Pumped-up pioneers: the '63 Chargers

In the mornings, the ranch hands swept the grounds of Rough Acres for rattlesnakes. Sometimes, they spread sawdust over the field.

As the sun rose on the high desert scrub, they hosed down the dust and the wood shavings and packed the gopher holes as best they could.

But by the time the players took the field for the first of their two-a-day workouts, the hot wind had blown the drying sawdust into piles around the fence posts at the edge of the ranch.

For the rest of the day, the players cracked bodies into each other under a cloudless sky, trying for traction on a desolate patch of hard dust where grass couldn't grow.

This was the price of playing for a genius. This was also the price of failing him the season before.

In 1962, the San Diego Chargers trudged to a 4-10 record as coach Sid Gillman watched broken bodies and losses pile up. In 1963, he was ready to try things no one had ever done.

Gillman found Rough Acres, a failed dude ranch 70 miles east of San Diego, down a dirt road from the tiny town of Boulevard, Calif., and its one bar, and set the Chargers up to train there on the flat, dusty surface that looked like it had been cut out of a hill. But in the late summer heat, usually in the high 90s, the players didn't see the field for what it really was. Gillman chose this spot to be his football laboratory, the place where he could remake the game by mixing iron and pills and even the colors of the men themselves. Rough Acres was where he introduced the game's first strength coach, its first weightlifting program and a conscious effort to racially integrate his club.

It was also where Gillman and his staff handed out little pink pills called Dianabol. It is an anabolic steroid.

"He brought intelligence to the game, counterintelligence," says Bob Petrich, a former defensive end who was a rookie in 1963. "He brought everything that you could bring, and he would bring a cannon to a gunfight."

As training camp approached, Gillman sent letters to his players, explaining that they would be lifting weights and turning the conventional wisdom of decades on its head at Rough Acres. On the first day of camp, he introduced a 5-foot-6 Louisiana man named Alvin Roy, the mastermind of their weight program.

"[Gillman] said, 'This man is what every team will eventually have: a strength coach,'" says Hall of Fame offensive tackle Ron Mix.

And then Roy addressed the players.

"I still remember his speech, almost verbatim," Mix says. "He said, 'Because you're going to be lifting weights in addition to working out twice a day, you're going to need more protein.' And he said, 'When I was a trainer for the U.S. team in the Olympics, I learned a secret from those Rooskies.' And he held up a bottle of pink pills, and he says, 'This stuff is called Dianabol and it's going to help assimilate protein and you'll be taking it every day.' And, sure enough, it showed up on our training tables in cereal bowls."

Dianabol was the brand name for methandrostenolone, an artificial form of testosterone designed to promote healing and strength in patients. In 1963, it had been on the market for only five years, and used by U.S. weightlifters for fewer than three.

It was legal.

It wasn't banned by any athletic organization.

And as the players discovered, it worked.

"It was probably at the end of the camp, people were talking: 'Have you noticed anything?' Yeah, I noticed," offensive guard Pat Shea says. "The strength was there."

For more than 40 years, the story of the 1963 Chargers has been as follows: They endured a comically hellish training camp, romped through the American Football League regular season behind a legendary offensive line, enjoyed the glorious play of wide receiver Lance Alworth, and won the AFL championship 51-10 over the Boston Patriots.

It is the only professional championship San Diego has ever celebrated.

But steroids have come under the glare of public scrutiny over the past 20 years, and some of that light has filtered back to the beginning. The story of the '63 Chargers needs to be revised.

Memories are hazy and accounts differ, but this much is clear: For at least four or five weeks during training camp in 1963, the Chargers handed 5 mg of Dianabol to their players three times a day. After a team meeting before the start of the regular season, at which Mix raised objections, the pills were no longer mandatory, but they remained readily available for at least two seasons. And according to documents filed in a later lawsuit, Chargers team physicians continued to write Dianabol prescriptions for some players from 1965 until at least 1970, although the players who spoke to ESPN denied knowing about it at the time.

The AFL of the early 1960s was fertile ground for the cultural experimentation about to sweep the nation as the decade progressed and the sensibilities of the '50s gave way. Players were still conditioned to respect authority and do what they were told, but the nature of the league itself -- an alternative to the long-established NFL -- made it ideal for pioneers and renegades.

"It was like the wild, wild West," guard Walt Sweeney says. "Everything went. There was speed, painkillers, steroids. And if there was a guy around like Terrell Owens at that time, someone would have kicked his ass all over the field."

By the early '60s, the pills were coming to football no matter what. Already, at least two high school football programs had given Dianabol to players, says historian Matt Chaney, the author of "Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football." And the late Bob Waters of the San Francisco 49ers said he and a few unnamed teammates experimented with Dianabol in 1962.

But the 1963 Chargers put things together like no one else.

"They definitely were the first," Chaney says. "Nobody did it in a systematic way like that."

Then again, nobody had personalities like Gillman and Roy.

"Alvin kind of fascinated Sid because Sid had a special spot for people who were intense about what they did," says Al LoCasale, a longtime assistant to Al Davis who was a scout for the Chargers in the early 1960s.

Gillman had been coaching for 29 years going into the 1963 season, and had already cemented his Hall of Fame credentials. His wide-open passing attack, based on sharply timed routes and quick quarterback drops combined with sudden, deep strikes, created the modern game. Gillman also used film to an extent never before seen, studying his own players as well as opponents. He even brought game film along on his honeymoon.

"He had those squinty eyes and it looked like he was looking right through you," says Petrich. "He never left the training facility during the season. He knew more about the other teams than they did."

But Gillman "never really believed that he had all the answers," LoCasale says. "When I would get back from being on the road and go visit with Sid, he would start out saying, 'What [did] you see that was new and different? Drills? Training routines? Equipment?' He'd bring in three or four college coaches to spend the weekend with us to pick their brains."

Coaches who impressed him tended to end up on the Chargers' staff. His assistants in the early '60s included Davis and Chuck Noll, who won a combined seven Super Bowls.

At the time Gillman and Roy instituted strength training in San Diego, the prevailing wisdom, in both the athletic and medical communities, was that weightlifting made an athlete too "muscle-bound" to be effective.

Players had their own philosophy about it.

"There were a few players that [lifted weights], but they were kind of looked down on like they needed an extra advantage because, 'They're not as good as me, so that's why they lifted,'" Petrich says. "And most of the guys had this mental attitude that if you're not good enough the way you are, then you'll never be good enough. So, improvement wasn't really a hallmark of most teams and most players. It was, 'What you are is what you are.' But not with the Chargers."

Gillman's trump card in the effort to convince the Chargers to lift, and to take the Dianabol, was the disastrous 1962 season.

"The thing that allowed Sid to make this radical move was the fact that we were coming off what had been our only losing season," LoCasale says. "Sid could look 'em in the eye and say we were a lousy football team."

For the duration of the 1963 training camp, Roy tried to make sure every player took one pill with each of his three meals. The dosage was consistent with what competitive weightlifters were taking at the time, but far short of the massive amounts some modern abusers ingest.

Sweeney, a rookie in 1963, was late to camp after playing in a college all-star game, so he missed Roy's debut speech.

"I was sitting there having lunch one day, and Alvin came around with this little cup with Dianabol in it. I didn't know what Dianabol was or [what] a steroid was, and he said, 'Take these; it will help you build muscle,'" Sweeney says. "I said 'OK, man, I want to do that.'"

If players didn't take the pills, Sweeney says they were fined $50, the same amount they made for each exhibition game.

"I think less than 5 percent of the guys never took them," says Paul Maguire, a former linebacker and punter and longtime announcer who now works for ESPN. "No one really understood what it was supposed to do for you. They just told you if you use this and lift weights, it will all come together. But if you weren't going to lift weights, you weren't going to take the pills."

Maguire says he never took Dianabol because he never lifted weights.

"I'm not covering my ass. I just never took anything. Those were the days when they had bennies [amphetamines] in the locker, for chrissakes," he says. "Those guys were way ahead of everybody else. In those days, who the hell knew supplements?"

Quarterback John Hadl, who was a 23-year-old backup to the veteran Tobin Rote that year, says he and Alworth didn't indulge either. They didn't see the point.

"The linemen did, and they started looking like Popeye a month later," Hadl says. "We both decided that we knew what we were doing."

No one threatened to fine them, he says, but then, they weren't rookie linemen like Sweeney.

"We were a quarterback and a receiver," Hadl says. "Nobody was going to [mess] with us."

Gillman and Roy apparently weren't so concerned about bulking up their skill-position players. The linemen, on the other hand …

"If they had given me strychnine, I would have taken it," says Petrich, who weighed 225 as a defensive end in college. Petrich received a package of pink pills in the mail after he signed with the Chargers a month before camp. The pills came with instructions to use them daily.

He also ate five meals a day -- to the point that he learned to hate food, he says.

Mix, a four-year veteran and team captain in '63, says it's hard to imagine a modern player taking something simply because a coach tells him to. But this was the early '60s.

"I figured these people are people of authority. They wouldn't give me anything bad," he says.

One would do well here not to apply a 2009 sensibility to 1963. In 2009, steroids are so much a part of the national vocabulary that anything enhanced, in any part of life, is "on steroids" -- car engines, bailout plans, drain cleaners.

In 1963, the word meant nothing to the average person, not even to some of the people who took them.

Scientists began experimenting with testosterone injections in the 1920s, realizing the drug could boost a person's strength and size while it helped the body's healing process. They created the first synthetic versions in the 1930s, and sometime in the 1950s Soviet athletes started dabbling in it.

The American awakening began in 1954 when a Maryland physician named John Ziegler, who worked with the U.S. national weightlifting team, was at the world championships in Vienna and had drinks with a Soviet doctor at the hotel bar. That doctor told him the Soviet lifters were using testosterone.

Ziegler, according to historian John D. Fair, tried injecting Western athletes with it for years, but was discouraged by the results.

In 1958, the Ciba pharmaceutical company in Geneva developed an artificial form of testosterone called methandrostenolone. Ciba called it "Dianabol" and sold it in pill form. Ziegler started experimenting with it and, before the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he told his friend Bob Hoffman, the coach of the U.S. weightlifting team, that American lifters should start taking it if they wanted to catch up to the Soviets. Hoffman had his doubts, and the lifters themselves weren't sure there was any point to taking a pill, either. So they competed clean, and were crushed. The Soviets took five of seven possible gold medals; the United States took one.

From that point on, the U.S. team used Dianabol as part of its training.

The trainer on that team was Roy, who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge with the Army's 94th Infantry and organized athletic events in Europe after the war.

Hoffman was perhaps the pivotal figure in this country's weightlifting history. He started the York barbell company in his hometown of York, Pa., and, with Roy, had trained military and civilian athletes with weights long before they ever heard of Dianabol.

It was Roy, however, who thought weights could benefit athletes outside the worlds of weightlifting and bodybuilding, his daughter, Gina Abraham, says. While Hoffman and others sought to create a culture of strength, Roy decided in Europe that weights were the future of all competitive sports.

"He thought, 'My goodness, I have to bring this back,'" Abraham says.

When Roy returned to Louisiana in 1947, no one was ready to adopt his ideas. He opened a gym that became a city hot spot and led to a chain of 27 gyms around the country, and eventually played host to two local television shows dedicated to fitness. He even had a segment on his shows that was a forerunner to "The Biggest Loser."

Nearly a decade after he returned from Europe, however, Roy still was unable to find a football program willing to try weight training. Finally, in 1955, he wore down the coach at his alma mater, Istrouma High in Baton Rouge. But Roy also had to convince the star of the team, halfback Billy Cannon.

"At first, Billy said, 'I don't know if I want to do this,'" says Astrid Clements, Roy's elder daughter. "He said, 'You know, I hold a state record in the sprints, and what happens if I get all bulked up and I get slower?' And Daddy knew if in the end, if [Cannon] ended up being slower when he did his sprints, that basically, his concepts would not be accepted."

Istrouma won eight state titles over the next 12 years, and Cannon only got faster.

In 1958, with Cannon now playing at Louisiana State University, Roy made his pitch to LSU coach Paul Dietzel, who brought him on as an unpaid assistant. LSU won a national title that year and Dietzel was named coach of the year. In 1959, Cannon won the Heisman Trophy.

LSU still hands out an annual "Alvin Roy Award" to a player who shows year-round commitment to strength and fitness.

Gillman first encountered Roy at a conference of college football coaches, where Roy gave a lecture about the benefits of strength training, Roy's daughters say. Roy's pedigree and his association with Cannon intrigued Gillman.

"Sid would research things before we got into them. He went down [to LSU] and wanted to see it live and spend time talking to people who had been around it. He really wanted to be knowledgeable," LoCasale says.

Gillman and Roy talked football and strength training at Baton Rouge's best Cajun restaurants, Locasale says, and discovered they had another thing in common, too: a view on race that was well ahead of their time. Gillman, who was Jewish, had seven black players on his roster at a time when most teams had no more than two or three, according to Mix.

"There was sort of an unwritten rule that that's all a team would have," Mix says. "That didn't matter with Sid."

He says Gillman also tried to integrate the team in his own way, assigning roommates based on position, without regard to race.

Recently in Baton Rouge, while Roy's daughters were at a local restaurant with their husbands and two reporters, they were seated near Collis Temple, who in 1971 became the first African-American athlete to play basketball at LSU. Gina Abraham's husband, Mark, said hello to Temple and mentioned that he was with Alvin Roy's daughters. Temple approached the table and said to Astrid and Gina, "Alvin Roy was your daddy?"

"He was," they said.

"Your daddy was good to me at a time when a lot of people weren't," he said. "He took me in."

Temple told them that Roy taught him how to lift, and made sure he had a place to go on campus when most doors were still closed to him. Their father never mentioned pills, he said.

"In the mid-'60s when desegregation just started, he came home one afternoon and he told me, 'Astrid, I have decided that I'm going to allow blacks to come to the studio,'" Clements says. "He said, 'You know, it might cause me to have to close my business, but I thought about it, and it's the right thing to do.'"

He integrated the gym, and as far as his daughter can remember, there was no reaction at all.

After the 1962 season, Gillman sent some players to Lousiana to train with Roy, who by then had made Dianabol part of the lifting regimen for some of his athletes in Baton Rouge.

Some Chargers say they don't recall whether the pills worked; others are adamant that they didn't. Several noted that they had never lifted weights before that summer, so they don't know whether they were feeling the effects from the pills or just from lifting.

Several players from opposing teams in 1963 tell ESPN they don't remember noticing anything different about the Chargers that year.

But some Chargers did notice an effect.

Pat Shea says he was walking a hallway in training camp and stopped to lift a barbell sitting on the floor.

"I went and lifted it up, and it was like nothing," he says.

Later, he was told the bar weighed 350 pounds.

"I surprised the heck out of myself," he says. "I couldn't do that before."

His conclusion? The pills.

"I thought, 'They work,'" he says.

But Shea also says his wife noticed a change in his mood.

"She said, 'You're a different person -- what's wrong with you?' I had no patience, and she was alarmed about it,'" he says.

To this day, he says he doesn't know if the pills were responsible for the mood changes.

Mix says the pills never made him feel stronger, but he thinks they might have helped his stamina.

But all those thoughts are retroactive. At the time, the pills were just part of the routine until four or five weeks into the training camp, when tight end Dave Kocourek went to see his personal physician for a nagging injury. The doctor asked what medications he was taking.

Kocourek mentioned Dianabol.

"[Kocourek] said the doctor said he was actually shocked," Mix says. "'They're giving you this stuff? Have they ever shown you the literature that accompanies these pills?' I still remember what it says. It was in big red letters. It said, 'Dangerous. Not to be taken over extended periods of time, will cause permanent bone damage, liver damage, heart damage, testicle shrinkage.'

"Now comes the obligatory joke," Mix says. "The other three we could live with. But the last -- no!"

Mix says he approached Gillman, and Gillman told him, "You know, our doctors say there's nothing wrong with this."

Sweeney remembers a stronger reaction from Gillman.

"Sid looked at [the literature] for a couple of minutes and he threw it on the ground and said, 'What do these guys know? They don't know anything about football. They're doctors,'" he says. "That was it."

Mix and others asked Gillman, then, for the team meeting just prior to the start of the season; and from then on, the players say, the team no longer required them to take the pills. Most of them stopped.

There was never a question, they agree, about whether they might be cheating. If the Chargers tried to keep the pills secret, LoCasale says, it wasn't because they felt they were doing anything wrong.

"It was a competitive edge," he says. "There was a lot we weren't going to tell anybody that had nothing to do with the pink pills."

Memories differ on how long the players took the Dianabol, in part because they are trying to remember things that happened more than 45 years ago. But they also know that the revelation about their drug use -- whether that use was voluntary or not, whether there was an ethical issue about it at the time -- can taint what they accomplished.

"I guess it could hurt it a little, you know, saying that we didn't play fairly, 'they cheated,'" Sweeney says. "I really don't know what steroids could do to you in three to five weeks. I took them for three weeks. The other guys took them for five weeks. They were there a couple of weeks longer than I was. Ah, maybe it was an unfair advantage. I don't know."

Mix says the Chargers could not possibly have had an advantage except during preseason games.

"I knew that it hadn't improved us as a team because it was too short-lived, and what really improved us were other factors," he says. "The weight training is what really improved us as a team, and combined with great individual talent."

But if they took 15 mg of Dianabol a day for five weeks -- Mix says it might have been three weeks, Shea says six -- it could have given them an advantage, especially if none of their opponents was using. Victor Conte, the BALCO mastermind, says a cycle of that size and length could have given them benefits for "four months or longer." But Charles Yesalis, professor emeritus of health policy and administration at Penn State University and a leading expert on doping, says such doses of Dianabol might have given the players a boost for only up to two months.

Mix doubts that anyone continued to use once training camp at Rough Acres ended.

"I would have heard about it," he says.

But Jim Van Deusen, who was hired as the team's athletic trainer after the 1963 season, says when he arrived in 1964, coaches were still admonishing players to use Dianabol. (By then, training camp had been moved from Rough Acres back to San Diego.)

"The coaches would stand there and yell to guys as they came off the field, 'Take your pills, take your pills,'" he says.

But Van Deusen also tells the same story that many of the players do -- that during the 1964 season, most players would be handed pills as they left the field for water breaks, and as they drank their water, they would spit the pills onto the ground. They joked about how strong the shrubs in that part of the field would be.

Van Deusen says he was concerned about the long-term effect from the pills, and confronted Gillman about it. After the '64 season, he says, they were no longer available.

From that point on, the players say they didn't use or even hear about steroids again for the next several years. But in 1969, a Chargers defensive lineman named Houston Ridge was injured in a game, ending his career after 3½ seasons. He grew so disillusioned with his treatment by the team that he asked his teammate Ron Mix for help, and Mix, working toward a law degree, referred Ridge to an attorney. They filed what became a landmark lawsuit.

Ridge, who now owns a painting company in San Diego, refused requests for an interview. But Mix, a practicing attorney, still represents him.

"In that lawsuit, part of the allegation is that the team had supplied him with steroids and amphetamines, and that had given him a propensity for being injured," Mix says.

According to the lawsuit, team physician Paul Woodward had prescribed Dianabol for years. Several Chargers veterans say now that Ridge apparently was one of a number of players during the mid-to-late 1960s who were given steroids before they arrived at training camp.

"I do know that Houston at San Diego State was a 210-pound linebacker, and then when he came to us, he was 275," Mix says. "I was surprised because I didn't know that was still going on."

In his answer to the complaint, Woodward didn't argue that Ridge was never given the drugs. Instead, he argued "that plaintiff was cognizant of any relevant risks involved in any drugs used by plaintiff."

Ridge settled the suit for $265,000.

By the late 1960s, steroid use was scattered around both the AFL and the NFL in pockets, although no one is sure now how extensive that use was. Most of it, historians say, came to football's weight rooms from outside the teams, not from the front office, as was the case with the Chargers. But Mix thinks the Ridge case might have had one unintended consequence.

"That lawsuit may have been the triggering thing that told the vast majority of athletes that there might be something out there that is useful to you," Mix says. "It gave publicity to something that was apparently a dirty little secret."

More than 45 years later, it is nearly impossible to determine what effect the pills might have had on the health of the men who took them. The players who admit using Dianabol say they did it for only five or six weeks at the most, and there is little clinical or even anecdotal evidence to suggest that five weeks of steroid use can have a long-term impact on a healthy adult.

Of the 38 men who were on the Chargers' 1963 roster, 10 are dead. Four of them died from some form of cancer. One drowned in a freak accident when he fell into a pond after an epileptic seizure while he was jogging. One fell off a wall while fleeing a minor traffic accident. One committed suicide. Two had heart problems. One died of a pulmonary embolism.

Their average age was 53.5 years.

It's possible the steroids had some impact. But the NFL lifestyle, especially in those days when players smoked and trainers handed out amphetamines, wasn't the healthiest to begin with.

Shea has a defibrillating pacemaker in his chest. "But I don't know if that's from steroids or all the speed I took," he says.

Doubts linger for some of the men and their families.

Kocourek, whose visit to the doctor late in that 1963 training camp prompted the players to rethink Gillman and Roy's plan, was never able to have children.

Don Norton, a wide receiver, had his first heart attack when he was 39, and died 20 years later from complications during open-heart surgery. Norton's two surviving brothers, Dennis and Steve, and his widow, Luanne, say there was no history of heart disease in the family, and that Don kept his normal trim physique after he left football.

After he started lifting and taking Dianabol, Luanne Norton says, Norton added 25 pounds of muscle.

"He took them as long as the Chargers gave them out," she says. "He thought they had a great deal of impact on his health. I know he never took any of that afterwards."

Players almost never discussed the Dianabol even among themselves, Hadl says, until stories about steroid abuse started breaking in the 1980s and '90s.

"Through the years, Lance and I were glad we didn't do it," he says.

Not because of health concerns, he says. They're just glad they haven't had to apologize for taking a performance-enhancing drug.

The "wild West" days Sweeney mentions included a number of behaviors the players of the day might not be comfortable explaining: recreational drug and alcohol use, amphetamines by the bucketful, parties that would make even Hugh Hefner blush. Yes, they paid -- some are still paying -- the toll those things took on their bodies. But they behaved that way by choice.

As the players on the Chargers look back on their Dianabol days, the slow revealing over the decades of what the steroids might have done to their health is in a different category.

"It gives me a little anger. It makes me angry. To do something like that …" Shea says. "People that you trusted -- Sid Gillman; Barron Hilton, the owner; the other coaches -- no respect for us at all."

Mix says Gillman and Roy should have known better: The warnings were available. If Kocourek could find out by asking his physician, Gillman and Roy could have done the same.

"[Roy] was a very knowledgeable guy. Unfortunately, apparently, he had a major character flaw," Mix says. "And that character flaw was [that] he wanted results. He didn't care how you got the outcome of the results. And, if the outcome of the results included using something that had the potential of being dangerous, he endorsed it. Hence the Dianabol."

That's unfair, Roy's daughters say. They don't want their father's life to be a throwaway line, that he was "the steroid guru of football" and nothing else.

"He never had an opportunity to be in the debate to share his views," Astrid Clements says.

Gillman died in 2003. Roy died in 1979, before the press and public fully considered steroids' place in sport, four years before the NFL banned them. His daughters say they have never found a word about steroids or any other performance-enhancing drug in all of his correspondence.

Clements likes to think her father probably felt the same way John Ziegler, the physician who pressed the U.S. weightlifters to use steroids, did at the end of his life: deeply remorseful for what he had unleashed.

"It was something that was originally created to be cutting-edge, something that would enhance strength, and would be good, that ended up turning out to be not so good," she says.

Petrich says he can't blame Gillman and Roy; nor does he worry that the pills might have affected him, especially as he, Shea and Sweeney swap stories about their artificial knees and hips.

"The game itself did a lot more damage to us than any steroid could ever do," Petrich says. "And, if they told you to take a pill and you didn't want to take it, what are they going to do? Force it down your throat? You did these things voluntarily, and had they known that they were harmful to us … "

Here, Petrich pauses. Then, "I venture to say there's a 50-50 chance they would have not done it."

T.J. Quinn is a reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit. He can be reached at tjquinn31@yahoo.com. ESPN producers Rayna Banks and Arty Berko, along with Sean D. Hamill, also contributed to this story.