Do juiced-up Steelers teams deserve asterisks?


Alex Rodriguez’s admission of steroid use has unleashed a new round of debate in yet another fantasy game.

Where to put asterisks?

Which are the corrupted numbers?

Will Rodriguez’s eventual tally for hits and home runs warrant the mark of eternal shame?

Will Barry Bonds’ 762, or 73?

How about 354, Roger Clemens’ career win total?

Or maybe, 6?

That’s the number I propose for consideration. If it doesn’t sound like a baseball number, that’s because it isn’t. Still, if you want baseball — a game that quantifies itself for posterity — to acknowledge its tainted records, then football should have to do the same, no?

I have recently returned from the Super Bowl, which was not merely thrilling, but as you’ve no doubt been assured, historic. In beating the Arizona Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Steelers became the first NFL franchise to win six Super Bowls. Such success has been attributed to great players, great coaches and — John Facenda’s voice, please — to the fair and forward-thinking House of Rooney.

But what about steroids? Do the Steelers reach six without steroids?

They won four titles in the Seventies. But those teams — the offensive linemen, in particular — had a notorious, and not undeserved, reputation for abusing performance-enhancing drugs.

Let’s not deign to indulge the standard excuse that steroids were legal back then. Winked at, perhaps. But legal, definitely not. The NFL didn’t have a full-blown steroid policy — by which I mean one with required testing and proscribed punishments — until 1989, a full 15 years before major league baseball. But as is the case in baseball, misuse of prescription drugs was always prohibited.

As it pertained to illicit performance-enhancing drugs, the NFL of the ’70s was not unlike the Major Leagues of the ’90s. Juicing may have been accepted in certain precincts of certain locker rooms, but just the same, juicers had good reason to keep their business hidden for fear of stigma and sanction.

“They knew what they were doing,” said Kim Wood, who from 1975 to 2002 was the strength and conditioning coach for the Steelers divisional rival, the Cincinnati Bengals. “They knew they were cheating.”

In the case of the old Steelers, the anecdotal evidence is as damning as it is overwhelming. Steve Courson, a Steelers lineman from ’78 to ’83, issued his well-known confession in a magazine article and later, an autobiography entitled “False Glory: Steelers and Steroids.” “To say that anabolic steroids didn’t play a role in the Steelers’ success would be a falsehood,” said Courson, who developed heart problems after his retirement.

Then there’s Hall of Fame center Mike Webster — dead of heart failure at 50 — who compensated for a lack of natural size by adding artificial size. The brother of linebacker Steve Furness — 49 when his heart gave out — also suspected that steroids played a role in the death. Even a running back like Rocky Bleier admitted to ESPN that steroids were part of his offseason training regimen.

A few years ago, Jim Haslett had this to say on the subject of steroids and the NFL: “It started, really, in Pittsburgh. They got an advantage on a lot of football teams. They were so much stronger (in the) ’70s, late ’70s, early ’80s. They’re the ones who kind of started it.”

While Haslett’s statement incurred the wrath of some in the Pittsburgh organization, the former linebacker was merely reiterating what so many in the business already thought about those Steeler teams.

“The Steelers in the ’70s were one of the most influential teams on the game of football, especially the weight training part,” says Wood. “It was the success of that team that had to do with the phenomenon being really, really accepted for use by football players.”

Describing the spread of steroid use from high schools to the NFL, he said: “it wasn’t a trickle down. It was a waterfall.”

Wood qualifies as an old school moralist on the subject. “It’s a drug that appeals to insecure men,” he says. “The first thing you have to do is fess up to yourself, that you don’t have enough of the stuff that makes a man.”

Was it fair, I asked, for his team to be regularly paired against a juiced-up rival?

“How did I feel personally? I was pissed off. It put tremendous pressure on me.”

He could hear the whispers, why don’t our guys get gacked up like the Steelers? Fortunately, he says, he had strong support coming from the top of the organization, especially from owner Paul Brown, that insulated him from that pressure. “I refused to be an enabler for weak people,” says Wood, who dismisses my asterisk theory.

There is no denying the greatness of those Pittsburgh teams, he says. What’s more, it didn’t begin with the offensive line. Rather, it began with the defense and players like linebacker Jack Ham, whom he calls a friend. The legacies of guys like Ham and the great defensive back Mel Blount, Wood says, should not be questioned for the misdeeds of the weaklings.

But that’s not why he considers my proposed asterisk laughable. Wood knows the numbers of premature deaths among those Steeler alums. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist Dave Hyde recently noted that, since 1996, 13 veterans of those championship teams died before the age 60. Of the 13, seven were heart attacks. (Courson, it’s worth mentioning, died when a tree fell on him).

Performance-enhancing substances do not qualify as a cause on anyone’s death certificate. I’m not qualified to make a scientific case. But I know that football players are like professional wrestlers. No one really cares — certainly not enough — that they die young. After all, we don’t associate them with any records. We can’t represent their careers as statistical sagas.

Still, now you wonder what fate awaits the major leagues’ first generation of juicers.

“That’s the real perniciousness here,” says Wood. “Guys are talking about the stats being (messed) up?

“This isn’t a scandal about statistics or asterisk. This is a public health scandal.”