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.
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.
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."
By any other name
While users still refer to methandrostenolone as Dianabol, the trademark on the name actually expired several years ago and was purchased by an Atlanta man named Jared Wheat, who used it for a nonsteroidal diet supplement. Wheat, arrested in 2006 on numerous federal charges, knew some users would buy it thinking they were purchasing an anabolic steroid.-- T.J. Quinn
"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.)