Waters, Steroids and a Slippery Slope

I am watching TV. Watching TV with Charlie Waters.

Watching TV with Charlie Waters while Michael Jackson is traipsing across the screen.

Watching TV with Charlie Waters while Michael Jackson is traipsing across the screen – and talking about the year when Charlie took steroids to play in the NFL.

"What a sick person,'' says Waters, one of the greatest, most-beloved and most outspoken Dallas Cowboys of all time. "Michael Jackson? He's sick. S-I-C-K. He's different. Even if not guilty, he's guilty.''

Waters is 56. A brilliant playing career. Time spent as a coach on both the college and pro levels. Now as a Dallas-based business partner with (guess who?) Cliff Harris. Part of the Cowboys radio broadcast team. A writer. A painter. A family man. All that, and he still looks about half his age, still very much the exuberant Dallas safety with the leading-man good looks. ("A lot of little girls in Dallas are now grown-up housewives who still have Charlie's poster on their walls,'' jokes running buddy Harris.)

Something else hasn't changed about Charlie: The ability to be honest and glib and insightful, all in one breath. He is willing to do so today on the subject of steroids. … and his use of them.

"I took steroids,'' Waters says.

And you can't help it, the visions of Jose Canseco with needles in his butt and "Big Mike'' dealing on the street corner and Congressional witnesses/baseballers suddenly losing the ability to speak English and high-school kids with grotesquely protruding foreheads attempting ‘roided-up suicide.

It was 1980, and Waters was rehabbing his knee. Under the supervision of doctors, he took what he says is "minute amounts compared to what's being taken now. … I felt the ramifications. My personality changed. But I was strong. Much stronger. I recovered much quicker. It was beneficial to the recovery of my knee.

"I could see even then what a brute you could turn into with the stuff. I felt I had a physical and mental edge with it. I felt great about myself. It gives you a sense of confidence. I enjoyed it, to be honest with you.''

Don't misunderstand. Waters isn't advocating the use of steroids. Necessarily.

But when I suggest (at least for the sake of argument) that maybe some day, some sort of regulated steroid-like material will be commonplace, that aiding rehab and adding muscle might some day be viewed as the equivalent to present-time's good nutrition and Lasik surgery, Waters agrees.

"Maybe, to a certain point, if it is monitored,'' says Waters, who concedes that, given the opportunity,he might've been tempted to take steroids to extend his NFL career. "Somebody is always going to try to figure out a way to do it. … But please, make it to where it's fair. I'm a purist in the sense of playing by whatever the rules are. So keep the playing field level.''

Legalize steroid use in sports? There's a slippery slope. Do it just for healing? Slippery again, because if Player A uses it to recover more quickly than Player B can recover, isn't that a non-level field? If a steroidal high-schooler in Texas recovers faster than a "clean'' high-schooler in Florida and therefore beats him out for a scholarship. … well, slippery.

Waters insists that he "isn't an expert. Cliff and I are still double-teamin' ‘em, in the natural gas industry. On this subject, I'm just a guy with an opinion.''

But he is, in fact, an expert on how this world works. Steroids for the knee. Pills available in the training room. And in 1972, a broken arm. Waters played with a cast on the arm. … and unknowingly to the doctors, broke it two more times while it was inside the cast. Eventually, an 18-inch rod was inserted into the arm, through the marrow. Novacaine dulled the pain. Problem was, 18 inches was a bit too long – so the rod would occasionally "stick up out the top of my shoulder,'' Waters says.

"You're in the league to play,'' Charlie says, shrugging off the gruesome nature of his tale.

Yes, Charlie Waters is an expert on how this world works – in part because he was present when this world evolved.

"Back when we were playing, and recreational drugs were becoming popular, Mr. (Tex) Schramm made an announcement to the team,'' Waters remembers. "They handed out a sheet with all the little nicknames for all the drugs, and then Mr. Schramm said, ‘The drugs we use to enhance the game of football are OK. These drugs we use for recreation are not OK.'

Says Waters: "It was a strange way of looking at it. Mr. Schramm was certainly naïve, and not aware of all the ramifications of what he was saying. His point was that you can take things if they enhance your play, as long as they're not a danger to your health – except, of course, players don't worry about the future. They want to perform now. And teenagers want to be the strongest in the class, whip the guys in front of them, and they want that extra boost.''

Waters' views and experience with steroids aren't meant as endorsements for those teenagers; he is careful to note that their minds and bodies are not prepared for that level of involvement. "They're not mature enough to make a rational analysis,'' he says.

And he has his fingers crossed that the government's interest in the steroids issue is rightly motivated. "I hope so,'' he says. "I hope it's not grandstanding, trying to get credit for their own political and personal gains. I'd like to think they have the interest of the games at heart.''

We glance back to the television, and then up at each other. We've just gone pretty deep here, agreing that the problem with steroids might not be "steroid use'' – as demonized as that phrase has become – but rather "steroid abuse.'' Kids are on steroids. Rods are sticking out of people's shoulders. Michael Jackson is right there on TV, being found not guilty.

"Why isn't your television on sports?'' Waters says, looking for my remote. "Let's put it on ESPN Classic, OK?''

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