When he received the letter from the NFL, early during the 2009 season, apprising him that he would be suspended four games for a violation of the league's banned substances policy, David Vobora couldn't even say methyltestosterone.
Nearly two years later, the St. Louis fourth-year linebacker, still can't pronounce the component for which he tested positive.
But he can count to $5.4 million, the amount awarded him by a court last Friday, when it ruled that a company intentionally misrepresented a product that Vobora began using in the spring of '08. More importantly, Vobora can spell "vindication," clearly the element most important to him in the 2010 lawsuit that he brought against Anti-Steroid Program LLC, the manufacturer of "Ultimate Sports Spray."
"Having my name cleared," Vobora told The Sports Xchange on Monday. "That was a lot more important than the money will ever be. I knew I wasn't a cheater. The whole thing, the stigma of it all, was like a black cloud hanging over me. From the minute I got that letter (from NFL officials), I knew I'd be labeled, and for something I didn't do. I told my attorneys the money was a secondary concern. All I wanted was fairness, the truth, to come out. That's what drove me. It's all I wanted to get."
His reputation may, in truth, be all that Vobora recovers. Although the "Ultimate Sports Spray" is still sold over the internet, for $64 a bottle and $6 shipping, Anti-Steroid Program LLC, also known as SWATS, is essentially out of business. The SWATS site (ironically, an acronym for "Sports with Alternatives to Steroids') has delated all of its endorsements to the "Ultimate Sports Spray," including those of two coaches, one of whom is believed to have been first-year Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson. The company has defaulted on previous judgments against it. Owner Mitch Ross has said he doesn't have the money to fund the damage awards, and is considering suing the NFL.
None of that, Vobora contended, matters much to him.
"Being able to walk out on the field with my head a little higher and knowing that guys can't accuse me of (illegal) stuff ... that's more important," he said.
The final selection in the 2008 draft, Vobora, who played collegiately at Idaho, did virtually everything right, in his mind. The spray, recommended by a teammate he would not identify, but who is believed to have been former NFL linebacker Gary Stills, claimed to contain no substances banned by the NFL, according to its label. Just to be safe, Vobora phoned the hotline that the NFL maintains for players who have questions about supplements, and was told it was safe. Vobora asked around about the "Ultimate Sports Spray," which he began using, he said, to help his body recover more quickly, and to regain strength, and received no red-flags.
And then, in his second season, the letter from the league arrived.
"To say I freaked out ... well, I was kind of at a loss," Vobora said.
LB David Vobora
On the advice of agent Marc Lillibridge of St. Louis-based National Sports Agency, he immediately boxed up everything in his locker. Eventually, even though Vobora said he "didn't have a lot (of money) stashed away for the testing," the spray was sent to the Aegis Sciences Corporation in Nashville for analysis. Based on the findings of the highly-reputed laboratory, the lawsuit against SWAT was launched.
Said Vobora: "I mean, how many guys are suspended for testing positive and say stuff like, 'I'm going to sue (the manufacturer)?' You hear it all the time. But how many actually do it? Not many. But I was determined to follow through."
Lillibridge, himself a former NFL linebacker, acknowledged that his agency "busted its butt" preparing for the trial. Lillibridge testified at the trial and formulated the $5.4 figure: $90,000 in lost wages, $170,000 in performance bonuses, $100,000 in lost endorsements, $3 million in future income, and also $2 million for emotional distress precipitated by the suspension.
Howard Balzer of The Sports Xchange, a longtime St. Louis sports expert, said that SWATS made no attempt at all to counter Vobora's claims, and didn't even have an attorney present for the trial.
Last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Sippel ruled in Vobora's favor. Vobora's attorney, R. Daniel Fleck, believes the judgment is the largest ever awarded in a case involving a supplements manufacturer.
It was the latest beat-the-odds victory for Vobora. There aren't many players from Idaho who make it in the NFL; in fact only 10 Vandals prospects have been selected in the draft since 2000. Few "Mr. Irrevant" players, the nickname given to the final prospect chosen in the draft, earn regular-season roster spots. Yet Vobora has played in 34 games in three seasons, with 16 starts. That includes 10 starts in the season in which he was suspended.
For his career, Vobora, who was offered a restricted free agent tender by the Rams this spring, has 97 tackles, two sacks, two passes defensed, and a forced fumble.
"Let's just say, I wouldn't bet against me," said Vobora.
Because the supplements industry is loosely regulated and has few guidelines, the NFL has a general and longstanding rule of thumb - that players are ultimately responsible for what they put into their bodies - and the league has basically applied it to Vobora. While the league said in a statement that it "supports" Vobora's efforts and "hopes that ... (such) judgments will help to curb the activities of supplement manufacturers who would seek to mislead consumers," it will not review the player's suspension.
Vobora, 25, called the NFL's stance "a story for some other time," but allowed that he has formulated his own "Golden Rule" for dealing with supplements.
"I would say to players, 'Don't trust the labels. Don't believe what someone tells you,' " Vobora said. "I know young guys don't have a lot of money, but spend the $500, or whatever it costs, to have something tested if you're really interested in taking it.
"I mean, it's going to be worth it in the long run, because you protect yourself and, a lot more important, your name."
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.