- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Bob Hazelton spent the days before Christmas in a Minneapolis hospital. He had fallen trying to get into a building not accessible to the handicapped, and doctors had to reflap the bone over the muscle above his left knee.

“They had to cut the bone a little bit and repad it with the major muscle in the thigh … so if I damage it again it won’t hit pure bone,” Hazelton said. “The bone is soft, and because the bone is soft you have to be real careful that you don’t fall or cause any major trauma.”

Hazelton knows all about major trauma. His life has been one major trauma.

Hazelton rested in his hospital bed, each of his legs amputated above the knee. He says his condition is the result of abusing steroids when he was a heavyweight fighter.

That is why he got angry when he saw athletes like Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield and Shane Mosley smiling after they testified before a San Francisco grand jury investigating the illegal production and distribution of performance-enhancing drugs — the fancy name for what generally are referred to as steroids.

“It is a synthetic sporting world. From hitting the home run to running for touchdowns, it is all drugs,” said Hazelton, 55. “Any record that has been broken in the last 10 years in the world of sports, steroids has played a part in it.”

Two former NFL players, Steve Courson of the Steelers and the late Lyle Alzado of the Raiders, often are held up as poster boys for the pitfalls of using illegal performance-enhancing substances. Alzado died of a brain tumor that he believed was caused by years of steroid abuse. Courson suffered heart damage he attributed to steroid use.

But perhaps the most disturbing and compelling example of the dangers of steroid use is Hazelton, one of the pioneers of the trend.

The 6-foot-6 Hazelton was a star in high school in the 1960s in Orlando, Fla., a standout in football, basketball and baseball. He grew up a Redskins fan and dreamed of one day playing in the NFL, dreams that still haunt him.

“To this day, I have a hard time watching football because I think of what could have been,” Hazelton said.

Family problems prompted him to join the Navy, which eventually discharged him because of a heart murmur. Hazelton wound up looking for work in Philadelphia, where he was born. He had tinkered with some amateur fighting and one day visited a South Philly gym at which heavyweights like Joe Frazier and Theotis Martin trained.

“I was a big fan of Muhammad Ali’s,” Hazelton said. “He made the sport look so glamorous. … I had the ability to do it. I had speed and great hands, but I didn’t like hitting or getting hit. I liked hitting in football, but not boxing.”

He had the skills to compete, though, and his height made him an intriguing fighter. He had a 7-2 record when he went to Las Vegas in December 1969 to fight the heavyweight division’s rising star, George Foreman. Hazelton was knocked out at 1:22 in the first round, but he lost the fight before he ever got in the ring. Hazelton weighed 183 pounds, giving up at least 40 to Foreman.

“When I saw Foreman, I knew it would be rough, but you try to catch lightning in a bottle,” Hazelton said. “The fight was stopped in the first round. I was hurt, but I wasn’t really hurt. I was cut, a nice gash inside my mouth, and I was sucking down some blood. But I knew what was going on. I had been knocked down twice, and the referee called it. I was overpowered.”

That would be a problem for Hazelton until a “friend” told him he knew a doctor in England who could even the playing field.

“The first one I ever took was dianabol,” Hazelton said. “That started putting some size on me quickly. I saw that it was working, and there were no side effects as far as I knew. So, I kept taking them and got up to 220 pounds. I came back to America and started fighting again. Things were different this time. I was strong, and I had attitude. I beat Manuel Ramos, the Mexican champion. I knocked him out in the first round.”

Hazelton kept fighting — and getting bigger and stronger. His weight increased to 230 pounds, then 240. He kept winning, too, and landed a fight with French heavyweight champion Lucien Rodriguez in May 1977. It was considered an important step in his career — so that meant stepping up the steroids.

“I was taking steroids like you wouldn’t believe,” Hazelton said. “I took a shot that day for the fight, three milligrams. My left leg was already hurting for about five weeks before the fight. It was swollen badly. I couldn’t do roadwork. But we tried to keep it quiet, and the fight went on.

“Arthur Mercante was the referee that night, and he had me winning all three rounds, but my leg was so fat and swollen that it was like a lead weight. I couldn’t move it. Rodriguez was catching me with left hooks and knocking me down, but he wasn’t hurting me. I lost because of the three-knockdown rule. By the third round, it was over.”

Hazelton’s nightmare, however, was just beginning. The steroid use had hardened the arteries in his legs so badly that they were nearly closed.

“I had a blood clot in my leg,” he said. “A good friend who was a doctor in Vegas did some tests and said, ‘You’ve got no blood flow to the leg. You’ll be lucky to walk across the room without it swelling up.’”

He kept fighting for another year and met former light heavyweight champion Bob Foster twice, losing in September 1977 and stopping him in the second round in June 1978. That bout was Foster’s last, but Hazelton’s career was over, too. His leg kept swelling, and, with a record of 28-5, he retired — but only from boxing, not from taking steroids.

“I was into getting bigger and bigger,” Hazelton said. “I started taking growth hormones and got up as high as 300 pounds. I loved working out, and I was in the gym every day. And I loved the power that came with it. I had so much anger sometimes after taking steroids, people told me later it looked as if my eyes were red and that they thought they were in a room with a devil.

“That made me feel good, that I had so much power that I could scare someone — that I was overpowering.”

Hazelton got work as a bodyguard and as security for musical acts. He was on tour with Van Halen in 1986 when someone noticed that the back of his left leg looked all wet through his clothes.

“I sat down on a stool and looked at it, and the calf was split open. There was just dead meat there,” Hazelton said. “It looked like someone took a knife and cut it open. It was infected, and the pus was spilling out.”

He flew back home to Florida and saw a doctor.

Two days later, doctors amputated his left leg above the knee.

It wasn’t a wake-up call.

“I went off the juice after that, but I was still working out,” Hazelton said. “Nine months later, I was trying to get back to work, to go on tour with Heart in Europe. So I started taking steroids again to make sure I was big and strong enough. I was even taking steroids for horses.”

Three weeks later, his right leg swelled up.

“Doctors told me gangrene had already sank in,” Hazelton said. “It was completely clotted up. They would have to take that leg, too.”

This amputation would nearly kill him. Hazelton was in the hospital for three months.

“The infection wouldn’t stop,” he said. “They kept going up and up and up. It was about three weeks before Christmas of 1987. The doctor came in at midnight. The bandage had come off. He came in to rewrap it.

“He said, ‘Don’t take it the wrong way, Bob, but I wish I had never taken this case. I can’t stop the infection. It seems like every time we think we have it under control, it keeps going up.’ They kept the leg open all the time, with a bandage over it, so it could breathe.”

Hazelton’s heart was damaged, as well. He had two heart attacks.

“It was then that I hit the point where I said something had to happen. I was going to die or live. I said a prayer asking to let me go home for Christmas. A week after the prayer, they did some tests and the infection was nearly gone. Two days before Christmas, the infection was gone and I was home.”

After losing both legs and nearly his life, Bob Hazelton finally found purpose in his life: warning others of the dangers of steroids. He has spent much of the past 15 years giving lectures to students and athletes, from high schools to the pro ranks, about his own nightmare from steroid abuse. He has privately counseled athletes and their family members who have sought him out for help.

“I had a baseball player’s wife call me once,” Hazelton said. “He was at the top of his game, one of the best players, and their marriage was in trouble. He was on steroids, and she wanted to know if there was a way she could approach him to get him off steroids.

“I said it is hard when guys get paid millions of dollars and they don’t see the side effects right away. I read in the paper six months later that they were divorced. And now he is having problems. It affected his whole personality.”

But Hazelton has grown tired of that purpose, because it seems to be such a lost cause. He sees the use of performance-enhancing substances growing faster than ever, and he sees attempts to stop it as futile.

“The last time I took steroids was when I took those shots in 1987, but sometimes I would be tempted to do it again to show people how bad things could be,” Hazelton said. “Do I have to die to show people how much damage steroids can cause?”

Hazelton now lives in Howard Lake, Minn., and is married for the second time. He still works out despite the loss of both legs. “I still have a good body,” he said. “I still pump iron. I can bench press 300 pounds.”

He would like to get into acting, he says. But his current commitment is to raise funds for prosthetic equipment for those who have lost limbs in Iraq. “I want to bring it over there myself,” Hazelton said.

There he will find people who welcome his help.

Here in America, where Hazelton has tried to save people from paying the price for their indulgences, his message seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

“These athletes are kidding themselves if they think they are getting away with using the juice,” Hazelton said. “They might not know what is causing that little pain in an arm or a leg. It could be what happened to me, your body breaking down, and then someday you find out the damage is irreversible.

“I spoke to Lyle Alzado before he passed away. That was very sad. By the time these athletes want help, it is often too late. By the time it hits you, this drug has no pity on you once it decides to take you.”

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