry read:

“Immediately after lunch a special meeting was held, and [coach] Sid [Gillman] introduced Alvin Roy to the squad. Alvin Roy, Sid said in his introduction, represented what every pro football team would have in the future: a strength coach.

“After the meeting, the squad went to an open area beside the dressing room where weight-training facilities had been set up. Mr. Roy demonstrated the exercises that we would be doing each day and then checked the squad individually to make sure we were using the proper technique.”

Only recently did Mix reveal to journalist-author Matt Chaney, “They had [steroid] pills set out in cereal bowls. We were told to take a pill after every meal, and we did. And they actually worked. Normally in training camp, I’d feel my strength going down, but it actually increased.”

The Chargers won the AFL championship that year (though Mix said most players stopped taking the pills when they learned of the dangers). Later, Roy was with the Chiefs when they won Super Bowl III. He was also on the staff of a Cowboys team that went to the Super Bowl. Hmmm.

One of Gillman’s assistants in San Diego, by the way, was Chuck Noll - the same Chuck Noll who coached the Steelers to glory. In 1970, the year after he took over in Pittsburgh, Noll hired as his strength coach Louis Riecke, a former weightlifter who had finished second in the 1961 U.S. nationals … thanks to regular doses of Dianabol prescribed by a doctor.

Riecke and the Steelers have always denied promoting performance-enhancing drugs in the ‘70s, but the confessions of Courson and the rest paint an alternative picture. We’ll probably never know how widespread steroid use was back then, how much it figured in the Steelers’ success, but it’s not a cloud the NFL wants hovering over one of its greatest dynasties, a team that’s represented in Canton by nine players and a coach.

But then Bradshaw starts yakking on a radio show and, rightly or wrongly, the whole question comes up again: Did they or didn’t they - and to what extent?

To think there wasn’t something going on is to ignore the ultracompetitive nature of football players, never mind coaches and owners. As Riecke’s steroid-pushing doctor once said, “I honestly believe that if I’d told people back then that rat manure would make them strong, they’d have eaten rat manure.”

About the Author
Dan Daly

Dan Daly

Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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