Cheaters can prosper on drugs at NFL tryout
By Mark Zeigler
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
March 7, 2008
He is a prominent football player from a West Coast university and he is talking about how some, not all, college players circumvent the NCAA's testing program for banned performance-enhancing substances. And how some, not all, professional players circumvent the NFL's drug-testing program.
Chargers head coach Norv Turner watched about 300 players last month at the NFL Scouting Combine at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
And then he gets to the four-or five-month window between the end of the college season and the April NFL draft, when scouts evaluate players through a series of physical skills at the official NFL Combine or more intimate Pro Day workouts on college campuses, where a player's future is essentially determined.
“Here's what everyone thinks: I'm not going to get tested, so why not?” said the player, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Why not use whatever I want?
“That's the mentality.”
When the BALCO doping machine was in full glory, Victor Conte assembled a crew of experts to transform sprinter Tim Montgomery into the world's fastest man. Montgomery began in November 2000. He weighed 148 pounds. He could bench press 265 pounds.
By January, after two months of Conte's potions, Montgomery weighed 176, was leaner than ever and could bench press 345.
NFL Pro Days
What: Individual workouts for school players entering the NFL draft.
Local dates: USD's Pro Day is today at 1 p.m. San Diego State's Pro Day is tomorrow at 1 p.m. UCLA's is scheduled for Thursday, and USC's for April 2.
Drills: Players are measured and weighed. They also perform standardized athletic tests: a 40-yard dash, vertical leap, long jump, shuttle drill, cone drill and a 225-pound bench press. Players also sometimes perform position-specific drills.
The Combine: The top 300-odd players were invited to the official NFL Scouting Combine on Feb. 20-26 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, where they were evaluated by representatives of all 32 teams. Players are not required to attend, but most do.
The draft: April 26 and 27, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Drug testing: Players submit to a urine test at the combine, but unannounced tests between the end of the college season in January and the late April draft are rarely, if ever, conducted – leaving players with a window to use performance-enhancing substances without fear of repercussion while trying to impress NFL scouts.
“And that's with an athlete under the gold standard of Olympic testing,” said Conte, founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO. “Can you imagine what a football player could do when they're basically free to use anything they want? This was eight weeks. You've got five months.”
Soon, football players will be subjected to drug testing from high school – it's already happening in Texas – through college and into their professional careers. But one conspicuous gap remains, between college and the pros, and it is arguably the most important five months of a player's football life.
Most players get one shot at the NFL and its riches. They stop going to classes and train full time, they work out for scouts and they are drafted or sign as a free agent.
Or they start looking for a real job.
Now, consider that players are being judged largely on how fast they run a 40-yard dash, how many times they can bench press 225 pounds, how high they can jump, or whether their weight meets NFL standards for their position.
And consider that anabolic steroids and other banned substances can greatly enhance those physical attributes in a short period of time.
And that the chance of facing an unannounced drug test from the final college game in December or January until it's time to report to an NFL club in late spring is almost nil.
And that even if tested, players likely face no suspension from the NFL if their urine sample comes back positive.
It's a simple formula: Pressure meets temptation meets anarchy.
The result, many surmise, is a doping free-for-all.
“Steroids will definitely help you, and I think most athletes know that,” said Dave DePew, a San Diego-based personal trainer and nutritionist who has curtailed his work with pro athletes because of his aversion to steroids. “The unfortunate reality is that most of these athletes will take advantage of that if they know they're not going to get caught.
“I mean, you have NFL scouts saying that you're a great player – if only you were 20 pounds heavier or a little faster in the 40-yard dash. What is a kid supposed to think? What is he supposed to do?” DePew said.
In recent years, the NCAA has expanded its drug-testing program to include college bowl games. A player's first test under the NFL program is generally part of a preseason physical exam in May, June or July.
Between college and that physical exam, there is one scheduled drug test, at the annual NFL Combine in February. Players know it is coming, and a doping regimen can be adjusted accordingly to erase a steroid's chemical fingerprint.
Head coach Tom Coughlin of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants attended the NFL Scouting Combine last month in Indianapolis. Players are drug tested at the combine, but they know it, and a doping regimen can be adjusted.
Or as Conte likes to say: “It's not a drug test, it's an IQ test.”
The NFL policy says that “pre-employment tests may be administered to free agents (whether rookies or veterans),” although those tests must be initiated by a club after it has engaged a player in contract discussions. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello would not disclose how often that happens, saying only that clubs “can and do” request them.
However, no player or agent interviewed for this story said they knew of a single instance where a prospect submitted to an unannounced test in the months before the draft.
All of which means two things as players try to recover from college injuries or shave three-tenths of a second off their 40-yard time:
1. They can use performance-enhancing drugs.
2. They can use any drugs they want, not just the limited array of substances that can't be detected in standard urine tests.
Washington Redskins offensive lineman Ross Tucker wrote a column for SI.com last month in which he quoted, without naming them, two “newly retired NFL players” who admitted to using banned substances to prepare for predraft workouts.
One said he took human growth hormone to heal a bad shoulder, rationalizing he “had worked too hard to let one injury negatively affect my dream.”
The other put it this way: “Right after my college season I sat down and weighed the pros and cons of taking steroids, and ultimately decided that the pros outweighed the cons. I looked at this (Pro Day workout) as my one shot in life.”
He added, “I put up very solid numbers and got my shot.”
The most famous player to test positive for steroids at the combine is Northwestern defensive lineman Luis Castillo. He later explained he was trying to heal a lingering elbow injury and wrote letters to all 32 teams apologizing for making “a huge mistake.”
His punishment: He was referred for “reasonable cause testing,” meaning he could be subjected to more tests than other NFL players.
Whether testing positive hurts, or perhaps helps, a player's draft stock is open to debate. Is he shunned for violating a sacred tenet of sport? Or is he prized for exhibiting a willingness to do whatever it takes in a league that puts such a high premium on becoming bigger, stronger, faster?
The Chargers took Castillo in the first round of the 2005 draft, No. 28 overall, and signed him to a five-year contract worth up to $10 million.
Agents say most top players are “slotted” in a draft window – say, the second to fourth round – and their performance at the combine or Pro Day can move them up or down within it. There also are the hundreds of guys from smaller schools just trying to get noticed.
The stopwatch, or weight bench, is their ticket.
“Teams are always looking for the perfect height, weight, speed package to go with the great football player,” agent David Caravantes said. “They want guys who look like Tarzan and don't play like Jane.”
To that end, agents probe general managers and scouts for what improvements would make their clients more attractive, knowing full well that moving up in the draft can mean millions of dollars. Castillo would have made half as much had he gone one round later.
The most common suggestion is to get heavier.
“You can gain weight, sure,” Conte said. “But is that weight going to be lean muscle mass? Are you still going to be as fast in the 40? When a guy takes off his shirt and he's ripped with 30 pounds more lean muscle mass, that guy's suspect.”
Conte said he agrees with trainers who claim weight and strength gains can be achieved using legal products over a period of months. But he also “guesstimates” that it is “one-fourth of what you could do with steroids and other (banned) stuff.”
I'm not going to get tested, so why not?
“I don't think it's as big as people probably think it is, because of what's going on in the news right now with steroids,” said Caravantes, who has represented several players from San Diego State University and insisted his clients are clean. “But I'm sure it's happening. We'd be stupid to think it's not.”