Skip to main content

'I'm Sick and I'm Scared'

The author, a former NFL star, has a dread disease that he blames on his use of performance-enhancing drugs

I lied. I lied to you. I lied to my family. I lied to a lot of people for a lot of years when I said I didn't use steroids. I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969, and I never stopped. Not when I retired from the NFL in 1985. Not ever. I couldn't, and then I made things worse by using human growth hormone, too. I had my mind set, and I did what I wanted to do. So many people tried to talk me out of what I was doing, and I wouldn't listen. And now I'm sick. I've got cancer—a brain lymphoma—and I'm in the fight of my life.

Everyone knows me as a tough, tough guy. And I've never been afraid of anything. Not any human, not anything. Then I woke up in the hospital last March and they told me, "You have cancer." Cancer. I couldn't understand it. All I knew was that I was just so weak. I went through all those wars on the football field. I was so muscular. I was a giant. Now I'm sick. And I'm scared.

It wasn't worth it. Sure, I played 15 years as a defensive end with the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Raiders and twice made All-Pro. But look at me now. I wobble when I walk and sometimes have to hold on to somebody. You have to give me time to answer questions, because I have trouble remembering things. I'm down to 215 pounds, 60 pounds less than I weighed just a few months ago, and I've got to grow back into my pants, they're so baggy. I've been in chemotherapy at the UCLA Medical Center and have done pretty well. I haven't thrown up or anything yet, but I don't have any hair and I wear a scarf on my head. The other day my wife, Kathy, and I drove into a gas station, and a guy there started making fun of my scarf. My "hat," he called it. I wanted to beat him up, but Kathy reminded me I wasn't strong enough. She said I'd have to wait until I get better.

I'm 42 years old. I have a nine-year-old son, Justin, who lives with his mother, Cindy, in New York. Kathy, who's a fashion model, and I were married last March, and we live in West Los Angeles. I got sick and went into the hospital two days after the wedding. And it was a few days later I found out I had cancer.

I know there's no written, documented proof that steroids and human growth hormone caused this cancer. But it's one of the reasons you have to look at. You have to. And I think that there are a lot of athletes in danger. So many of them have taken this same human growth hormone, and so many of them are on steroids. Almost everyone I know. They are so intent on being successful that they're not concerned with anything else. No matter what an athlete tells you, I don't care who, don't believe them if they tell you these substances aren't widely used. Ninety percent of the athletes I know are on the stuff. We're not born to be 280 or 300 pounds or jump 30 feet. Some people are born that way, but not many, and there are some 1,400 guys in the NFL.

When I was playing high school football in Cedarhurst, N.Y., I hadn't heard about steroid use by anybody. It wasn't until I got to college when I realized that, even though I'd been high school All-America, that wasn't enough to make it as a football player. I didn't have the size. I had the speed but not the size. I went to Kilgore College, a J.C. in Texas, and my speed enhanced my progress, but my size didn't. Then I went to Yankton College in South Dakota, the only school that would accept me. I realized I wasn't even big enough for a small school like that, so I started taking steroids. I don't remember now where I got them or how I even heard about them, but I know I started on Dianabol, about 50 milligrams a day.

The Dianabol was very easy to get, even in those days. Most athletes go to a gym for their steroids, and I think that's what I did. I remember a couple of weeks later someone mentioned how my biceps seemed to look bigger. I was so proud. I was lifting weights so much that the results were pretty immediate and dramatic. I went from 190 pounds to 220 by eating a lot, and then I went up to about 300 pounds from the steroids. People say that steroids can make you mean and moody, and my mood swings were incredible. That's what made me a football player, my moods on the field.

As I progressed, I changed steroids whenever I felt my body building a tolerance to what I was taking. It's hard to remember all the names now. I studied them a little. And I mixed combinations like a chemist. You had to take them both orally and inject them, mostly into your butt so no one would see the marks. I always gave myself injections at home in my bedroom. I got pretty good at it. I kept the steroids in my dresser.

My first year with the Broncos was 1971. I was like a maniac. I outran, outhit, outanythinged everybody, and I made the team after Pete Duranko got hurt in a preseason game against the Chicago Bears. I took his place. All along I was taking steroids, and I saw that they made me play better and better. I kept on because I knew I had to keep getting more size. I became very violent on the field. Off it, too. I did things only crazy people do. Once in 1979 in Denver a guy side-swiped my car, and I chased him up and down hills through the neighborhoods. I did that a lot. I'd chase a guy, pull him out of his car, beat the hell out of him.

We had such a defense in Denver, especially that Super Bowl year, 1977. I can't say if anybody else on the Broncos was on the stuff, but because I was, I have to think some of the others were. But I wasn't liked on the team, so I really didn't know what was going on.

I was so wild about winning. It's all I cared about, winning, winning. All I thought about. I never talked about anything else. I spent three years with the Browns, 1979 through '81. I had brought the steroids with me to Cleveland from Los Angeles, where I spent the off-seasons. It's easier to get them in L.A. than anywhere else. Guys on the Browns came to me and asked about steroids, and I'd tell them who to call or I'd give them what I had. They'd take them in the privacy of their own homes, and it wasn't talked about much—not in the locker room. If you were in the gym, you might say something, but you had to be very quiet because there were detectives around. I wasn't a dealer, but if I was asked, I'd help other guys get steroids. Because they were doing for me what I wanted them to do, I hoped they would do the same for the other players.

When I went to the Raiders in 1982, I took more and more doses and different combinations. Orally and injecting. I felt I had to keep up. I didn't sleep much, maybe three or four hours a night. My system would run so fast. I was taking the whole spectrum now. I'd feel my body close up on one drug, and I'd switch to another until my body would open up to the first one again.

I'm convinced that my biggest mistake was never going off cycle. According to the guys around the gym, if you go on steroids for six to eight weeks, then you're supposed to stop for the same number of weeks. Me, I'd be on the stuff for 10 or 12 weeks, and then I'd go off for only two, maybe three weeks, and I'd feel that was enough. It was addicting, mentally addicting. I just didn't feel strong unless I was taking something.

A lot of the guys on the Raiders asked me about steroids, and I'd help them get what they needed. A lot had their own sources. But I was the guy to get them if they needed something. I kept progressing into stronger things, the last stuff I remember taking was something called Bolasterone and Quinolone—very dangerous. Steroids can raise your cholesterol level, and at one point late in my career my cholesterol was over 400. I was warned, but I wouldn't listen.

I had injected so much that a few years ago a plastic surgeon operated on my butt. I had these lumps under my skin from where the needles went in. He went in and removed one baseball-sized mass of tissue and then found a bigger one underneath.

I got moodier and moodier, too. I had a couple of divorces. I yelled all the time. Anytime I'd walk into a restaurant or a bar, I always felt like I had to check everything out to make sure no one was going to mess with me. I was so high-strung that I needed to play a game every day. That is what was so hard when I decided to retire. I'd had an Achilles injury, which I'm sure was a result of all the steroid use. I've heard that steroids can lead to weakened tendons. I tore my biceps clear in half, everything on the left side of my body tore, and I think it was because of the long usage of some of that stuff.

All along, even after I retired, I was getting stuff from a gentleman who works out of one of the L.A. gyms. He was making a ton of money. In fact, most of the dealers don't have to do any other work. I went up to northern California a couple of times and bought stuff from a guy in San Jose, Steve Coons. He sold me the Bolasterone. [Coons is in custody awaiting trial after being indicted in a drug-related conspiracy and mail fraud case in the U.S. district court in San Jose.]

As I said, I kept taking the stuff after retiring from the Raiders in 1985. I couldn't stand the thought of being weak. I tried to taper down. Mostly I was taking lower dosages of Anavar and Equipoise. I thought it was stuff that would help me. But I know now I should have gone off it. I stayed too big, too mean. And that's probably why the idea came into my head to try to make a comeback last year. Everyone kept asking me why the Raiders weren't tough anymore, and I just decided to prove to everyone that I could come back. But that's what got me into real trouble. That's when things got really crazy.

I decided to take human growth hormone. They used to get it from glands in cadavers, but they started making genetically engineered HGH in 1985. I was 41 last year, and I decided that in order for me to make that comeback, for my body to remain intact, I had to use the growth hormone. I started taking it in mid-June and used it right up until this March along with testosterone cypionate, an anabolic steroid.

The cypionate gives you the size. And the growth hormone, well, it gives you muscle mass. I'd take two vials—one a fluid and one a white substance—and mix them together, and I'd have growth hormone. Then I'd inject it. It cost me a lot of money, $4,000 for 16 weeks just for the growth hormone. At times in my career I probably spent $20,000 to $30,000 a year on different stuff. But the HGH was still a big added expense. I got it from the guy at the gym. It wasn't the stuff from cadavers; it was the other kind.

I was working out so hard. Every day, long hours, long days. I remember every workout. I was tested for drugs along with everyone else in camp. I lined up, signed up and took the test, with everyone from the Raiders watching. And I passed. My teammates all were saying, "How did you pass that test?" I had been told to stop the cypionate a month before the test, that this would be enough time for me to pass. And human growth hormone can't be detected by testing, so I kept taking that. I passed with flying colors.

Did the Raider coaches know I was taking stuff no matter what the test said? It was just like it was when I was playing with the Broncos and Browns. I think the coaches knew guys were built certain ways, and they knew those guys couldn't look the way they did without taking stuff. But the coaches just coached and looked the other way.

My comeback hit a snag when I injured my knee. I had arthroscopic surgery, which went well. A month later I played in an exhibition game against Chicago. I came off the ball so fast, so hard. Oh, god, it felt great. I was working so hard. They cut me anyway. I think the only reason they didn't keep me was because they figured I was too old. I could have made it. I know I could have.

So I was out of football again, this time for good. I kept taking human growth hormone, and I was still doing the steroids. One day last fall I was on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles in a yogurt shop with Justin. I felt a big cough coming on so I went outside so I wouldn't spread any germs. I fainted. The next thing I knew I was getting up off the sidewalk with all this blood pouring from my face. I had fallen right on my face, on my nose. I broke the nose so bad they had to use plastic surgery to put it back together.

I stayed in the hospital four days while they fixed me up and ran a bunch of tests. They couldn't find anything. But I think that was the start. I think the tumors were beginning to fester in my head. In February I started to get a little dizzy. At first the doctor told me it was an inner ear infection and gave me some medication. For a while it helped.

Kathy was getting on me pretty good about the steroids I was taking, and I promised her I wouldn't take anything more after our wedding. I started tapering down even before the wedding. I think I was so excited about marrying Kathy that I didn't allow myself to notice that I was starting to get sicker. When I watch the video of the wedding, I see that, when I'm walking back down the aisle with her, I'm almost limping, listing to the right.

Two days later, in the apartment in Marina del Rey where we were living at the time, I started feeling dizzy. I couldn't talk. And I was seeing double. They put me in the hospital and took all kinds of tests and they told me I had some sort of virus. I went home and got worse and worse. I didn't eat for four days.

Finally, Kathy insisted to the doctors that I go back in, and they did a brain biopsy. I woke up the morning after, and they told me I had cancer. I couldn't believe it. I was just so weak. They started me on the radiation treatments, and I went home. Then I got an infection. But Kathy's dad was there. He saved my life. I wasn't breathing. I was purple. Kathy called 911, and her dad gave me CPR.

They took me to the hospital, and I kept having brain seizures every 20 minutes. It was so bad they put me in intensive care for two weeks, and I don't remember it at all. I keep trying, but I don't remember anything. They said I looked like I was just fading away.

On top of everything else, I'm told that my name has come up in various steroid cases. And, oh yes, my medical bills are enormous. But there are plans to have a benefit for me in the next few months.

This is the hardest thing I've ever done, to admit that I've done something wrong. If I had known that I would be this sick now, I would have tried to make it in football on my own—naturally. Whoever is doing this stuff, if you stay on it too long or maybe if you get on it at all, you're going to get something bad from it. I don't mean you'll definitely get brain cancer, but you'll get something. It is a wrong thing to do.

I'm sorry I lied. I'm sorry success meant so much to me. I just got married to a beautiful, beautiful woman. And I can't take her dancing. I can't take her to dinner. Justin understands that I'm very sick. I try to be real strong on the phone when I talk to him. I hope he'll read this article.

When I first got out of the hospital I felt inferior. Going from being built like I was to being built like this is very hard. But I don't feel inferior any longer. My strength isn't my strength anymore. My strength is my heart. If you're on steroids or human growth hormone, stop. I should have.



His illness and chemotherapy have left Alzado weak, hairless and some 60 pounds lighter.



Huizenga says he told Alzado about the risks even while trying not to be too judgmental.



Bulked up on the steroids and HGH, Alzado trained hard last year for an NFL comeback.



Alzado used steroids when with the Broncos (above), as he did while terrorizing quarterbacks for the Browns and Raiders (bottom).



[See caption above.]



[See caption above.]



Because of his illness, Lyle and Kathy, his wife of only four months, face an uncertain future.

A Doctor's Warning Ignored

Was Lyle Alzado's cancer caused by the performance-enhancing drugs he took—anabolic steroids and human growth hormone? Alzado thinks so, and Dr. Robert Huizenga, one of the physicians treating him, believes Alzado may be right. Huizenga, an internist practicing in Beverly Hills, was one of the Los Angeles Raiders' team doctors from 1983 until last fall. Sources close to the doctor say that Huizenga quit because the Raiders refused to tell a player that the player had a heart condition. Huizenga says that he resigned because of a "misunderstanding about the care the players were receiving." The Raiders deny the sources' claim and say they released Huizenga. With Alzado's permission, Huizenga discussed Alzado's case with SI's Shelley Smith.

SI: Did you know Lyle was taking steroids at the time he was playing for the Raiders?

R.H.: Yes. A difficult thing about medicine is what to do when somebody is doing things you might not agree with. Lyle and I battled since the early 1980s about his ingestion of certain things. I tried to be there and not be judgmental.

SI: What steroids did he take in those days?

R.H.: To my knowledge he took everything—injectable, oral, he cycled. When he played, we talked about it because his blood tests suggested he was taking massive amounts of steroids, but he never really discussed doses. He said in generalities what he was taking. Despite my admonitions that this was a major health risk, he kept doing it. He said it was a risk he wanted to take.

SI: When did you learn of his illness?

R.H.: He came to me at the end of February with symptoms of dizziness, loss of coordination of the right side of his body, double vision and slurred speech. Through a series of tests we were finally able to diagnose that he has a form of brain cancer that is very, very rare. He has T-cell lymphoma. That isn't to be confused with B-cell lymphoma, which is the lymphoma most commonly linked with AIDS.

SI: What kind of human growth hormone (HGH) was he taking?

R.H.: There are two types of human growth hormone. One is taken from cadaver pituitary glands and is homogenized and purified as much as possible. And then there is the genetically engineered hormone. He injected the genetically engineered hormone.

SI: We've had reports that Lyle may have taken cadaver-type human growth hormone before last year. Do you have any knowledge of this?

R.H.: Lyle told me he didn't take any HGH before his comeback attempt.

SI: Could Lyle's cancer have been caused by what he took?

R.H.: I think there's no question. We know anabolic steroids have cancer-forming ability. We know that growth hormones have cancer-growing ability.

SI: What other explanation could there be?

R.H.: Either bad luck or some kind of genetic quirk.

SI: Did Lyle undergo surgery after his illness was detected?

R.H.: He had a brain biopsy in early April and had some complications that required a second surgery to eradicate a brain abscess that had formed and become infected.

SI: And he's had chemotherapy?

R.H.: He's getting an unusual form of chemotherapy for lymphoma. It gives us a measure of hope, but you always have to be realistic.

SI: How does this chemotherapy work?

R.H.: The drug is called cisplatin. It gets a lot more of the cancer-fighting agent to the brain and less to the rest of the body.

SI: What is Lyle's prognosis?

R.H.: It's a tough, tough cancer. We have not had tremendous success with it. On the other hand, he's getting very good therapy, and he's responding well.

SI: Lyle says that he now wants to come out and help....

R.H.: That's the new Lyle.

SI: Is there really a new Lyle?

R.H.: Lyle is a great, great guy, but steroids can change a person. You can be talking to two different people.

SI: Are there other NFL players who could be at risk?

R.H.: A number of players on a number of teams who were heavy users in the past are at risk. We are very worried about those players.

SI: Why don't we know more about steroid usage by athletes and its effects?

R.H.: There are very few studies, and, frankly, the best group that could be studied and give useful information is NFL players. We—all the doctors of the clubs—agreed to back a study. We have not been embraced by the players' union or the league. Olympic athletes won't let us go back and study them because they're afraid they'll have their records taken away. We want to follow former players, and I believe we can get very honest answers from them because they have nothing to lose. From my contact, they're apprehensive about their past use, especially those who used heavy amounts.

SI: Does the steroid danger go beyond the NFL?

R.H.: Conservative estimates say a million people in the U.S. use anabolic steroids, not just for sports but for appearance. Most are young people. I think we have a real time bomb on our hands.