Commentary

Lex Luger's confessions of a drug-abuse survivor

Originally Published: September 13, 2007
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

"If you snort it, spray it, shoot it, inject it, I did it, buddy. Or I was around it. That was my life. Alcohol? I abused it all, buddy. I took a lot of pills. I was a pill popper."
-- Lex Luger, aka "The Total Package"

KENNESAW, Ga. -- Just before high noon, sun scorching down so intensely that it softens the asphalt, a sweet, white and black '66 Caddy Sedan de Ville rolls up to within a few yards of the Golden Corral, a buffet joint. Out steps an old egotistical, narcissistic heel clad in khaki pants, a plaid cotton shirt and sandals.

In a matter of moments, Lex Luger abruptly breaks into wrestling character, a cocksure grin on his tanned face. He tilts his head and rolls his eyes up to the blue heavens. He pushes up his right sleeve to flex his ripped, ham-bone-sized bicep.

Then, just as suddenly, the shtick ends. With metal cane in hand, Luger hobbles off to lunch.

Lex Luger
Russell Turiak/Getty ImagesIn the ring, Lex Luger was a one-man admiration society for . . . well, Lex Luger.
For the next couple hours, between trips to the chow line and chats with the folks who wander by his table, the 49-year-old Luger spins his horror stories about Lex as a younger man. That Lex dabbled in so many prescription narcotics, recreational drugs, cocktails and steroids, Luger says, that it's a wonder he hasn't joined the growing list of dead-before-their-time pro wrestlers, which unofficially numbers more than 100 over the past decade.

In a quiet moment he recalls sitting helpless in the wee hours as his girlfriend, wrestling personality Miss Elizabeth, died four years ago in the townhouse they shared. The cause, according to the coroner's report, was "acute toxicity" brought on by a smorgasbord of prescription painkillers and vodka.

"I take a lot of responsibility for that -- my influence in her life," he says. "Her little heart and body couldn't take what I was doing."

Later on the day Miss Elizabeth died, police found more than 1,000 illegal pills during a search of their suburban Atlanta townhouse. Eventually, Luger was charged with 13 counts of felony drug possession, for which he received probation as a first offender. He later went to jail for a parole violation in 2006, which is when he came across prison chaplain Steve Baskin, whom he credits with helping turn his life around.

The new Lex, a born-again Christian, eagerly shares what he calls "confessions of a drug abuser." He is down-to-earth and contrite, even as he occasionally reverts to the larger-than-life character who won multiple championship belts and was one of professional wrestling's headliners in his heyday. He rails now against the dangers of drug abuse -- the pill-popping, the steroids, the recreational substances.

Wrestling the Pills

Lex Luger was a patient of Dr. Phil Astin in suburban Atlanta, but says Astin didn't over-prescribe the painkillers Luger was using for a hip ailment that might require surgery later this year. Other former professional wrestlers tell a different story, though, about Astin, who was indicted in July on seven counts of over-prescribing medication to two unnamed patients.

Pill bottles for prescriptions from Astin were found in the homes of two wrestlers who died unexpectedly, including Chris Benoit, in the last 18 months. Read ESPN.com investigative reporter Mike Fish's exploration of the relationship between Astin and the wrestlers he treated.

Fish: Chris Benoit's doctor prescribed for other wrestlers

Mostly, he does it by urging the abusers to come clean and to get clean. And where better to start than by making an example of himself and his hellish skid from fame and fortune, which saw him go from a $1 million-a-year wrestling gig to temporary residence in a spare bedroom of his minister's apartment.

"Wow, I believe I was so close to dying so many times from overdoses," says Luger, who claims his lone physical ailment at the moment is a broken-down hip due for surgery sometime this fall. 'One heart beat away,' I tell people in my faith-based speaking. That, I believe, is why God put me in a role to shed light on the situation in our culture and in our sports. Our sports are affecting our culture.

"It's the ends justifies the means in sports. We are taught that since we were little. The old, 'Do whatever you got to do to win, to be the best. Step over, step on and step through.' So that is how all this performance-enhancing drugs got into our culture. And that leads to guys wanting to take shortcuts. And then, cheat until you get caught, and then lie."

Luger can trace his own introduction to steroids to a long-ago football career. He played in college as an offensive guard at Penn State and, later, at the University of Miami. In the early 1980s, he had stints in three different pro leagues -- the Canadian Football League, National Football League and the now-defunct United States Football League.

In 1979, Luger played for Miami, which featured future All-Pro quarterback Jim Kelly and current University of Georgia coach Mark Richt, until he was booted off the team for an incident that wasn't drug-related. When he left the Hurricanes, he moved less than an hour up Florida's Sun Coast to Fort Lauderdale, where he worked as a bouncer at a popular night spot until the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL called with a tryout offer.

"I wanted to look good on the beach, so I had slimmed down to about 235,'' says Luger, who was born Larry Pfohl in Buffalo, N.Y. "Now here it's February and camp starts in May. And I was an offensive guard. Back then, they were quick, pulling guards -- not 300-pound monsters. But I needed to be at least like 255.

Lex Luger
Mike Fish for ESPN.comLex Luger is still all muscle . . . when he wants to be.
"So I had to gain weight quick -- the unethical, cheating shortcut. Guy in the gym said, 'Buddy, these little blue pills are called Dianabol.' And I took four a day, five milligrams apiece. You get on these steroids and you train better, eat more. And you retain water from them. So I gained 15 pounds in about two months. I jumped on it and it worked.

"And it is the same old thing: Once you do something one time, it leads to another. And then I started in the offseason, where I would do one cycle for 12 weeks. A friend of mine was an exercise physiologist. She monitored my blood [levels]. I never took it in-season. I'd just take it in the offseason to build as much strength as I could."

Dianabol is a powerful anabolic steroid.

In 1985, after the demise of the USFL, Luger retired his football pads and took his then-chiseled 6-foot-4, 270-pound physique to the pro wrestling scene, which was evolving into something of a beauty pageant for guys in spandex tights. He learned the ropes kicking around a regional circuit in Florida. Later in his two-decade career, Luger became a marquee character, and shared headliner status with the likes of Sting ("One of the few that stuck by me when my life was a wreck"), Ric Flair and "Macho Man" Randy Savage (Miss Elizabeth's ex-husband).

He often played the role of the self-centered bad guy, posing in front of full-length mirrors before his matches. His chemically enhanced physique was part of his costume.

"I was on display year round with my shirt off," he says. "So what happens in wrestling is a lot of the guys stay on [steroids]. I never stayed on them year-round. I would go on them for 12 weeks, off them for 12.

"I did testosterone and Deca [Durabolin]. It wasn't classified. It wasn't against the law."

But in the 1990s, the law and the climate about steroids both changed. Vince McMahon Jr., overseer of the World Wrestling Entertainment enterprise, faced federal steroid distribution charges, a rap he beat. McMahon and others also began drug-testing their in-the-ring performers, although Luger says the wrestlers had little trouble getting around the pee-in-the-bottle routine.

The irony is that the sport continued to sell massive, cartoon-like superheroes even during the public steroid fuss. That pitch hasn't changed much. Nor, presumably, has the doping regimens that help build at least some of those ripped, cut physiques.

University of Miami AthleticsBefore he was Lex Luger, he was Larry Pfohl from Buffalo, playing football for the University of Miami in 1979.
"Vince [McMahon] sells bigger-than-life," Luger says. "And bigger-than-life, what does that mean? A lot of chemically enhanced heroes and villains -- guys my height and size or bigger. You can't see that on the street every day. You have to buy a ticket to see that. So he sells basically the freaks. The modern-era giants. The [Hulk] Hogans, too. I don't mean that disrespectfully. That is meant as a compliment in today's lingo. They are so out of the ordinary."

The not-so-veiled message, according to Luger: To pull down oodles of cash, get big. Get bigger. And stay big.

And finding drugs to fuel the growth machine never proved to be a problem, Luger says. For him, it was as simple as an online purchase, or hustling up a black-market source.

The new Lex Luger won't name names, but he talks about a place in Atlanta where he could pick up a three-month supply of human growth hormone and testosterone, his favorite muscle-builder. He says such sources dot the landscape from Albany to San Francisco. He talks about a man in California who is currently supplying the drugs to hundreds of wrestlers and other pro athletes.

When the cops searched Luger's condominium on the day Miss Elizabeth died back in 2003, they found a bag he'd never bothered unpacking. Luger claims his ex-wife had sent it over from his former house in a gated, country club community. According to the police report, it contained an assortment of prescription painkillers, plus a bountiful selection of performance-enhancing substances that ranged from six boxes of human growth hormone to 88 bottles of various anabolic steroids.

"I didn't know I had it, and I would never have kept that stuff in my house," Luger says. "I would have had a friend keep it for me. Athletes won't keep it in their house. They'll go over to their friends' house and get their shots and stuff."

Reach Lex Luger

Lex Luger claims to have dramatically changed his me-first persona, and says he is now all about helping others. Luger is open to hearing from anyone struggling to turn his or her life around, or from people with fitness or nutrition questions.

He can be reached at www.christianlivingmag.com.

Along the way through their careers, he says, athletes sometimes latch on to a friendly doctor or two who is willing to help, someone they can rely on to write a prescription for a steroid or a painkiller.

From 2004 until this July, Luger says he was obtaining prescriptions for pain medicine, specifically the narcotic hydrocodone, from Dr. Phil Astin III, the 52-year-old Carrollton, Ga., doctor currently under federal indictment for overprescribing medications. Astin treated several pro wrestlers, including Chris Benoit, who committed suicide in June after killing his wife and young son.

Luger, however, staunchly defends Astin. He says a gym friend recommended Astin to him, and that the doctor was never a source of steroids.

"I was under pain-management therapy or hydrocodone, just legal amounts," Luger says. "I need to have hip surgery that I've been putting off. I do a little hydrocodone and some Advil and Aleve, buddy. That is all I take. That's why I was seeing him -- a little bit of pain management."

Painkillers such as hydrocodone, along with other anti-anxiety and mood-altering drugs, appear to be at least as significant a factor as steroids in wrestling's high mortality rate, though. The fruits of the performance-enhancing drugs are as obvious as the sports' neatly scripted matches. Unseen, at least by the public, are the ravages -- sometimes leading to death -- brought on by years of dependency on prescription medications, which are often combined with a steady diet of booze and steroids.

Many pro wrestlers, say Luger and others who've competed in the sport, initially turn to painkillers to cope with the nightly rigors and nagging injuries of the circuit. In some cases, a dependency on the narcotics develops.

Lex Lugar
Mike Fish for ESPN.comThese days, Luger needs a cane to get around because of a hip problem.
Luger lived that lifestyle while, by his count, he performed 300 days a year. He'd hustle out of an arena after a show, pumped on adrenaline, and then party into the wee hours and catch a 6:30 flight in the morning. Some nights, his head never hit the pillow. He'd roll into the next town, catch a meal, grab some caffeine or ephedrine to keep going, work out in a gym, do another show and start the cycle all over.

"With my generation, there was no accountability," he says. "We left the building at 11 o'clock, and you lived dual lives on the road. We were like a big dysfunctional family. We fed off each other. And then we go home and sober up. But unfortunately, drugs are drugs. And the guys let that spill over into their home lives. And if the families didn't get intervention and stuff, a lot of us died.

"I was a heartbeat away. I almost overdosed probably dozens of times. I had a really fast metabolism. Part of why Lex stayed so lean wasn't just drugs. God blessed me with a very fast metabolism. I metabolized drugs quickly. That is not good, but it saved my life a bunch of times. I went in deep a bunch of times with pills and alcohol. I was a pill-popper. And I abused alcohol toward the end, real bad. And I got caught with steroids in my house. I am a convicted felon. I deserved it. And I take accountability for that.

"I am trying to help others avoid what happened in my life, and my family and friends that I devastated. I dishonored my profession. I dishonored my community, all because I couldn't control myself and got this sick other lifestyle and drug abuse. I want to help our young kids stay away from that."

As he heads back to his car, the long lunch finished, Luger says the classic Caddy in which he arrived was a gift from his father last year. His dad tinkers with cars, and restored it a long time ago, painting it in the familiar colors of his son's wrestling garb: white boots with black tights and knee pads.

But today's Lex Luger says the younger Lex, the one who was lucky to survive those high-life years on the circuit, went almost 30 years between visits back to his father and the family home in western New York.

"I wrestled through there, but never went home," he says, shaking his head.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.