Anabolic steroids help athletes build muscle size and develop strength, but they do so at a price.
That's why athletic directors such as John Barnes at Los Alamitos don't want steroids anywhere near their programs.
"I can't imagine any high school football players who need them," said Barnes, also the school's football coach. "Three years ago, I went to workshops on steroids and they reaffirmed everything I knew or thought. . . . They have no purpose in sports, especially in high school. They do more damage than good for the normal kid.
"We have told our kids that what they do in the weight room is fine; they don't need anything extra. I think it [steroid usage] was more widespread five to six years ago, but it may have topped out. I hope the message got out."
Evidently, it has. Most county coaches and doctors interviewed for this story say they haven't noticed any rampant outbreak of steroid use at the high school level.
"I don't think it's a problem," said John Azevedo, coach of Calvary Chapel's highly successful wrestling program. "I know there have been people who have done [steroids] at all levels of wrestling; but its appeal didn't take any significant hold. There were never many cases where people saw a benefit."
Al Britt, Esperanza's track and field coach, said he has heard of high school athletes using steroids and going on to college before they were questioned about it, but "that was hearsay."
"It's not a problem that I see," said Dr. Ronald Axtell, family practice physician and team doctor for Mission Viejo High's athletic program. "People will get them if they want them bad enough. It's not the blue-chip kids who need them, they need guidance.
"When you've got 100,000 kids in California playing football, it's a small percentage who use steroids. But I think the risks far outweigh the benefits."
Axtell said he has never prescribed steroids for a high school athlete, and doesn't know a doctor who has.
"The benefits of strength training from weights--without steroids--have been proven," Dr. Axtell said. "With hard work by itself, you can improve your strength and become the athlete you need to be."
Bill Pendleton, Esperanza's defensive coordinator and strength coach, says most teen-age users of steroids don't understand the risks involved--and might not care. "Half the problem is," he said, "the more information kids are exposed to, the more they want to use it."
Steroids--made from the male hormone testosterone or synthetically created--have been around sports since the 1940s, according to Scientific American magazine. They are taken by injection, or by pill. Their popularity began with weight lifters and body builders in the 1960s, and spread among football and track athletes in the 1970s.
Athletes use them to increase strength by regenerating tissue and to recover faster from their workouts. The effects begin to reverse themselves when steroid use is discontinued.
Among the common side effects are hair loss, acne and mood swings. According to most medical research, long term--and high dosage--steroid use has been linked to hardening of the arteries, liver damage, liver dysfunction, testicular shrinkage, impotence, heart disease and cancer.
Football star Lyle Alzado, who died of brain cancer in 1992, often tied his 20-year steroid use to causing the cancer, even though he had not used steroids for five years before his death, and there was no controlled study or research producing evidence that such a neurological calamity had occurred.
Athletes who use steroids can put on as much as 10 to 15 pounds of muscle in a month, according to Mike Mooney, a writer and medical research associate with the Program for Wellness Restoration, a nonprofit AIDS research group based in Houston.
Mooney said continued moderate use of steroids, in cycles of six to eight weeks, can make it harder for their use to be detected in drug testing.
"The reality is there is an advantage created by using them," he said. "The athlete who doesn't use them at the upper levels [professional sports] is an unusual athlete. And all kinds of athletics are using them. For track runners, certain brands of steroids increase endurance, reaction time and overall mobility and strength without increasing size."
Steroids have been a federally controlled substance since 1990, and are banned for use in most competitive sports. For example, the NCAA banned their use from collegiate athletics in the 1970s but did not start testing for steroids until 1986.
But though they are a prescription drug, steroids are easily obtainable through the black market. "The connections for the drugs are made through local gyms, not the high schools," Pendleton said. "I've been working with kids for 20 years, and in my experience the [steroid] use may be down the past couple of years but it's still constant."
Pendleton said parents at other schools had accused Esperanza of using steroids to bulk up its football linemen.
"Even though it wasn't true, it was hard to shake the label," he said. "There were schools that canceled games with us because these supposedly illegally built-up players were going to hurt their kids."
The Southern Section has no specific policy of testing high school athletes for steroids. Pamphlets and information are sent to schools, warning that their use is illegal. Coaches often talk to their teams about their use before the season starts.
"Personally, I feel any coach who knowingly allows or provides a youngster with a source of any prohibitive drug should be dealt with in the harshest of measures," said Dean Crowley, section commissioner.
County schools currently testing students for drug usage are checking for marijuana, alcohol, cocaine and cocaine derivatives--not steroids.
That doesn't mean coaches want their athletes experimenting with them.
"It's a medicine and like any medicine, if taken under a doctor's supervision and the purpose needed, in that respect it's [OK]," said Tony Ciarelli, strength coach at Newport Harbor High.
"But from what I understand about them, I don't think any high school athlete needs to take them. You get your best usage when you have reached your peak naturally, and then want to go to next step. No high school athlete will reach his peak because he or she is too young. You can get the same results from workouts and diet."
On the positive side, according to Mooney, steroids are being used to help AIDS patients strengthen their damaged immune systems. Other medical uses for steroids, Mooney said, are to aid the regeneration of fire victims' tissue, to help the elderly be more mobile, and to aid post-operative patients overcome muscle atrophy. Steroids also can be beneficial in battling uterine cervical cancer, alcoholic hepatitis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
"There is a lack of understanding about steroids," Mooney said. "Corticol steroids, made by adrenal glands, make muscle tissue shrink. Anabolics are the opposite, making the tissue grow. That's where confusion comes from, why much of the early information was wrong."
"I can document AIDS patients who have lived longer with better quality of life after taking steroids as part of the treatment," he said.
Another popular body-building drug making the rounds today are growth hormones.
According to Mooney, growth hormones are only 40% as effective as steroids in building strength. Unlike steroids, which are used to build bulk, growth hormones are used to "lean out" body mass. Users of growth hormones tend to be competitive swimmers and runners.
"Best--or worst--of all," Mooney said, "growth hormones are presently undetectable by current drug testing methods, although they are believed to be factors in diabetes, and the lymphoma and leukemia cancers."
Though growth hormones may be out of the financial reach of most high school athletes--about $2,000 per month for the amount to be effective--prices are expected to decrease as availability increases. And that has coaches worried.
"I've known kids [because of stunted growth or dwarfism] who take growth hormones under a doctor's care," Ciarelli said. "But I think taking any drug is scary. Without a doctor, you have no idea what it's doing or the proper dosage. But the feeling is that if five milligrams does good, what will 20 milligrams do?"
There is debate in medical circles about the side effects of steroid use, with some arguing the effects are short-term and reversible when usage stops.
But that's not good enough for Vince Caiozzo, Ph.D. and assistant professor in orthopedics at UC Irvine.
"We don't know enough about the type of medical impact steroids can have as far as potential pathologies," said Caiozzo, who specializes in sports medicine. "And from a moral or ethical perspective, if we're going to allow their use with respect for athletics, where do we draw the line?"
Caiozzo is not alone.
"I don't know numbers [of steroid users], but one is too many," said Bruce Rollinson, Mater Dei's football coach. "I believe in hard work and a good, solid weight-lifting program with balanced nutrition to achieve a desired goal.
"Everything about steroids that I've had experience with, the stories have been nothing but negative. A kid blows up, and most people won't suspect [steroid use]. People tell the kid he looks great, and now they're feeding a monster. But the performance level is completely based on a phony premise; that's not the real you."