Even before the controversy surfaced involving Dr. Richard Rydze, the team's longtime physician who stepped aside last season after authorities revealed he'd run up a six-figure credit card bill purchasing human growth hormone, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a history of associations with performance-enhancing drugs.
There is no indication that Rydze provided the undetectable performance-enhancing drugs he bought to players. But a number of news reports, player interviews and books have long suggested that the Steelers were among the earlier teams to use steroids, which weren't banned by the NFL until 1989, on a widespread basis.
In 2005, for example, Jim Haslett, then the coach of the New Orleans Saints, created a stir when he said the general belief during his playing days (1979-87) with Buffalo and the New York Jets was that the Steelers of the late '70s helped popularize steroid use in the pro game.
"It started, really, in Pittsburgh," Haslett said. "They got an advantage on a lot of football teams. They were so much stronger [in the] '70s, late '70s, early '80s. They're the ones who kind of started it."
When Steelers owner Dan Rooney challenged his statements four years ago, Haslett expressed regret that they might have hurt the organization, but said, "I have a lot of respect for this league, but it's naïve to think people weren't using enhancing drugs before they were illegal."
Haslett, a linebacker, said he began using steroids after he was drafted by the Bills. He was an assistant coach for the Steelers from 1997 to '99, and finished the 2008 season as the St. Louis Rams' interim head coach.
Perhaps the most damning documentation of the Steelers' history with steroids, though, came from one of their players, the late Steve Courson, an offensive lineman who detailed his own use in a 1985 Sports Illustrated article and whose 1991 book, "False Glory: The Steve Courson Story," cast performance-enhancing drugs as a lingering league-wide problem. In the book, he wrote that 75 percent of the offensive linemen on the Steelers' late-1970s Super Bowl teams had used steroids.
Before he died, Courson, living alone in a mountain cabin an hour southeast of the old Three Rivers Stadium site, also crafted an almost 5,300-word letter that served as his final treatise on doping in pro football. The unfinished, unsent, philosophical musings were discovered on his computer after Courson was crushed to death in 2005 as he cut down a tree.
In the letter, Courson didn't name names, and he'd avoided fingering specific teammates and peers in his earlier public statements -- including testimony about performance enhancers in front of Congress in April 2005, seven months before he died -- as well. But he criticized what he viewed to be a conspiracy of silence among players and team and league officials that, he wrote, has kept the game from adequately addressing its problem with steroids and other substances.
"The level of deception and exploitation that the NFL requires to do business still amazes me," Courson wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN.com. "This is particularly true in the area of performance-enhancing drugs. The coercive aspect of this and the system's refusal to acknowledge that obvious fact speaks volumes for the level of control that it employs I believe eventually the magnitude of doping in elite football will be exposed. In many ways it already has been."
In the course of ESPN.com's efforts to trace the Steelers' history with performance-enhancing drugs, it became apparent that many ex-players are still unwilling to talk about allegations of chemical augmentation and the locker room culture of their days in the league. Even the ex-Steeler to whom Courson wrote the letter discovered on his computer -- Courson's girlfriend, Denise Masciola, said she hand-delivered it to the ex-teammate shortly after Courson's death -- denied its existence in a recent face-to-face interview. Several of Courson's friends asked ESPN.com to withhold the ex-teammate's name, saying Courson wouldn't have wanted to embarrass him.
And many players are especially reluctant to address speculation that the use of muscle-building drugs might be connected to the high rate of deaths among former Steelers, particularly those suffering heart ailments. Those numbers are hard to dismiss, even if there is no pattern or clue linking the deaths to steroids. Since 2000, 17 former Steelers have died before they reached the age of 59.
However, several former players did speak with ESPN.com about the Steelers' familiarity in the past with performance-enhancing drugs:
• Rick Moser, special-teams captain on the Steelers' 1978 and 1979 Super Bowl teams, told ESPN.com that steroid and amphetamine use was "no big deal" back in the day because neither substance was banned. He recalled one offensive lineman having such a low-fat, chiseled physique that his nickname was "Dianabol."
• Former running back and Vietnam War hero Rocky Bleier confirmed to ESPN.com that he, too, relied on the muscle-building steroid Dianabol to kick-start his offseason conditioning.
• Offensive guard Terry Long tried to kill himself with rat poison after he tested positive for steroids in 1991. (He died in 2005 from drinking antifreeze.) An ex-Steelers lineman told ESPN.com, "To be honest, Terry Long, for example, was 5-foot-10. OK, how is Terry Long going to play NFL football at 5-10 without [performance-enhancing drugs]?"
According to an affidavit obtained by ESPN.com, Courson told Steelers physician Dr. Anthony Yates about his steroid use during a 1983 preseason examination. In the July 15, 1997 affidavit, signed by Yates and filed in an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by Courson against the NFL Retirement Board, the team doctor said he warned Courson of the dangers, but because of patient-doctor privacy issues, he did not report Courson's steroid use to the Steelers or the NFL. Yates remains with the Steelers and also serves as physician to several former players.
Yates referred ESPN.com's requests for comment to team spokesman Dave Lockett, who said the doctor had no memory of the statement sworn to in the affidavit.
"I don't think he has any recollection of a conversation with Steve," Lockett said. "That is something he doesn't recall."
The Steelers' spokesman accurately noted that Courson's drug use came at a time when the league had no steroid policy.
Bleier, now 62, said Dianabol and other steroids didn't carry a stigma back in his playing days. They weren't illegal or banned and the media was still decades away from jumping on the topic, so it wasn't considered scandalous to cycle through steroids while weightlifting during the offseason. The muscle-building drugs -- first popularized by West Coast bodybuilders in the 1950s -- were part of an evolving locker room environment that mirrored the businesslike growth of the pro game, he indicated.
"It wasn't so much a culture, but a mindset," said Bleier, now a Pittsburgh construction company owner who also travels the country as a motivational speaker. "Meaning this: 'You asked me to play this game, OK. And to be the best that I can be.' So all of a sudden [steroids] become available. And you go, 'OK, fine, it helps.' It becomes part of your training routine. Not, again, to abuse. But just as an aid, like everything else.
"It's not illegal. Doctors can get it for you. You can get it over the counter or whatever it is. So you do it You wanted to compete. You wanted to play."
Former defensive end L.C. Greenwood said he never dabbled in steroids. Even so, late in his career, he said he became suspicious of some teammates, most of whom played on the offensive line.
"Some of them got bigger and more muscular," said Greenwood, a member of the Steelers' famed Steel Curtain defensive line. "Like I say, you see them in January and they look a certain way. Then you saw them again in July or when training camp started and they looked a certain way, which was different. So something was going on."
Dr. Julian Bailes said he was already familiar with talk about the Steelers and widespread doping when he joined the team's medical staff in 1988. Though Bailes said he never witnessed it in his 10 seasons there, he suspected some players were using, based on their appearance. He suggested NFL usage peaked in the 1980s and '90s.
"I think the NFL and pro sports has followed all the evolution of the designer drugs that we have heard about in recent years -- the whole BALCO, Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco allegations in baseball," said Bailes, now the chairman of the department of neurosurgery at West Virginia University's School of Medicine and author of "When Winning Costs Too Much: Steroids, Supplements, and Scandal in Today's Sports World." "If there is a serious intent to cheat and beat the system, there are always those out there who can do that. I think if you are really interested in abusing the system, there are ways to go to certain labs, especially in the offseason, and experiment and find out how much you can use [and not fail a drug test].
"Also, with HGH, they are nondetectable. Nobody knows this for a fact, but my feeling is there is still probably a fair amount of HGH use which goes on. And I think there are serious cheaters who cheat either by using relatively smaller amounts and learning to predict how their blood levels will rise or who cycle in the offseason, or use designer drugs in a few cases."
But that kind of speculation spikes the blood pressure of Jon Kolb, who played offensive tackle for the Steelers from 1969 to '81 and was ranked among the league's strongest players during his day. Later, after his playing career, he was the Steelers' strength and conditioning coach, but left the team when Chuck Noll retired after the 1991 season. He voiced disgust with Haslett's suggestion that some of the '70s Steelers were steroid users.
And though Kolb, who now is an assistant football coach at Grove City High School about an hour north of Pittsburgh and the director of a fitness-wellness program at an orthopedic rehabilitation facility in Grove City, said he cared for Courson as a teammate, his tell-all book was never a coffee table favorite.
"My opinion is it wasn't part of the game," Kolb said of the so-called steroid culture in Pittsburgh. "Look at the team picture. Look at our guys. People say, 'Well, you had the big arms.' Well, we worked out. We had big legs, too. Look at the linebackers for the Steelers now. They got big arms. So anybody with big arms does steroids? Well, maybe they are actually getting up, working out, lifting weights. Maybe they are eating extra protein.
"Again, it is a real sore spot in that it's like, 'OK, you guys won four Super Bowls, so obviously you were cheating?' I disagree. I don't think it was that much, [and] I was there."
Another former Steelers offensive lineman, Ted Petersen, played for eight years in the late '70s and '80s. He said he supports Courson's claim about "significant" drug use throughout the league, but he believes it is inaccurate to single out Pittsburgh.
"I asked a strength coach one time, and it wasn't with the Steelers, if he could give me a workout plan and maybe a nutritional plan as well," said Petersen. "And he said, 'Well, have you considered anabolics? Have you considered a cycle?' In other words, steroids.
"That was another NFL team. So I would suspect there were guys on that team."
Petersen said most of what he knew about the drug culture, he learned from Courson. He described his old friend as a truth-teller and an intellectual eccentric. He recalled Courson's frustration with the league and officials who turned a blind eye to the early steroid problem.
Courson, Petersen said, was hurt by the failure of other players to follow his lead and discuss steroid usage, especially since none of them had broken the law or violated a league ban.
"I never really told this to Steve, but I'm thinking, 'What good will that do?'" said Petersen, now the athletic director at Upper St. Clair High School in an affluent Pittsburgh suburb. "Even before they were outlawed, there was such a stigma that it would be more acceptable if someone admitted or was caught using cocaine rather than steroids.
"Maybe things don't rock people's boats anymore. But the accusation or the actual admission of using steroids was really a black eye on the player back in those days."
Bailes, the former Steelers physician, said he understands the continued silence.
"They don't want to appear that they were users, or knowledgeable," he said. "I think they worry about the negative effects on themselves, the effects and repercussions from their peers and former teammates. I'm not sure they feel there is a whole lot for an individual to gain for the discussion.
"Everyone is well aware of the problem existing."
Courson, ironically, might not have become a whistle-blower himself if he hadn't developed cardiomyopathy -- a condition that enlarges the heart and causes it to weaken -- toward the end of his eight-year pro career. Doctors couldn't confirm that his condition was linked to steroids. But Courson, who had injected and ingested massive quantities of performance-enhancing chemicals, was moved to speak out.
As a result, those close to Courson said, many of his ex-teammates turned away from him. He received fewer invitations to Steelers functions.
His girlfriend, Masciola, a Navy veteran, said Courson had begun to distance himself from the Steelers, too, near the end. He'd stopped wearing his Super Bowl ring.
"He was like, 'You know what? Screw them all. I'm not gonna associate,'" Masciola said. "He was really frustrated Steve said they all knew [about the steroid use] Everybody knew what was going on, but they played stupid about it. They just wanted a championship team."
Another friend recalls visiting training camp in Latrobe, Pa., the summer before Courson died and witnessing a popular Steelers player turn his back as Courson approached him.
"The guys felt like Steve betrayed them, and Steve felt like the guys betrayed him," said former bodybuilder Modestine (Mod) Giachetti, a Courson confidant and training partner. "They ran away from him. There was a bond there until Steve got sick. Nobody ever said anything. Steve probably would have never said anything, either."
Before his death, Courson shared some final thoughts on doping with Matt Chaney, another friend and author of the forthcoming book, "Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football." At one point in hours of taped interviews, Courson said: "Anyone who can think knows that players are biochemical machines, basically killer drones. I knew back in '82 and '83, when I really started getting into anabolics, that I was a lethal machine at that point, with my parameters of size and speed. On or off the field, I could really hurt somebody, and that scared even me.
"Now the parameters of size, strength and speed have taken another leap. And what other way do we have to explain this? In other words, the evidence is obvious, but there are sycophants and administrators of the sport who still want to use the term 'isolated.'
"It's the old code, man. It's the conspiracy of silence, the code of dishonor.''
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.