Ten years ago, when Atlanta falcon guard Bill Fralic was the star tackle on western Pennsylvania's best high school team, Penn Hills, coach Andy Urbanic found out that two of Fralic's teammates had been drinking beer. Urbanic knew who the offenders were, but he called a team meeting because he wanted them to admit their guilt. Urbanic said he wanted whoever was involved in the drinking episode to stand up. At first, no one stood or said anything. Then Fralic stood. "Coach," Fralic said, "I was there. I was drinking." Seven more players stood. Urbanic disciplined all eight and notified their parents.
"There was never anything phony about Billy," Fralic's father, Bill Sr., says. "He's always gone in the front door, with the brass band playing."
Which made a day in May 1982 all the more disheartening to Bill Sr. While attending the University of Pittsburgh, Bill Jr. would bring his dirty laundry to the family's nearby suburban home for his mother, Dorothy, to wash. One day he drove his '77 Thunderbird into the driveway, where his father was washing the family car. Later, when Bill Sr. washed his son's car and cleaned the interior, a bottle of pills fell from Bill Jr.'s golf bag. Bill Sr. went to see his pharmacist, who told him the pills were Dianabol, a muscle-enhancing (anabolic) steroid.
Bill Sr. returned home, flushed the pills down the toilet and confronted his son. Fralic, who was 6'5", 270 pounds and coming off a freshman season for which he was named an honorable-mention All-America, admitted he was four weeks into a six-week cycle of steroid use. "Everybody else is doing them," he told his father. "If I want to be a player, I've got to do them."
July 8, 1990
"You're crazy!" Bill Sr. railed. "You're big enough and strong enough! You don't need these!"
Fralic stopped taking steroids. The next fall he was first team All-America, but after the season, back in his local gym and in the Pitt weight room, Fralic felt the need to use steroids again. "I knew I was good," he says now, "but there's so much competition in the weight room. You want to be bigger and stronger each year, and you see other guys making these gains, and you want to make gains, too. That mind-set takes over."
So he started taking steroids again, this time more heavily. He took three Dianabol pills a day and had a weightlifting buddy inject him with Deca-Durabolin, another anabolic steroid, once a week.
But one night, five weeks into his six-week cycle of Dianabol and Deca-Durabolin, he threw the pills and the liquid and the syringes out of his car window. What changed his mind forever on using steroids was a troubled conscience. "What a conflict it was," Fralic says. "I get depressed talking about it. But the good thing about it is that I know anything I do now, I've done. I'd rather not do steroids [and fail] than do them and be a success."
It's another hot one in Atlanta, and 30 miles to the northeast, in Suwanee, new Falcon coach Jerry Glanville is running most of his players through voluntary workouts in a minicamp. Fralic is not participating on this day in May. He's attending to his off-season business, Bill Fralic Insurance Services Inc., and looking like the new junior partner on L.A. Law: Harry Hamlin haircut, blue suit, paisley tie, white shirt with blue pinstripes and WPF monogram on the left sleeve. The only indications that he is a football player are his bulging chest and gnarled right pinkie.
The 27-year-old Fralic looks as if he could be a spokesman for most any cause or concern. Though he doesn't want to be known as the leader of the antisteroid movement in football, it's a tag he is rapidly earning. He took up the challenge four years ago, after his rookie season, when he found the nerve to call Pete Rozelle and say, "You've got to do something about steroids. They're a huge problem in this league."
In the last 13 months, Fralic has told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee examining anabolic steroids that as many as 75% of NFL linemen, linebackers and tight ends have used steroids. He has been named chairman of the NFL Players Association's (NFLPA) drug prevention committee, has urged new commissioner Paul Tagliabue to institute frequent random testing for steroids, and has been appointed to a committee that will assist new NFL drug adviser Dr. John A. Lombardo.
With the NFL drawing up a more extensive steroid-testing policy, Fralic thinks that usage among players might be decreasing. "But I'd still say at some point of the year a majority of linemen and linebackers are still using [steroids] to enhance their performance," he says.
Fralic's active stand against steroids has alienated some of the NFLPA hierarchy, including firebrand assistant executive director Doug Allen, who says Fralic speaks only for himself when he talks about steroids. And while some players view his stand as exemplary—"He's got guts to put himself on the line like he has," says Cincinnati Bengal quarterback Boomer Esiason—others view him as incendiary, noting that no more than 7% of the league's players have turned up positive for steroids in the three years of testing. "If you polled 10 players in the NFL, nine out of the 10 would say it's more than the seven percent figure the NFL uses," Fralic says. "Whether it's 20 or 40 or 60 percent, it needs to be dealt with."
New York Giants center Bart Oates calls Fralic's estimate of NFL steroid use "hogwash. At the very most, I'd say the problem is about half of what he says."
"I don't think it's 50 percent of the linemen," says guard Tom Newberry of the Los Angeles Rams. "When I came into the league, there was more of a problem than there is now. There's new thinking now. People are educated. Before, no one talked about it or knew about it. I think some of the users might have learned."
In 1989 the NFL for the first time suspended players who tested positive for steroids. Thirteen of the approximately 1,600 players under NFL contract received the minimum four-game suspension. In the first two years of the program, first-time offenders were counseled and not suspended.
"Ninety to 95 percent of the players believe drugs have no part in the game, and they think they shouldn't be used," Newberry says. "I don't think guys get upset with Fralic. He's speaking his mind."
"I shouldn't be the issue here," Fralic says. "I don't want to be the issue. All I'm saying is the system needs to be fixed, and I want to draw attention to that. I'm a little uncomfortable with the attention. But the more people who know about this, who know the problem, the better chance you have of getting something done. Steroids are football's big secret. They're something that people will lie to the grave about because they cast a shadow over what players have accomplished."
Anabolic steroids are male hormones used by players to increase muscle size and strength and, thus, enhance performance. There are also potential health hazards associated with prolonged use of steroids—liver damage, increased risk of heart disease and sterility, and psychological effects.
Fralic believes that steroids are more dangerous to the game than street drugs. When two players are competing for the same job, he says, the one who is artificially inflated by steroids has an advantage over the player who refuses to use them. And so, by using anabolic steroids, Fralic believes, a player can adversely affect the livelihoods of other players. With street drugs, he says, a player adversely affects only his own livelihood.
In February, Fralic heard that Tagliabue was considering a steroid policy that would be tougher than the present program, which calls for a player to be tested once a year, in training camp. Fralic called the commissioner to say he would help in any way he could. Tagliabue asked Fralic what elements he thought would be important to a new policy; Fralic urged random testing, including off-season testing. When Tagliabue asked how much notice players should be given before testing, Fralic said, "Five minutes. You should walk in the weight room, produce the jar and tell the player to fill it."
In April, Fralic and some NFLPA leaders met with Tagliabue to discuss a revamped steroid-testing plan. When the NFLPA's Allen raised doubts at the meeting about the integrity of the league's testing under Forest Tennant, its drug adviser at the time, Fralic said sarcastically, "Let me get this straight: Are you for steroids or against them?"
Says Fralic, "I've had problems with the NFL and the NFLPA because [steroid testing] is being treated as a bargaining chip and not a moral issue. The most important thing to do is to figure out a way to get it out of the game. Let's not ignore the problem and shove it aside because we're arguing how to test and we say it can't be done properly. They [NFLPA leaders] can only come up with reasons why it can't be done."
"If Bill said that, he knows better," Allen says. "We have no disagreement that the sport should be rid of steroids. The disagreement is that before you can support the testing, you've got to have faith in the testers."
Because the NFLPA claims it is no longer the players' bargaining agent, it cannot sue to stop the league from enforcing a new steroid-testing plan. Individual players would have to file suit. The likelihood is that Lombardo will oversee a plan under which players would be tested as many as seven times a year: once in training camp, in any of four blind tests during the season, as a member of a playoff team, and once in the off-season. It's probable that any positive test results prior to 1989 would be wiped off the record. The first positive test probably will result in a 30-day suspension, with the second positive test considered grounds for suspension for the rest of the season and all of the postseason.
"The way [Fralic] puts it is the way I put it," Tagliabue says. "If you use steroids, you get a competitive advantage. And if you use them, you force the other guy to use them. That's why it threatens the integrity of this athletic competition as much as it does the 100-meter dash. Bill is very forthright about it, which helps. He's willing to come up with constructive suggestions that produce a solution, rather than ones that promote confrontation."
As a player, Fralic promotes confrontations. One pro scouting report says he's at his best in a one-on-one blocking situation. The second player chosen in the 1985 draft, Fralic has been voted by the players to start in the Pro Bowl three times, despite the fact that he's not well liked by some of his peers. He has brawled with San Francisco 49er nosetackle Michael Carter and Washington Redskin defensive end Charles Mann, and he broke his right pinkie in 10 places when he punched 49er defensive end Pierce Holt in the chest. When asked recently how they felt about Fralic, Carter responded with a four-letter word and Holt chose not to comment. "I don't think I'm doing my job if the guys I'm blocking like me," Fralic says.
Some 49er and Ram players have grumbled that Fralic makes the Pro Bowl on reputation. But Newberry is not one of them. "I think he's a great player," Newberry says. "He comes off the ball strong and doesn't give an inch. Our job is hand-to-hand combat, beating the other guy physically. Bill's very good at that."
Scouts like Fralic's grittiness. In the first game of his career, against Detroit in 1985, Fralic was blocked at an awkward angle and heard several joints crack in his neck and shoulder. He went to the sideline, took three Tylenol pills and didn't miss a down. He has played with pinched nerves in his neck ever since.
Fralic is no different off the field. When he sees a problem, he confronts it. Two years ago, he went to work for an insurance company and saw other employees being laid off because of declining business. Fralic decided to sink some of his money into a new company, and then he hired some of the displaced workers. That's how Bill Fralic Insurance Services Inc. was born. Also, during the 1987 players' strike, Fralic was on the picket line just 20 hours after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
Fralic shares his Roswell, Ga., house with Jim Carothers, an old friend from Pittsburgh who is also his financial adviser. Two of Fralic's favorite ways to spend an evening are getting dressed up for a gourmet dinner with a girlfriend or watching professional wrestling. In 1986 Fralic participated in Wrestlemania II in Chicago. He was thrown out of the ring by The Iron Sheikh and Big John Studd during a 20-man battle royal.
"He's not John the Baptist, who's given up his world and gone out in the desert with this vision," Carothers says. "He's not out on a steroids crusade. His attitude is: Don't look to me for guidance on steroids. Use your own common sense."
But common sense is not always a quality found in young players willing to do anything to achieve gridiron greatness. "The pressure to use steroids in college is unbelievable," says Esiason, who went to Maryland. "Athletes don't think 20 years ahead to what the problems might be if they use steroids. They don't think 20 days in advance, especially at the collegiate level. The makeup of the athlete's mind, particularly at a young age, is: I'll do whatever it takes to get it done."
Fralic says the use of steroids has thrived for years because Americans have been slow to become outraged. "In society, if you don't get caught, it's O.K.," he says. "You see a guy driving a Ferrari, and he's a success. It doesn't matter how he got the Ferrari. I'd like to see a poll taken of sports fans. Ask them this question: Would you watch this game if you knew 50 percent of the players were using performance-enhancing drugs? In general, I think a lot of fans could care less. Football is like a religious experience. People have to have it. If steroids are a part of it, I think people think, Well, that's O.K."
Still, Fralic remains optimistic, because he thinks Tagliabue's new testing program might work. "If the NFL is willing to accept the consequences—and there are going to be some consequences, because there are going to be players caught who owners won't like being caught—I think we can clean it up," Fralic says. "We have to clean it up."
This is Bill Fralic's hope for his sport.