They came in small blue pills that someone told him were Dianabol, each packing 5 milligrams of superstrength and superspeed. They made Greg Schwab feel superhuman. Made him stronger stronger...

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They came in small blue pills that someone told him were Dianabol, each packing 5 milligrams of superstrength and superspeed.

They made Greg Schwab feel superhuman. Made him stronger. Made him faster. Made him irritable. Pocked his clear skin with acne.
Like any of that mattered at the time. Schwab was a football player, an offensive lineman, the picture of size and strength. He didn’t take a steroid until his junior year at the University of Oregon. He didn’t need to. He didn’t want to.

Then he felt he had to. He couldn’t get any bigger or stronger or faster. All those weights and workouts and face stuffing weren’t enough.

Hitting that ceiling hurt his pride, his dreams and, most important, his chance at the National Football League. So he turned to the same place that media attention turned last summer, to those tiny pills that sparked the BALCO controversy, the new S-word that cut through the nobility of competition and straight to what mattered.

This was going to be his deep, dark secret, tucked inside a closet most keep closed and locked forever. But then Greg Schwab became an educator, a teacher, a coach and an administrator.

He pried his closet open, and out popped a personal crusade.

“We didn’t really know about the dangers,” said Schwab, now the principal of Mountlake Terrace High School and a speaker against steroid use. “You lifted weights, you practiced, you ate as much as you could, and you took steroids. That was life.

“This is a dangerous thing. And it’s a growing problem. Thing is, I have the opportunity to do something about it.”

Speaking out

So Schwab speaks. To CNN. To newspaper reporters and television journalists. To the Office of National Drug Control Policy. To community groups. To the students who walk the hallways at Mountlake Terrace High.

He wonders why schools don’t use peer pressure against steroids, involve more parents, take the issue head on and ultimately “change the culture from within.”

Dr. Linn Goldberg studies steroid use for Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. He works frequently with Schwab. This is what they talk about:

• Use on the national level has ballooned more than 60 percent since 1996 among 12th-graders and increased more than 30 percent among eighth-graders. Overall, Goldberg puts the estimate at somewhere between 3.5 and 4 percent nationally, between half a million and a million kids.

• The steroid impact on developing bodies is worse than on developed ones. It can stunt growth, add turbulence to a period of instability, give them “roid rage” and dot their faces red like pepperoni on a pizza.

“Adolescents are associated with greater anxiety and aggressiveness already,” Goldberg said. “It can heighten all of those emotions, depending on how much they’re using and for how long.”

They know there’s a culture going on out there, and it reaches further down than those focused on the BALCO and Olympic steroid scandals fathom. It reaches all the way to high schools.

To the superstar athletes aiming for Division I scholarships. To the marginal athletes just trying to make the team. To the nonathletes aiming to look buff. To all the kids Schwab dedicates himself to saving.

“Nowadays, it’s easier to understand why people would turn that way,” Schwab said. “We’ve become more competitive. Competition has reached down to the lowest levels. I mean, high schools have spring football practice. We never had that.

“Nike understands the power of celebrity appeal. It’s the same thing. Kids see these guys using steroids and think, ‘If they’re doing it, maybe I should be doing it.’ “

The steroid culture

Schwab understands the culture behind steroids, an added dose of credibility when he’s pontificating on the subject. He was once swept up in it. He once believed in it, protected it and gained from it.

The first thing that struck Schwab about steroids was the ease with which they were obtained. He went to a teammate he knew was using — Schwab won’t name names — and, for $100, he obtained one cycle.

Each pill packed 5 milligrams, and Schwab would increase his intake from 5 to 10 milligrams and to 15 milligrams until the cycle’s peak, then go down in the same increments.

He never asked the teammate where he got the steroids.

“It wasn’t something that we talked about,” Schwab said. “We just did it. There’s very much a culture of secrecy surrounding steroids, much more so than any other drug. It just wasn’t something we talked about. But we knew.”

Schwab couldn’t read the German writing on the bottle, but he could read the bulging numbers in the weight room. Two months after he started, his bench press went from 390 pounds to 440, his squat jumped from 500 to 650, his power clean shifted from 300 to 350. Most impressively, he simultaneously gained weight — 30 pounds — and increased speed. His 40-yard-dash dropped from 5.5 seconds to 5.17.

Weren’t his coaches concerned with such a burst? This couldn’t be normal. Could it?

“Nobody ever asked me, ‘Hey, are you using steroids?’ ” recalled Schwab, who said he quit taking steroids after a failed tryout with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, a year after college. “Instead, it was, ‘Congratulations for getting bigger and faster and stronger.’ It was constant praise and approval.”

Schwab, who played for the Ducks in the 1980s, reminds interviewers that this culture didn’t exist solely at Oregon. It happens all over the country, he said, in high school, in college, in the pros, in every level of every sport.

“It’s much, much more prevalent than people think,” Schwab said.

Not another statistic

Schwab doesn’t look like a former steroid user. He has dropped more than 30 pounds since his playing days. He looks like your everyday administrator: crisp tie, starched shirt, shiny dress shoes. He looks like a fortunate ex-athlete, slim and fit and still able to knock a blocking sled downfield.

He knows he’s lucky. He hasn’t suffered any long-term effects. Friends haven’t been so lucky. Friends have become statistics. Schwab hasn’t. And he doesn’t want any of his students to.

“We’ve always had this belief,” Schwab said, “that competition is about these noble pursuits. It’s one man’s ability versus another man’s ability. That’s why people have such a hard time with steroids. They fly in the face of the ideals of athletics and competition that we’ve created.”

They also fly in the face of common sense. And that’s how one man’s deep, dark secret became his personal crusade. About the dangers. About the risks. About life well lived, culture of secrecy be damned.

“One kid,” Schwab said. “One parent. One discussion. That’s where we’re starting. Let’s change one life and go from there.”

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com