It rained hard the day the Ashtabula (Ohio) High football team faced Northeastern Conference rival Conneaut High in October. The field was a quagmire, but that didn't stop Benji Ramirez, a 17-year-old senior defensive tackle, from playing the game of his life. He made four tackles and recovered a fumble as the Panthers won 21-6. "Benji stuck a lot of dudes that night," says Ashtabula defensive end Fred Gage. For his efforts, Ramirez was named the Panthers' defensive lineman of the game.
Three nights later, on Halloween, Ramirez collapsed during practice after a tackling drill. He was taken to the Ashtabula County Medical Center, where, at 6:02 p.m., he died, apparently of a heart attack. He was buried three days later in his football uniform, the bright yellow BULA on his shirt almost obscured by poems, pictures and other mementos placed on his chest by grieving friends. Four hundred people attended the funeral, including city officials, his coaches and his teammates. Everybody liked Ramirez.
"He was a really nice guy," says Aaron Morris, a senior at Ashtabula High and one of Ramirez's closest friends since second grade. "I don't think Benji had any enemies. He was really low key. He didn't even like rock 'n' roll."
One of the mourners was Mark Craffey, a first-team all-county offensive tackle, who wrote an essay about Ramirez's death for an English class. "Benji Ramirez died today," Craffey's piece began. "I don't even know exactly how to write about it. I feel cheated and helpless." Craffey concluded, "I asked Benji to tell me how. I asked God to tell me why. There was no answer and I cried."
Indeed, at first Ramirez's death seemed to defy explanation. The practice had not been strenuous, and the weather wasn't hot. The 6'3", 201-pound Ramirez appeared to be strong and fit. He was a member of the Ashtabula High wrestling team as well, and he was an avid weightlifter. After two years as a jayvee player in football, Ramirez had finally cracked the varsity lineup and seemed to be improving every day. He had even received a letter from Youngstown State expressing interest in him. A year earlier, he would never have dreamed that he could even be considered for a college football scholarship. "He'd come a long way as a football player," says Sean Allgood, the Panthers' star quarterback. "Everybody was really surprised."
But as Ramirez's dazed friends struggled to console one another in the hospital halls shortly after his death was announced, Tony Rivera, team manager for the Panthers, took Ashtabula High coach Jim Orr aside and told him what many of Ramirez's friends suspected or knew: Ramirez had been using anabolic steroids. Orr passed the information on to Jeff Brown, an investigator for the Ashtabula County Coroner's Office. Coroners don't routinely test for steroids, but after a shocking death like Ramirez's, they will follow every possible lead. According to Dr. Robert A. Malinowski, the county coroner, the rumors of steroid usage by this young, healthy athlete changed the focus of his office's investigation. "We conducted it with that in the backs of our minds," he says. "Benji had no history of heart problems, so there was basically no reason for him to die."
Because the pathologist who normally would have performed the autopsy was unavailable, Ramirez's autopsy was performed by the coroner's office in Cleveland, which sent its findings to Malinowski. In an interim report released on Dec. 14, Malinowski announced that Ramirez had died of cardiac arrhythmia, a heart condition caused in this case by a diseased and enlarged heart. On Jan. 10, Malinowski released his final report, which included two findings. First: "Although we were not able to identify any specific steroid in the blood of Benjamin Ramirez, we can conclude through field investigation and some changes seen in the body at autopsy that Benjamin Ramirez did use anabolic steroids." Second: "It is the strong opinion of County Coroner Dr. Robert A. Malinowski that use of anabolic steroids did in some way contribute to the death of Benjamin Ramirez."
Malinowski, the father of 10 children and an avid football fan, is quick to point out that a coroner's report can't always deal in incontrovertible facts, and that steroid use wasn't listed as the cause of Ramirez's death but as a contributing factor. "I've been very careful to say it's my opinion," says Malinowski. "We don't have to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt in this business. We don't have to read people their Miranda rights. Yes, it's possible I could be wrong. But I doubt it."
If Malinowski is right, Ramirez is the first U.S. athlete whose death has been linked officially to the use of steroids, a practice that, by all accounts, is spreading across the country faster than experts can track it.
On Jan. 31, the tiny St. John High gym on Station Avenue in Ashtabula was rocking. St. John, which had a 14-2 record, was taking on 13-2 Ashtabula High, which had handed St. John one of its two defeats of the basketball season. The gym had filled long before the end of the preliminary jayvee game, and many fans who couldn't get inside stood outdoors by the windows, trying to gauge the course of the game by the crowd noise. The scene seemed cut from the pure, mythical heart of America. Here was high school sport drawing folks together in a celebration of youth, competition and rock-solid, middle-class values.
But nothing these days is quite what it appears. That night in another part of town the Ashtabula Area City Schools Substance Abuse Committee was holding its first meeting. While the idea for the committee was developed before Ramirez's death, there is no doubt that the tragedy added urgency to its deliberations. The group discussed the need for a comprehensive drug-education program in local schools as well as for some sort of drug-testing procedure for athletes. Not as a punishment, said school superintendent Elinor Scricca, but as "an evaluation of behavior and physical prowess."
"It's obviously an extremely timely problem," added committee member Dr. Jeff Brodsky. "I don't want to see more kids go through what [Ramirez] went through."
At halftime back at the school gym, Morris thought once again about his buddy. "Benji asked me if I wanted to use steroids," said Morris. "I was tempted, but I don't need to get bulkier; I'm a baseball player. The thing about kids these days is that physically we're in a rush to be adults, but mentally and emotionally we want to stay teenagers."
Jim Smith, the football coach at St. John, doesn't believe that kids have changed that much. But the world around them certainly has; the temptations they must face have increased tenfold. Smith stood in the gym hallway and observed the girls running past and giggling, the boys strutting, the same adolescent ebb and flow one has always found in high schools. "I think if kids had known about something like steroids 20 years ago, they would've taken them then, too," said Smith, shaking his head sadly.
Certainly Ashtabula (pop. 24,000) has changed in the last two decades. Located 55 miles northeast of Cleveland on Lake Erie, the town was once a vital manufacturing and transportation hub feeding materials to the rubber companies in Akron and the steel mills in Youngstown. But the manufacturing slump that hit the Midwest in the '70s devastated Ashtabula. Two of the area's biggest employers, True Temper, a toolmaker, and Rockwell International's brake manufacturing plant, added to Ashtabula's woes of the past decade by pulling out of town.
Today Ashtabula is pocked with vacant, graffiti-covered buildings, and a sense of used-to-be pervades the town like a chill wind. "We should develop our recreational side, our beaches and the Ashtabula River," says acting police chief Gus Powell. "But all we're getting are a large number of welfare recipients because of our empty houses [and the resulting low rents]."
Ironically, one of the few growth businesses in town is physical fitness. The health clubs are jumping in Ashtabula. The message seems to be: If you can't control the world around you, you can still control your physique. The largest and most elaborate of the bodybuilding centers is the New Life Health Club. When it opened in 1979, New Life had 22 members—all women—10 pieces of equipment and 1,000 square feet of space. Now it has nearly 1,000 members, 15,000 square feet of space, three tanning rooms, a lounge with video games and card tables, and three well-equipped weight-and-exercise rooms—one coed, one for women only and one for men only.
"The main reason for all this is the public's awareness that you need to control your own health," says New Life owner Jim Harrington as he conducts a tour of the facility. The flaw in that kind of reasoning is the equating of muscle development with good health. A fit-looking body is not necessarily a fit body. Ramirez proved that point. He looked pretty good, though he wasn't a sculpted hunk by any means. "I laugh when people make him out to be this big Arnold Schwarzenegger-type guy," says Morris. "He was thick, but he was no muscle-bound critter."
In fact, in addition to the limited cosmetic benefits that steroids gave Ramirez, his body was undergoing other changes as well, including the atrophying of his testicles. He also had the puncture wounds in his thighs from injecting the drugs. When used to promote rapid muscle development, anabolic steroids—natural and synthetic testosterone—can cause many physical and psychological side effects, among them liver and kidney disorders, temporary acne and balding, hypertension, decreased sperm count, aggressive behavior, depression and irritability. Like most users, however, Ramirez thought either the steroids were not actually harming him or that the result was worth the risk.
The primary reason Ramirez took steroids was not to become a better athlete, though his new strength helped him in that regard. "Oh, no, this had nothing to do with football," says Morris. "Benji was not a diehard football player. He used steroids because he wanted to be big and get girls."
On the bulletin board at New Life is a cartoon of Santa Claus looking at a reindeer with huge antlers that look like two trees. "Blitzen," says Santa, "have you been using steroids again?" On a nearby bulletin board is a sign stating that the club strongly opposes the use of steroids and that anyone promoting that use at the club will forfeit his membership.
It's a nice touch—the antisteroids message—but it's undermined, particularly for young men, by the glossy posters on other walls in the club of muscle gods Franco Columbu, Lou Ferrigno and, of course, Schwarzenegger, in one of his many greased and bulging poses. On a table are muscle magazines with more photos of grotesquely swollen iron-pumpers. Nobody can look like that, no youngster, anyway. The kids all know that the bodybuilding ranks are riddled with steroid-abusing athletes, who seem to embody the power and confidence that many male adolescents seem so desperately to crave.
"I've got a lot of old magazines with guys like Steve Reeves and Charles Atlas in them," says Danny Wells, 25, who won the Northcoast lightweight bodybuilding championship, a regional competition with participants primarily from eight Midwestern states, in 1987 and '88. "Back then there was a smoother, more natural look. Now it's how far can you take your body. You've got to be ripped, hard, down-to-the-bone, and that's what's really hard to do without taking steroids."
Wells used steroids for almost five years, and though he's only 5'7", he once weighed 220 pounds and sported 21-inch biceps. He said he quit using steroids when he became convinced he would die if he kept taking them. "My body just completely broke down," says Wells.
He now works at the Zip-Zap Brushless Car Wash in Ashtabula and says he's happy just to be alive, a notion he tried to impress on Ramirez several years ago when Ramirez approached him about taking steroids. "I was in training," says Wells, "and he said, 'Man, you're huge!' I said, 'Yeah, but a couple of trophies aren't worth risking your life for. If you want to play football, go train. Don't take steroids at an early age.' He seemed to listen to me, but I knew he got on them later. I know a juicer when I see one."
Wells no longer trains at health clubs because he has grown weary of young men—and some older ones as well—approaching him to ask about getting on steroids so they, too, can develop the ripped look. Wells's mistakes have made him reflective. "I think every guy wants to be powerful," he says. "But kids don't understand that [Sylvester] Stallone weighed about 165 pounds in Rambo—that's the big screen. It's all an illusion. You have to think about life, what's real."
Ask any of Ramirez's friends why he used steroids, and they'll look at you in amazement. "To get big," says Rico Velez, an Ashtabula High sophomore. The word "big" has taken on new meaning for teenage boys. To be big means to be in control, macho, bad. It means you have bypassed adolescence and jumped straight to manhood. Joe Weider, the guru of modern bodybuilding and the editor of several muscle magazines, sells a bodybuilding protein powder that's called BIG.
Mchele Heath, a junior who knew Ramirez well, believes that the first time she heard of steroids was sometime in her junior year, when an antisteroid poster was placed on a wall in one of the high school's hallways. Before long someone wrote Ramirez's name on the poster. "Benji said the steroids were increasing his growth," says Heath. "He thought he'd be big eventually, but he said he needed it now. He said he was speeding up time. He was impatient. He didn't want to wait."
According to Karey Cole, who worked with Ramirez at the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashtabula and had been a friend of his since seventh grade, he began to use steroids about a year before his death. "I know he started doing them in the late fall of 1987," she says. "He just came out and told my girlfriend and me. I think he took them because he wanted to fit in."
Another friend, Orlando Lopez, says that last summer he went into Ramirez's bedroom and watched him inject himself with steroids. Lopez also says that "anytime we saw a mirror, we'd always stop and flex in front of it. I wanted to be big, too. I always wanted to try steroids, but I didn't have the money." Lopez pauses and then continues, "Every picture I got of Benji and me, we're flexing."
Ramirez's mother, Milagros, and father, Benjamin Sr., who are both from the Dominican Republic, were divorced about 10 years ago, shortly before Milagros and he family moved to Ashtabula from New Jersey, where Benji had been born. Back then Benji was a skinny kid who often was teased because of his slight Spanish accent. "He looked like E.T.," says Morris. "He always had a big head, and his chest was sunken and his stomach stuck out a little. When people picked on him, he'd either back down or come get me."
In high school Ramirez was still insecure. Self-improvement was his obsession. "He wanted to better himself in everything," says Craffey. "Not just in football but in wrestling, at the Y, socially." Ramirez lifted weights almost every day at the YMCA. Although he was a woeful wrestler—he once lost a high school match in less than 30 seconds—he helped coach younger kids in wrestling classes at the Y.
Orr is still stunned by Ramirez's death. For a while Orr was painted as the bad guy, the coach who should have recognized Ramirez's steroid problem and taken swift action to correct it before things got out of hand. "My life has been nothing but hell since Benji died," he told the Ashtabula Star-Beacon on Jan. 13. "I'm damn tired of trying to defend myself when nobody is supporting me."
In fairness it should be said that Orr probably did no more or less than most coaches would have done in the same situation. "I'll admit ignorance about this," he says. "I'll admit that the kinds of training coaches have to go through doesn't at this point include the kind of information you need to identify this problem. I recently talked to our county coaches, and every one of them admitted he wouldn't have known the signs."
Coaches aren't alone in their ignorance. No one knows just how widespread steroid use is, in high schools or anywhere else. Almost always the drugs are bought and sold on the black market, making users difficult to track. Nonetheless, Charles Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Penn State, suspects that "steroids are being used in epidemic proportions." Indeed, a 1988 study that Yesalis worked on found that 6.6% of male high school seniors were using steroids. FDA Commissioner Frank Young estimates that 10% of all high school students use steroids.
Compounding the problem is the fact that in many states, Ohio included, the possession and use of steroids is perfectly legal, though selling them in Ohio is a misdemeanor. Moreover, purchasing syringes—as Ramirez did to inject himself with the drugs—is as easy as going to the corner drugstore, presenting an I.D. and laying down your money. Hoffman's Pharmacy, where Ramirez bought boxes of syringes on several occasions, is only a few yards from Racquet West, where Ramirez sometimes pumped iron.
Milagros Ramirez sits in the family dining room near her son's framed Army Certificate of Enlistment. Before he received the feeler from Youngstown State, he had decided to join the Army in hopes of becoming a pilot. She insists in broken English that her Benji could not have been using steroids because he had vowed to her that he didn't take drugs. She pulls out the Spanish edition of the Reader's Digest's medical encyclopedia and turns to a page that describes myocarditis and its range of symptoms. The entire entry is circled in red ink. "He had them all," she says of the symptoms. "He had them all."
"We explained to her that Benji was probably being honest with her," says Malinowski. "These kids don't even see steroids as being drugs."
By all accounts, Ramirez's hero was his older brother, John, 24, an amateur bodybuilder who onced finished second in the Mr. Golden Isles competition in Brunswick, Ga. "His brother was strong and really got the girls," says Gage, who was near Ramirez when he collapsed. "Benji wanted to be like him."
John, who is studying to be an air-traffic controller in Oklahoma City, denies ever using steroids and says that last spring, when he got a call from Morris and classmate Kevin Cherry telling him that Benji was using steroids, he called his brother. "I told him that if he was taking them, to stop, and if he was thinking about it, not to," says John. "I told my mom and I told Aaron that they should let me know about it. That was the last I heard about it."
No one who knew Ramirez well should have been surprised to learn he had used steroids. His nickname was Roids. Last March, when Orr heard that Gage and Ramirez were using steroids, he called each of them into the assistant principal's office and questioned them separately about the rumors. "Benji admitted that he had thought about it," says Orr. "I asked him, 'Are you using them, or have you been using them?' He said, 'No, and I promise you I won't.' " Gage, to this day, denies that he ever used steroids.
But Ramirez was using steroids. Sometimes, according to Morris, he would even shoot the drugs on game days, hoping for a rush that would carry over into the game. Morris went into Ramirez's bedroom the night after his death and found a used syringe in an old shoe in a wastebasket. "The cap was on the needle, but you could still see juice on it," says Morris. "It looked so fresh. I wasn't about to let his parents find it."
Morris says he kept the syringe until the day of Ramirez's funeral, when he turned it over to Dave DeLeone, the assistant principal at Ashtabula High. DeLeone in turn gave the syringe to the police, who sent it to the coroner's office. Brian Hubbard, an investigator for that office, says there wasn't enough material in the syringe to identify any drug, just as there was not enough urine in Ramirez's corpse to test for steroids. Although no drugs were found in or on Ramirez, Powell, the police chief, says he "would love to tie the sale of steroids to someone [in this easel. That could lead toward a manslaughter or homicide charge."
What remain for Ramirez's friends are images of a young man with a drug problem he either did not understand or had no control over. Shane Clinard, a senior at Ashtabula High, says that last spring he walked in on Ramirez injecting himself with steroids in his bedroom. After that, according to Clinard, "he did it openly in front of me. He used a 3-cc needle. He would fill it up to 2½ cc's, squirt a little bit out and then tap it to make sure the bubbles were out."
Craffey says, "Benji openly admitted his use to me after people started talking about it. I saw a vial, too, at school. It was the first time I had held one. It was in English class."
Some of Ramirez's friends also noted that the normally mild-mannered Ramirez became more aggressive. "I noticed the change because he played over me in scrimmages," says Craffey. "People would tease me, saying, 'What's the matter? You can't take on Benji anymore?' " Gage remembers that when a "a biker girl" threw beer in Ramirez's face last summer, "he freaked out. He went crazy. I'd never seen him like that. He could've ripped somebody's head off."
Another of Ramirez's classmates, who asked not to be identified, says that on two occasions last summer he purchased steroids from Ramirez and used them in his company. In both instances Ramirez injected the classmate in the buttock and then injected himself. Says the classmate, "Benji talked to me about the side effects—that his nose would bleed and he'd have bad breath and get pimples on his shoulders—but he said it wasn't all that bad."
Another classmate who requested anonymity says that last summer he drove Ramirez to a house in Ashtabula and waited in the car while Ramirez went inside to buy steroids. When he returned to the car, Ramirez showed the classmate a bottle two inches long and told him it contained steroids. The classmate then drove to the YMCA, where he dropped Ramirez off and where, according to friends, Ramirez had first met this steroid supplier.
Bob Hile, the director of the Y, acknowledges that when he took over in 1985, "I found a syringe and a vial and turned it over to the police for testing. They told me it was anabolic steroids. I went down to the weight room and stopped everyone from working out. I told them it was our policy not to allow drugs on the premises. We had about six guys leave, and that was the last we heard about it until this."
At the Giant Eagle grocery store in the Saybrook Shopping Plaza on the western edge of Ashtabula, the March edition of Muscle & Fitness is on sale. Ramirez liked looking through the magazine, with its colorful photos of highly muscular men and women. "He always talked about [bodybuilder] Lee Haney," says Morris. "He'd turn a page and say, 'God, look at this!' " The March issue contains a feature that promotes "living sexier through bodybuilding," advertisements that sell every form of bodybuilding supplement except steroids, and an article on silicone implants, the latest thing for "calf augmentation."
What does any of this have to do with health? Nothing. Indeed, Ramirez apparently started to feel sick not long before he died. James Barksdale, 26, a cook at the Ponderosa, says that in mid-October Ramirez complained of chest pains and admitted that he was injecting himself with steroids again. "He had quit taking them for a while and had just started back," says Barksdale. "He was smart enough to know it was hurting him." Milagros recalls that during "the last months Benji said to me all the time, 'Mom, I don't feel good. Mom, I don't feel good.' "
But as Morris says, "Whenever Benji saw a big person, he'd comment, 'I want to look like that.' He wanted the look." And he wanted it now.
"All girls freak over bodies," says Gage. "I remember Benji saying he was starting to get the girls. Girls would say, 'Benji, you're getting big,' and he liked that. He liked the results."
After hearing the coroner's verdict, Vivian Cortes, a 15-year-old Ashtabula High sophomore, told the Star-Beacon, "I guess he did it [used steroids] to be more popular. He didn't have to do it, he was already popular."
Back in the St. John gym, the home team holds on to beat Ashtabula 64-61 in a thriller. "This was the biggest game ever played in this gym...it's probably the most important game I've ever had as a coach...it's probably the most exciting game I've ever seen," Heralds coach John Bowler tells the press. His enthusiasm is understandable. Clear-cut victories are few and far between these days, particularly in the ever-confusing world of American high schools. For instance, in the next morning's Star-Beacon, a few pages before the story on the St. John-Ashtabula game, there was a letter from Rev. Ronald J. Nuzzi of St. John High explaining why the school was standing firm in its decision to sponsor the play AIDS: I Don't Want To Talk About It.
We live in troubling times. But troubling times can also be rewarding times for those who struggle and ultimately find their way. It's a shame Benji Ramirez isn't here to look for his reward.