Former Illinois and Chicago Bear great Dick Butkus had a tremendous football career, and he has enjoyed success as an actor and entrepreneur since. He could have rested on his laurels, but he cares about people and wants to educate them on a problem that is far more severe than most realize.
Butkus and his son Matt started the IPlayClean (www.iplayclean.org) campaign to encourage young people to avoid using anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. He explains how this all came about, including his involvement with Don Hooton, who's son Taylor committed suicide in 2003 after taking steroids.
"My son Matt and I started IPlayClean about four or five years ago. That was due to certain circumstances I'd heard about with kids taking steroids. We talked to Don Hooton, who committed to us, about his son's problem with steroids.
"Then I talked to a cardiologist who had done a study of body builders and power lifters, all known to be heavy steroid users. I discovered that their calcium levels and heart rate were that of a person 30 years older then they are. Taking steroids is detrimental to your health, especially during your developmental years.
"A couple of surveys that we looked at were pretty interesting. Well over half a million kids admit buying steroids. Last year alone was 300,000 who said they used it, and a third of the new users were girls.
"A big one we felt was the 82-85% saying they had never been talked to or given any information about the dangers of steroids. I think that's the most important thing, the education of these kids."
The IPlayClean program has worked tirelessly on educational outreach.
"With some responses from partners, we were able the last three years to send out educational kits to about 10,000 high schools each year. We're just trying to get the awareness."
That awareness is needed now more than ever. Butkus and his associates are fighting an environment that appears to care more for short-term success than long-term physical and mental health.
"When someone gets busted in baseball or wherever, they never talk about these issues. They talk about whether you count the home runs and all this business. Kids see that and say, 'Well, that's no big deal. It's not gonna happen to me.' And sure enough, it does happen to them."
One doesn't necessarily have to purchase steroids off the street to have problems. Many of the products found in health food stores are poorly regulated and might pose problems also.
"We had a report that you can go into a health food store and just randomly pick supplements off the shelf. If you consume them, you have a 20% chance of flunking a steroid test.
"That's why we're involved with EAS, which is young athlete nutrition. They just came out with a 100% certification that's tested by the FDA. What they say is what you're getting."
There is an increasing tendency by society to seek medical solutions to every problem. Doctors and pharmaceutical companies often contribute to this mentality. Many feel a quick fix is essential. This can lead to drug abuse and numerous negative side effects. Butkus has found this problem at an increasingly young age level.
"I talked to a couple Pop Warner coaches recently, and they finally had to have a meeting with parents because before games, they would be in the parking lot giving their kids Red Bull, Monster and all these energy drinks. That just floored me.
"Are they nuts or what? Giving a 9, 10, 11, 12 year old kid energy drinks. But we're getting kids started at that age. Then they go to high school. It's not so much that they see pros taking it, it's okay with their peer groups. Other kids on their team are taking them.
"So if it's okay by the parents to take these energy drinks, which I'm told has a correlation with kids having heart attacks and stuff, then it must be okay for their kids.
"Then I was talking to another Pop Warner guy, and I told him that like I had a discovery. And he said, 'Oh, that's nothing. How about the parents giving their kids X-Lax in the morning of a wrestling match so they can make their weight?'
"What's going on with these people?"
Little League World Series participants this year wore a patch saying, "I won't cheat." Butkus agrees cheating is at the heart of the problem.
"You hit the nail right on the head. What we're hoping is we get enough of these kids that say, 'It's not cool to take that junk. Let's play fair.' It's a character issue."
Early on, steroid abusers could be excused because little was known about their effects. Once realized, professional sports began testing programs to prevent abuses.
"Back then when it first started, they really didn't know the consequences to their health. (John) Matuszak and (Lyle) Alzado, there's been a number of them that had unfortunate endings. That's why it's illegal."
Steroids, Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and other designer drugs may be illegal, but they are available and used. Butkus reminds there is pressure to play better.
"It's hard with these high school kids because you're dangling scholarships. I had a parent that sent an email to our site thanking us because their son was maybe an average football player and was recruited by a junior college.
"They more or less told him he's got to get bigger and stronger, and they would help him with supplements and whatever. The kid said, 'No way.' The mother said, 'We could have used that scholarship, but we're proud of our son saying no.'"
Unfortunately, that may be the exception to the rule. Butkus had natural ability, but he also worked hard to be the best. Nothing comes easily in life, yet many still seek the easy way out.
"It's this instant world now. Instantaneously, you've got to beat everything. They forget about how to get there. It's no accident, you've got to work at it.
"If you think this stuff is gonna help you, if you're not skilled at your sport to begin with but just a weak klutz, if you take steroids you get to be a strong klutz."
With a general population in denial about the dangers, Butkus feels compelled to play an educational role.
"I work in Las Vegas three or four weekends. A radio guy had me on, and he said, 'I don't particularly care whether they take steroids. I like to see home runs.' And I'm like, 'Why don't you talk to some parents that lost their kids to suicides so you can enjoy home runs even more?'
"It seems like a bigger problem now than ever before. I'm here at the Field Of Dreams store. People come through, and it's like accepted. 'Yeah, I remember when I was in high school. I saw some guys shooting up.' They claim it's not as bad as it was, but what's the difference? If one kid dies, to me that's serious."
Butkus has other projects devoted to the problem in addition to IPlayClean. For one, he is using the Butkus Awards as a vehicle to get the word out.
"We acquired the rights to the Butkus awards, and my son thought, 'Why not include a high school Linebacker Of The Year Award, along with a pro Linebacker Of The Year Award to go along with it?' We had the college Linebacker Of The Year Award, so that might be a way of getting the word out.
"We sent out letters to everyone on our watch lists, congratulating them for being on the watch list. But we also want you to take a pledge that you're gonna play clean. So we get the word out that's it's a character and a cheater thing."
There is a new project Butkus is excited about also. Called the "Butkus High School Hits Of The Week," the site encourages quality football while serving as a conduit to educate youngsters (www.butkushighschoolhits.com).
"We ask high school kids to send in their best hits, and we take a look at them and put the top ones up on our site for fan voting as Hit of the Week. Then at the end of the year, we'll reward the top one. We get kids to come to the website, and we also have a blog there with a trainer.
"There's all these people that think they're great trainers. Back when I retired, I worked with a guy named Arthur Jones, who invented the Nautilus machines. I never lifted weights because it wasn't in vogue then, so I learned all this too late.
"I worked with him for 10 years, and I firmly believe in his system. So if kids have any questions about training and how to go about it, we have that also.
"It's a basement deal. We're trying to get more people involved, not only for kids but for parents and coaches. We have the information about steroids in those educational kits, and the signs of abuse.
"That was one of Don Hooton's issues. He never knew why his son had this rage and changing of personality. He said, 'Maybe if I would have known the signs of it, I could have curtailed this.' We're trying to do the right thing here, and all we can do is give out the information and say it's not necessary."
Butkus is at an age where most people are contemplating retirement. But he is passionate about helping people and the game he loves. If anything, he is working harder than ever for a cause that's important to him.
"This goes along with what we put on each trophy. We congratulate the person for winning the Linebacker Of The Year Award, but along with it comes a responsibility. That's the American tradition of giving back because you're now in a position to do that, whether you like it or not.
"Football has meant everything to me. I still love the game, and I don't like to see it go downhill with all this crap that's going on. So you have to help out when you can."