Column: Cheating in life

By Mike Szwaja

In 1991, I was an 8-year-old kid who was just beginning to realize that my life was going to revolve around sports. The Bulls were about to win their first championship, my dad was teaching me that (next to church of course) Sundays belonged to the Bears and for the first time, I was upset that Blackhawks home games weren’t on TV.

It was a fun time in my life because, let’s face it, Saturday morning cartoons were less and less cool every week. I began to love sports because I never knew what was going to happen. The script was unwritten, and I loved that.

To this day, I remember the first time a sports-related story actually broke my heart. We’re talking ruined-my-day-sadness here, not just throwing a pillow across the room because the Bulls lost to the Bucks on a last-second Fred Roberts jumper.

I was watching one of those magazine-style news shows (20/20, Dateline, etc.) with my dad, and this scary looking guy in a do-rag appeared on the TV. He was in a wheelchair, and he was talking about these drugs he used to take during his days as an NFL football player. His name was Lyle Alzado.

“What are steroids, dad?” I asked.

“The drugs that ruined that guy’s life, Michael,” he said.

I vividly remember watching Alzado sit in his wheelchair, looking 40 years past his age and knowing his brain cancer would kill him in the near future. I cried.

On that night, I told myself, “Look at that guy, why would anyone do a drug that could cause all that pain? I hope people learn from his mistakes.”

I’ve since read that steroid use has no known connection with brain cancer, but I’ve also read that Alzado, a Super Bowl champion, two-time All-Pro, B-movie actor and heavy steroid user, was adamant that his steroid use caused his brain cancer and ultimately his death in 1992.

So when BALCO, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Jose Canseco and others started making headlines concerning steroid use in baseball, my first thought was seeing Alzado on TV that night. I feared one day I would see Jason Giambi on TV 10 years later telling his story from a wheelchair, urging young athletes to resist the temptations steroids offer.

As this steroid scare plays itself out, it seems I’m in the minority here. It seems baseball fans and the media alike are ignoring the health-related side effects of steroids and focusing on the cheating. The number one concern with most people in this whole thing is whether asterisks should appear after all these players’ stats in the record books.

Personally, the asterisks mean nothing to me. Put them in, leave them out, makes no difference to this baseball fan. The fact that these guys could very well be killing themselves worries me more than anything. And we’re not just talking about brain cancer here. According to www.webmd.com, steroids may also cause liver cancer, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which in turn can cause coronary artery disease, heart attacks, strokes and kidney cancer.

Somehow, the medical evidence and the story of Lyle Alzado don’t seem to bother these guys. I find myself wondering these days if I’ll cry, like I did for Alzado, 10 years from now when I see them doing TV interviews in wheelchairs. Probably not because they were warned.

In Bonds’ circus of a press conference on Tuesday, one of the reporters on hand asked him whether using steroids constitutes cheating.

“I don’t know what cheating is,” Bonds said. “I don’t believe steroids can help your eye-hand coordination, technically hit a baseball. I just don’t believe it. That’s my opinion.”

Okay, fine, that’s a perfectly honest and valid opinion, but Bonds doesn’t get it. When you use steroids, you might not be cheating in baseball, but you’re cheating in life, and your body will dish out the punishment later.

For the love of Lyle Alzado, let’s hope all steroid users never forget that.