PITTSBURGH -- The NFL’s most relentless pursuers are not hard-hitting safeties, but mild-mannered dudes in khakis handing out drug tests.
Pittsburgh Steelers punter Jordan Berry found this out the uncomfortable way. Berry was in the dorm-room bathroom during training camp at St. Vincent College when the NFL drug test supervisor came calling.
“He knocks on the door, Boz [kicker Chris Boswell] is answering and I’m like, ‘Well, I have to wait now,’” Berry said. “They came looking for me and I’m already on the toilet. You’ve got three hours to do it, so I chugged some fluids.”
The untold secret in NFL locker rooms is the process of getting drug-tested can be weirdly invasive, especially in the offseason, when players can be randomly tested up to six times.
Testers are always lurking, and not just at your front door. They will track you on vacation, and to the ends of the earth.
“They don’t care where you are,” Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats said.
Interviews with several Steelers affirm growing suspicions over the timing of performance-enhancing drug tests -- say, after a good performance or a killer workout documented on social media -- and define what work-life balance really means for NFL players.
Party at grammy's
Don’t mess with Peggy Thomas.
Moats was visiting his grandmother in rural Virginia one offseason when the league informed him of his next-day test at around 6 a.m.
“She was like, ‘Who is this man pulling up to our house?’” Moats said. “He got the look.”
The man in khakis and a polo shirt walked into the home carrying a black box and directed Moats to the bathroom. The test supervisor usually breaks up the urine into "A" and "B" samples, which was a clumsy task in grammy’s house.
“Dealing with piss right on the [living room] table,” Moats said. “It was weird.”
This is normalcy for NFL players, who draw random tests from the league’s computer-generated system.
In season, a player gets a notice hanging from his locker that it's testing day. Out of season, the player gets a call and is expected to respond promptly. Or, as guard Ramon Foster recalls, the dialogue basically starts and stops with: “You’ve got a drug test tomorrow. Where you at?”
The NFL has testers positioned all over the country.
Kicker Chris Boswell found this out when he got a call for a morning test while on vacation in Hawaii.
Turns out Boswell made a new friend.
“He was actually a Hawaiian firefighter who does it as a side job when athletes come on vacation,” Boswell said. “Nice guy.”
A test supervisor, whom Berry said is typically a mild-mannered male, hands the player a cup to do his business. Once business is done, he labels the samples, asks the player to sign something and is on his way.
After that, silence is good.
“You don’t want to hear back,” said wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who served a yearlong suspension for substance-abuse violations.
Linebacker Vince Williams almost expects a call from the league whenever he takes his family on vacation.
“You say, ‘Well, I’m in Orlando. They say, ‘Well, we’re going to contact the Orlando [supervisor] and they’ll come to you.’ It happens like that,” Williams said. “They kill you, too, because let’s say you’re not where you think you’re going to be at, or you’re on a boat fishing and you have a certain amount of hours to take this test, now you’re screwed.”
Williams recalls rarely getting tested for performance-enhancing drugs while training in Central Florida for his first three NFL offseasons.
This spring, he switched it up and worked out with the NFL’s most fibrous man, James Harrison, in Arizona.
“And I got drug-tested a lot,” Williams said. “I don’t know how random that is, but it is interesting.”
Williams is inside the growing circle of players who find the timing of league tests, at the least, curious.
A league source tells ESPN that the NFLPA has sensed a spike in player complaints the past few years over random tests following big gains in the gym or on the field.
Basically, stories similar to Colts punter Pat McAfee's -- who in 2016 tweeted he received a "random" drug test the day after a booming 67-yard punt -- are becoming less of an outlier.
Requests sent to the NFL and NFLPA for further comment were not immediately returned.
Here’s how the testing process works:
* An independent arbitrator jointly selected by the NFL and NFLPA directs the program, which randomly selects players based on a computer program. That means neither the league nor the players have control over the testing.
* According to the collective bargaining agreement, up to 10 players per team are tested every week during the preseason, regular season and postseason. In the offseason, a player can be tested up to six times.
* The "reasonable cause" program can target certain players, including those who failed a drug test in college, but they must be notified that they are in it.
“Some guys go all year and don’t get a random test,” Harrison said. “Some guys get tested five, six, seven, eight, nine times.”
Harrison falls into the latter category. The man who draws millions of Instagram followers to videos displaying his amazing feats of strength said he has been tested more times than he can count.
In August 2016, Harrison was absolved by the league after its investigation of an Al-Jazeera America report (which was debunked by the source) linking Harrison and others to performance-enhancing drug use.
Players say that even a mere affiliation with Harrison can make the process feel calculated.
Safety Mike Mitchell has a similar story to Williams. He calls it “odd” that he got tested a day after publicly discussing the gains he made while working out with Harrison in Arizona. He declined to comment beyond that.
Harrison assumes testers monitor his workouts but doesn't know for sure. What he does know? More consistency would be nice.
“They can do whatever they want to,” Harrison said of the testing system. “If I pick out, say, 10 people and I say, 'You know what, I want to test these 10 people.' Well, you can’t do that. But, if I say, 'I want to randomly select nine of them,' it goes through a random selection. If you go by the letter of the law, that’s what you can do. I don’t know if that’s what they do, it’s what they can do.
“I don’t care about them testing me, I really don’t. I just want them to test everybody the same. That’s all.”
The concept of a "random" test is vague enough for Harrison to question the configuration of it, though he figures he won’t get clarity any time soon. Harrison believes anything can be made random, “All I have to do is change the process by which I do it,” he said.
A player’s only recourse is to stay clean and hope “the shield” treats you fairly, Williams said.
“Back in the day, you couldn’t really look and see how people were training,” Williams said. “Now, you have a ridiculous type of athlete in the NFL. Those people are putting those athletic feats on display via social media on Instagram and Snapchat. It piques the curiosity of people who are looking to catch people that might be taking advantage of some loopholes. It’s my understanding they can do whatever they want to do.”
The 'random deal'
This offseason, Bryant was working on his 2017 return and following his league-administered substance-abuse program when he accidentally missed a performance-enhancing drug test scheduled in Los Angeles.
That, Bryant said, placed him in the steroid program simultaneously. Bryant was in that program for about six months and is out now.
He was already undergoing two to three "weed tests" per week. Coupled with enhanced steroid testing, Bryant got to know the league's testing supervisor too well.
It’s part of the job now.
“Whatever city I go in, I have to let them know,” Bryant said. “Give them the sample and go about your day.”
Bryant said he gained 10-15 pounds of muscle this offseason and did so organically. But he has wondered if his size will prompt more steroid tests in the future.
“If you gain a certain amount of weight, they might think you’re doing something,” Bryant said. “But it doesn’t matter. It’s a random deal.”
And then there’s Foster, who as a player rep is turned off by the suspicion conversation.
After all, players facing potential drug suspensions is another example of a league that specializes in "nonsense," Foster said.
“Why have so much negativity brought upon our league?” Foster said. “Nobody else broadcasts suspensions the way we do. Nobody tells about guys getting fined the way we do. Brighten the league. That’s front-office stuff.”