November 13, 1998
McGwire's mystery pill arrives
on high school scene, sparks fears
Can you hear the silence?
Ricky Seale can, all too well. Coach of the Thompson High School football team, he fidgets in his guest chair in the calm of the principal's office between the third- and fourth-period bells, nervously glancing around the room, anticipating and dreading the expected call from the Alabama High School Athletic Association, which at this very moment is meeting to consider the fate of two of his players.
"This is the Pelham game," he says quietly, hoping that explains his nerves.
Anyone whose high school had a rival can understand. To people in this town of 23,000, Thompson-Pelham is the Alabama-Auburn of their high school season. It's the one game Seale can expect to be reminded of regularly for the next 12 months, until they meet again, a blood battle between the children and grandchildren of men who once played together for Thompson, back when only several thousand people lived in the area and everyone went to the same high school.
Now, Seale's underdog Warriors may have to take the field without a couple of their interior linemen, who have been taking the controversial and performance-enhancing supplement Androstenedione.
Will the state association suspend Matt Pair and Jeff Vreeland for Friday night's game? For the rest of the season? Will Thompson have to forfeit the victories they achieved with those players? Also, will the use of a supplement banned by the NCAA jeopardize their chances at a scholarship? And have these 16-year-old juniors harmed themselves in any way by taking the pills?
So many questions, so few answers.
The only thing that is clear on this Monday morning is that Alabaster is no longer just the town down the road from where Bo Jackson grew up, but one of the many communities -- across the country -- that was downstream when word got out of St. Louis that Mark McGwire takes the controversial pills. Due to the hulking slugger, Andro is now the No. 1 supplement sold in local stores.
"I'd say that within a day of when that whole craze came out in USA Today about McGwire, sales jumped dramatically," said Billy Payne, manager of Ultimate Nutrition, where Vreeland spends $25 a month on Andro. "We have some power-lifting women come in here. We have some, just, body-building women. We have younger high-school kids coming in here, playing football."
It's news to Seale, who says he knows "absolutely nothing" about Andro. "I mean, I really don't."
This is more than a story about a coach's confusion, however. It's about teenage dreams, and garden-variety greed, and clever legislation that removed the supplement industry from Food and Drug Administration oversight. It's about how, in a media-soaked society, the actions of a superstar athlete are one small step from the reaction of many young people, just as Androstenedione is one small biochemical step from testosterone, the invaluable elixir of competitive sports.
Finally, it's the tale of how truly unequipped sports leagues are to deal with the latest advances in sports science. The problem is particularly acute on the high-school level, where six million teenage athletes are often left alone to figure out whether substances such as Andro are safe, or even effective. The National Federation of State High School Associations took a stance against the use of Andro just before the school year, but the group has no ability to set policy in the manner of the NFL or NCAA, both of which have banned it.
That responsibility falls to state federations or local school boards, who have been inconsistent in their education and regulation of the hottest new over-the-counter supplement. In that leadership void, athletes and their parents often must make their own decisions.
"My concern is the adolescent mentality," said Jerry Diehl, assistant director of the national high-school federation, "that if the bottle says take one spoonful, then if you take four you'll get there four times as fast."
Indeed, the 6-foot, 270-pound Vreeland pops 200 milligrams of Andro before working out -- twice the recommended dosage -- because he believes someone his size needs more. He takes 300 milligrams just before games, which sends him into what he describes as a testosterone-fueled "rage" that makes him a better football player.
"It's hard to explain, how you just want to hit somebody," Vreeland said the day before he learned he could be suspended. "If someone says something to you, you just want to knock their heads off.
"It gives you almost a mental edge, 'cause you're already in that sense that you want to kill somebody, and you -- and this -- oh ..." -- Vreeland shudders with excitement -- "I'm getting pumped up just thinking about it here, the feeling going through my body."
A day later, the players' use of Andro now in the open and before the state federation, the sensation coursing through Seale's body is fear. He's about to find out if Andro, that mysterious pill, has knocked Vreeland and Pair out of the big game.