A couple of years ago, while Jack Youngblood was trying to rehabilitate his back so that he could continue his pro football career with the Rams, a friend of a friend steered him to amino acid supplements.
After taking the supplements for three days, Youngblood called the supplier and asked, "What's in this (stuff)? I feel great!"
Youngblood, a six-time All-Pro who now works in the Rams' front office, has taken his amino acids every day since then, and he has become convinced that amino acids should be promoted as an alternative to steroids.
The Rams, working through strength coach Garrett Giemont, have implemented an extensive program of amino acid supplements.
Youngblood was happy to accomplish that, and now he wants to spread the word. He sent this memo to Gene Upshaw, president of the NFL Players Assn.:
" . . . Steroids are a big problem physically and also emotionally and psychologically. Our goal has been to find an alternative that gives the desired result these athletes are looking for.
" . . . I have seen positive physical and psychological results from the use of amino acids.
"I can personally say we are on the edge of some positive alternatives to one of our big problems as athletes. I personally recommend the intense use of an amino acid supplement program."
It won't be easy convincing some athletes to take this new route. Giemont anticipates the naysayers.
He said: "Some doctors might look at what we're saying, some nutritionists might look at what we're saying and say, 'You're full of bullpucky.' But I say, 'I can see what I see in the weight room.'
"I see results. What we're talking about is maximizing personal potential.
"I've been taking them for years and, personally, I'm stronger. I feel better. I'm healing better. I am enhancing my health. But I am not packing on freakish muscle mass."
Ah, but there's the catch.
Youngblood said: "Kids see tremendous visual results when they jump on steroids. They like what they see. To say we're going to take those steroids away--what are we going to give them as an alternative?
"I think this is an alternative that's natural. It's not going to be the snap that they have seen, that they have experienced in other situations, so it's hard to convince people.
"What we have to do is give them a very logical, sound argument against steroids: It's going to kill you!
"And then give them a sound, logical argument for why this is going to help them, why it works, why--over a long period of time--it will enhance their efforts and enhance their health.
"You have to preach. I'm willing to preach. I think it's important."
So what are these chemical wonders? Simply, they are the building blocks of protein.
Or, as Marjorie Tyson, president of Integrated Health, a division of Tyson and Associates, the company that manufactures pharmaceutical-quality amino acids, puts it: "They are the letters of the protein alphabet. From the 22 amino acids, we have the capability to form the 1,600 different types of complex proteins in our bodies.
"When you consider that 75% of our total body solids are made up of protein, you can see what kind of impact the supplements can have."
People, especially athletes, are constantly tearing down muscle through use, then rebuilding it. The body can more readily rebuild with the right building blocks in a form that is more immediately available for the body to use than the amino acids contained in food.
And because amino acids influence hormones, they can influence mood and behavior as well as stimulating growth hormones.
The Rams are working with Integrated Health because, among other things, it is a local company that offers a complete program, beginning with the blood test--amino acid chromatography--that pinpoints what amino acids are needed in each individual, and in the proper balance.
Amino acid supplements are not new, nor is the blood test. Amino acid therapy has long been used in hospitals to aid recovery from surgery and for treating metabolic disorders. What is relatively new is their widespread use as a nutritional supplement for optimum health and performance.
Tyson said: "Amino acids are coming of age with consumers now because of advances in technology and mass production. In the past, the cost was prohibitive. In 1925 a gram of Triptophan (an amino acid) was $25,000.
"The cost is coming down the way the cost of transistor radios and four-function calculators came down."
A program of amino acids costs about $100 a month. The Rams have figured the cost into Giemont's budget.
Fred Hatfield, former world champion power lifter and author of more than 20 books on fitness and training, expects amino acids to catch on with the general public in a big way soon.
"They already have caught on with the hard core of athletes . . . " Hatfield said. "Initially, you don't get the same profound impact that you get with steroids, but ultimately amino acids will give athletes the growth and strength to reach their maximum potential. Without question, it works . . .
"But they have to be used correctly. You can't use amino acids in a shotgun fashion and expect predictable results.
"Each amino acid, in its crystalline form, has well known biochemical effects. . . . There is one group of amino acids that, absolutely, stimulates the growth hormone. In my opinion, and in the opinion of most scientists, amino acids are a totally safe way to stimulate anabolism--muscle growth.
"But there are so many bio-chemical interactions going on in every body that it is necessary to very carefully determine what amino acids each person needs.
"Integrated Health offers the urine and blood testing that their technicians use to determine what amino acids should be taken. MetaMetrix in Atlanta, Ga., does, too. Those are the only companies that I know of who do."
Hatfield, like Giemont, believes the results he has seen. "You'll find some scientists who will say that using amino acids to stimulate muscle growth is poppycock," Hatfield said. "But the ones who pooh-pooh it have been in the lab and haven't seen the in vivo effects."
Effects are the bottom line among athletes, beyond what's legal or illegal and, often, beyond what's safe or unsafe.
So Giemont points out: Athletes on steroids add bulk, but when they add water to the cells to make them bigger, they also increase the chance of injury, of muscle tearing.
"That may be OK for standing around at the beach--except that it can kill you--but it's not OK for a contact sport," Giemont said. "With amino acids you build a full, natural muscle and you enhance your healing process."
Youngblood, too, addressed himself to the bottom line when he first tried amino acids. "You hear about a lot of different techniques and products . . . Anyone who has any sense about him at all takes and looks into the propaganda.
"When you learn what amino acids are and how to add them to your system in a formative way that is correct and not just haphazard, then it makes sense.
"It's not magic. There is no magic to any of this. There's no magic to steroids. You can't take a beauty pill. Amino acids are a supplement to your own dedication to your training, your own commitment."