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I guess I've traveled the upward course of performance-enhancers in the 60 or so years I've been associated with organized sports. When I was 15, I saw kids on my high school football team cutting metal tape cans lengthwise and taping them to their forearms. A lightweight, high-striking power weapon, form-fitting.

I tried it myself, but two things were wrong. First, you had to have some skill in cutting metal and then taping it, and then, I could never get it exactly right. And there always was the telltale "bonk!" sound when a padded body, or a helmeted head made contact with it in a game, which would result in the embarrassing ritual of the referee stopping the contest right there while he inspected your arm for an illegal, performancing-enhancing substance.

And what followed was the disgraceful ritual of being banished from the field, if the ref were strict enough, with the expected denial from your coach, "I swear to God, sir, I didn't know what the boy was up to." And every fibre within you would scream, "Liar! Liar!" but let's face it, you were the one who'd been nailed.

Call it an early introduction to hypocrisy, and so, at a youthful age, you became a cynic.

There has always been spying in sports. In baseball, it was a badge of honor to be a successful sign-stealer. In football? Well, any advantage you could gain was an upper, especially if you were a fat, lazy kid who never bothered to get himself in tip-top shape.

I remember taking a knee on defense, cocking my head forward, straining to hear what was going on in the other team's huddle, especially if the quarterback were loudmouthed. And if our guys were into that hand-clapping, "let's go!" type of stuff, I would tell them to shut up so I could hear what was going on. Thus a sneak replaced a mere cynic, a sign stealer who turned his back on the very idea of team spirit and fair play.

Oh, I was a real mess. Ratso Rizzo in uniform.

And as I progressed upward through the levels of sport, the corresponding levels of malfeasance kept pace. In college, I learned about real performance-enhancers, the chemical variety that came in a bottle. Amphetamines, i.e., benzadrine, dexadrine, greenies, the kind of things we'd take to stay up for exams, now translated into energy boosters for the field of play. Not too much at first ... let's face it, I was scared ... but later, going up in football competition, first at army level, then in the minor leagues, it became a substance of choice. And this held true for club rugby, with a flavoring of international competition.

It was a heady time, young and carefree with little respect for the body. If someone would have come up to me and said, "See these, they're called anabolic steroids. Take 'em regularly and you'll have an NFL career. The only problem is that they might take five years off your life." If I'd have been given a choice like that I'd have said, without hesitation "Gimme all you've got."

Of course that was at the other end of the spectrum. Now that I'm peering down into the deep side, I'd have, in retrospect, turned my back and said, "Keep 'em."

I was a young sports writer. Steroids had appeared in San Diego. No one knew what they were. "Every day there would be this marble-sized thing by your locker and you were supposed to take it," said Jets guard Sam DeLuca, an ex-Charger. "I faked it. They scared the hell out of me."

Amphetamines were still the drugs of choice. The league had no policy about them.

"I was Cookie Gilchrist's teammate in the AFL All-Star Game," Jets linebacker Larry Grantham told me one day. "He used to take a shower between halves."

"How could he get in and out of his uniform in time?" I asked him.

"Didn't have much of a uniform," he said. "Just shoulder pads and enough greenies to fill the palm of one hand."

Steroids followed, then the ban of steroids, then Human Growth Hormone, which is still basically terra incognita. Sign stealing, the other dark spectre on today's horizon? Well, it was mostly a game. In baseball it had been going on for years. In football, there was the famous Spy In The Tree incident, Cowboy scout Bucko Kilroy supposedly flushed out of a tree, spying on Rams' practices. There have been a million instances of sideline phones going out, of stolen playbooks. But things seem different now, more technical.

The Patriots stories won't go away. Matt Walsh, the guy who supposedly taped the Rams' pre-Super Bowl, Friday practice, is in hiding in Hawaii, refusing to come out unless he is guaranteed immunity from any conceivable kind of legal action. Does he have more evidence than has been revealed? Who knows? The guy does not carry an aura of truth about him. Did Roger Goodell destroy incriminating evidence? What don't we know about? Who knows? Did Bill Belichick really think that it was OK to tape the stuff his guys taped? Beats me. Who can believe anybody connected with this thing?

Baseball runs a parallel course in non-believability. Andy Pettitte led us through an emotional mea culpa, but collected little support in so doing. Even Roger Clemens, who held his own in a rather arrogant confrontation with a congressional committee last week, seemed to have more support. I mean, he acted the way a rogue is supposed to act, tough, with little remorse.

Personally, I'm trying hard to avoid the disgusted fan's response of throwing up both hands and yelling, "Enough! Do anything you want to each other, to youself. Drug yourself, poison yourself. Spy on each other and tell everybody what geniuses you are. We'll still watch you because there's nothing to take your place."

I'm just so sick of reading things that are labeled "testimony." Thank God I'm going on vacation soon.

The Combine workouts begin this week. I won't be there. I understand they're going to have them anyway. They used to be absolutely secret deals -- only the athletes, their relatives and about 40 million agents. Writers need not apply. Stay out. Beware the dog! This means you! No pasaran!

Now they're an ongoing feature of the NFL Network. I don't know what the coverage will be like because I've never seen it, but one thing is the same. Writers once again are not permitted to the inner sanctum. Interview areas are set up all over the place, and the press can have the pleasure of crowding like ants around the athletes after they've done what they're paid to do, hopeful of maybe a further moment alone with an agent or personnel director.

There's absolutely no reason why the press should be banned from the inner sanctum, except for the fact that that's the way the NFL always has done it. You know, the old Emerson quote -- "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." The writers could be sitting in the stands of the RCA Dome, or up in the press box, taking notes, minding their P's and Q's, as well behaved as little troopers, answering the call when interviews are set up, just as they do at the NFL draft. But no, the NFL has decided this must be a secret event, except for their own network, of course.

So if you don't want me, Combine people, then you'll have to get by without my help. What bothers me is that my fellow journalists are willing to take any kick in the teeth the NFL dishes out and remain smiling. In the old days, when the labor movement was alive and well in our country, you might have had a chance of organizing the writers into a massive boycott. Let 'em do it without us ... waddya say? Everybody stay away! No chance now. You'd never get all those talk radio people to fall in line, and besides, most newspaper owners are on a social footing with club owners. Their sentiments lie in that direction.

So have a nice Combine, NFL. Have fun covering it, fellow writers. I'll get a printout of the results sneaked to me at the league meetings, and I'll sit down and study the numbers for about 48 hours, as I always do. You don't want me, I don't want you. I've got my own friends to play with.

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