ESPN.com - GEN - Crossing the Line: Steroids nightmare

 Wednesday, December 20
When coaches go silent
 
 By Tom Farrey
ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- The photo albums tell all. They are filled with images of a boy growing into himself through the usual conduit of American boys, sports. There's Ryan Pyle as a eighth-grader, his eyes bright and smile wide, kneeling for the team shot because he was already he was six feet. There he is on the sideline at the Sun Bowl, his head shaved, just like the other freshmen players at the University of Texas at El Paso.

NCAA form
Ryan Pyle keeps his NCAA drug-testing notification form as a reminder of the desperate decision he made.

Sitting on his living-room couch, Pyle, now 24, turns the next page. His voice becomes muted. Stuck to the cardboard, beneath clear plastic that will preserve the memory, is a pink, carbon copy of an NCAA consent form requesting that he show up two days later for a drug test.

This pink slip marked the end of his football career.

"I keep it in there as a constant reminder," Pyle said, head bowed. "It makes me realize I didn't like who I was back then and that I'm glad I got away from it. It makes me realize what I have now."

The blessings these days are many: Pyle has a college education, a new home in a sparkling suburb, a well-paying job as a manager at a Mercedes dealership, and a new marriage. Perhaps most of all, he has what he lacked most during his playing days at UTEP, a clear head.

He wants other athletes to have the same, he said. He spoke to Outside the Lines and ESPN.com about his steroid use as a college football player in the hope that there are lessons to be learned about keeping athletes from using the drugs -- lessons that only came clear to him well after testing positive for steroids in October 1996 with a testosterone-epitestosterone ratio of 36:1.

Avg. weight of offensive linemen on AP national champions
Year Team Pounds
1970 Nebraska 227
1971 Nebraska 225
1972 USC 244
1973 Not. Dame 240
1974 Oklahoma N/A
1975 Oklahoma 245
1976 Pitt 240
1977 Not. Dame 234
1978 Alabama 233
1979 Alabama 239
1980 Georgia 239
1981 Clemson 236
1982 Penn St. 243
1983 Miami 239
1984 BYU 258
1985 Oklahoma 262
1986 Miami 251
1988 Not. Dame 261
1989 Miami 263
1990 Colorado 265
1991 Miami 278
1992 Alabama 266
1993 FSU 273
1994 Nebraska 283
1995 Nebraska 267
1996 Florida 286
1997 Michigan 276
1998 Tennessee 300
1999 FSU 304
A normal human male has a 1:1 ratio.

"Some people say when you're out there in the jungle you gotta do what you gotta do," Pyle said. "One thing that really sticks out in my mind was sitting in the bathroom with a syringe on the counter, and that kind of being my way of life. And on the other side was everything that I was taught growing up and all my beliefs and what was right and what was wrong."

Wrong won out.

"What people don't understand was that (football) was so important to me that I chose that," Pyle said. "I chose to pick that up and put that in my body, which I regret almost every day of my life. But when a kid that's 18 years old chooses that, there's a problem. There's a problem with the whole system."

Pyle arrived at UTEP in 1995 as a 220-pound defensive end. In college football, some players that size can make it at that position at that weigh, but it's getting harder to do. Since Pyle's father played for the Miners a generation ago, the size of the players that defensive linemen bang heads with, offensive linemen, have grown dramatically (see chart).

Immediately, Pyle said, head coach Charlie Bailey began telling him to "put on weight" -- a common refrain that freshman hear from coaches who need them to compete on the Division I-A level.

What Pyle said he didn't hear was the necessary corollary: And do it naturally. Pyle said he never heard from the coaches that the players should not take steroids. While he knew that use of steroids was illegal and in violation of NCAA rules, the perceived silence by coaches was taken by Pyle as a message that it was OK to use them as long as the player did not get caught.

Once he did start using steroids, the coaches turned a blind eye, he said.

"I don't think this is particular about Coach Bailey or any coach in the world," Pyle said. "I think that any coach knows. Because there's signs. Anyone who is around someone that gains 40 pounds and their bench press goes up 120 pounds (in six weeks), I mean, that's not normal. Coaches know and kids talk and coaches hear."

Bailey denies the charge that he tacitly encouraged players to use steroids.

"I don't know nothing about steroids," said Bailey, who resigned from UTEP last year with a 19-53-1 record in seven seasons. "I don't know how they work."

Sean Kugler, an assistant coach on Bailey's staff who is still with the Miners, said Bailey mentioned steroids to players in context of talking about other drugs, such as street drugs.

"At coach Bailey's meeting, he said anybody caught with drugs will be suspended and dealt with," Kugler said.

But colleges coaches need to do more than that, said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State health professor and author of several books on athletes' use of steroids. He said college football coaches rarely send a message that's forceful enough to counter the pressure that some players feel to put on weight by whatever means necessary.

"What I always question is how sincere the message is," Yesalis said. "The message needs to be made excessively -- not by just hanging a stupid poster in the locker room or bringing someone like me in to talk. Coaches need to give the message with the passion of a halftime speech, and that just doesn't happen in most cases."

At UTEP, then-quarterback John Rayborn also failed an NCAA drug test, for the steroid clenbuterol. But Pyle said as many as 30 other players on the team used steroids, often acquiring them, as he did, by simply walking over the El Paso border into Juarez, Mexico, where the drugs could be easily purchased at pharmacies.

Bailey disputes that statement, as well.

"We had a good, clean program," said Bailey, now an assistant coach with the Orlando Rage of the XFL. "If guys were on steroids, I'd like to have seen them because these were a bunch of skinny guys."

Even at a juiced-up 260 pounds, Pyle, who is 6-7, was no hulk. But experts say steroid use isn't always apparent to coaches. The typical telltale signs -- acne, loss of hair, rippled muscles -- do not show up in some athletes, requiring the need for medical experts to help coaches educate and identify potential steroid users.

Pyle said the medical staff at UTEP was silent on the topic. Players got their advice on steroids from muscle magazines and the Underground Steroid Handbook, a popular reference book for users of the drugs. He's not sure players would have listened to the doctors anyway, if they had talked about the health dangers.

New UTEP regime
UTEP works harder now to educate and discourage its athletes from using steroids than the school did during Ryan Pyle's era, said Bob Stull, athletic director.

When Stull arrived in 1998, the athletic department began offering "life-skills" classes that include curriculum on steroid use. Players are required to take those classes.

UTEP also has hired a new coach, Gary Nord, who in his first season this year led the Miners to an 8-3 record and berth in the Dec. 28 Humanitarian Bowl. Nord said he talks to his players every two weeks about drugs, making specific mention of steroids.

None of the players the current team have tested positive for steroids in an NCAA drug test, Stull said. A total of 40 of the 105 players each year are tested at least once.

In addition, UTEP occasionally does its own "reasonable cause" testing for steroids. Nord suspected three players in the past year of steroid use and ordered tests, each of which came back negative, Stull said.

Sean Kugler, a UTEP assistant coach who has been on staff since 1993, disagreed with Stull that more is being done now to prevent steroid use than when Pyle played. "Just as much attention was paid back then," he said.

Stull said he is confident steroid use is not a problem on the current team. But in light of what Pyle revealed to ESPN.com, he is considering adding steroids to the school's year-round random drug testing program for street drugs, he said.

"Show me the proof -- that's really what the attitude was," Pyle said. "It was, 'What, (the late) Lyle Alzado? That's one in how many football players out there? It's not gonna be me. I eat right. I lift hard. I run hard. I'm OK.' "

Indeed, doctors across the country have lost much of their credibility on the steroids, said Gary Wadler, a New York doctor and consultant to the White House on drugs and sports. For many years, the medical establishment tried to discourage steroid use by insisting that the drugs didn't work. The American College of Sports Medicine only reversed its position in 1984 -- 30 years after Olympic athletes first started using them and realizing results.

Then, having lost that battle, the medical establishment began suggesting that steroids could kill users. The rallying point was the death of Alzado, the former NFL player who believed that his demise from a brain tumor was related to excessive use of steroids and human growth hormone. While that may be true, science so far has not linked those drugs to brain tumors, Wadler said.

Wondering where all the dead bodies are, athletes have come to ignore scare tactics, experts are finding. That's unfortunate, Wadler said, because steroids are in fact dangerous drugs; there merely have few studies that have attempted to establish the most serious health consequences.

"The sad thing is, I never thought of it as doing drugs," Pyle said. "You don't put it in the same class as some street drugs."

Pyle had so little fear that he "stacked" steroids, a method commonly used by athletes of mixing several drugs at one time in order to get a more powerful boost. One of the injectible steroids Pyle said he used was Equipose, acquired at a veterinary pharmacy. "It blows me away to this day that I put something in my body that's made for a horse," he said.

A good high school student from a wealthy Houston family, Pyle's grades sagged at UTEP after taking steroids. His attitude soured. Feeling edgy from what steroid users often call "roid rage," he often found himself often in fights at parties and bars.

When the NCAA called his number for a drug test, Pyle said he was strangely relieved, knowing that he probably was going to fail. The dream of college football and the nightmare of steroids had become so intertwined that only a drug test could unravel them. And he was grateful, even if it probably meant the end of his career.

Pyle soon transferred to Stephen F. Austin State University in the eastern, opposite end of the state, where he became a Texas collegiate judo champion. He is succinct when asked for his favorite UTEP highlight.

"Leaving," he said. "That's how I look back on it. Just getting away from that seediness."

Tom Farrey is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn.com. ESPN.com researcher Rico L. Longoria contributed to this report.

 



ALSO SEE
Steroid use by 10th graders hits new high

Crossing the Line: Black-market steroids

Steroid smuggling: Crime but no punishment

A blind eye to steroids?

NCAA drug-testing program catches few cheaters

Health dangers: Fact and fiction

Audio chat wrap: Former NFL player, steroid user Steve Courson



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 Ryan Pyle says he was never discouraged by coaches or team doctors from taking steroids.
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 Athletic director Bob Stull says that former UTEP coach Charlie Bailey is not to blame for players not getting an anti-steroids message.
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 Pyle says coaches and colleges need to "wake up" to steroid use by college football players.
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 Pyle tells ESPN.com's Tom Farrey of the extent of steroid use on the UTEP football team when he played.
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 Pyle explains the methods that players used in attempting to beat NCAA drug tests.
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 Pyle explains the thought process behind his steroid use.
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