Player’s death is a sign that drugs must go

Adam Rittenberg Column

Body 1 ———————————————————————–

It’s one of the most shocking sights for a 12-year-old football fan to see – the place where blood falls, sweat spills and tears pour.

Tip-toeing into the weight room used by the University of California football team, my eyes darted from mat to machine, from training table to free weights. Several minutes went by before I even took notice of the placards blanketing the room’s four walls.

They warned players about steroids, outlining both the physical dangers and the strict NCAA rules mandating the banned items.

But the signs did not bother me. I’d heard about steroids, how they turned football players into monsters, pushed heart rates to the brink and occasionally shrunk every man’s most prized possession.

What I continued to grapple with was the idea that these beloved giants would regularly put this garbage into their systems.

You’d think things would be different eight years later. While college football has become “bigger, stronger and faster,” to employ a Randy Walker favorite, the issue of performance-enhancing substances has grown too.

And the consequences of using these drugs are still just as severe.

When Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler collapsed and died on Aug. 3, medical reports revealed that he had ephedrine – an energy- and strength-boosting chemical found in several over-the-counter drugs – in his system. However, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office said the drug did not contribute to his collapse, ruling that bronchial asthma was the cause of death.

NU fired back yesterday, stating that Ultimate Punch and Xenadrine, ephedrine-containing substances that were present in Wheeler’s system, played a greater role. The school also refuted the claim that bronchial asthma was the cause of death.

While NU faces a pending lawsuit from Wheeler’s mother, Linda Will, the dispute over the cause of death should carry on for months. And while the truth likely will be lost in the chaos, the bone-cold reality of substance abuse has come to the forefront.

It wasn’t like Wheeler bought Ultimate Punch from a hooded pusher in a dark alley. He most likely just walked into the local General Nutrition Center, took out his wallet and slapped a greenback on the counter.

Simple, ain’t it? Too simple.

Say what you want about Wheeler’s severe asthma and seemingly bad judgment – this stuff is dangerous and should not be stocked in stores.

“You go to GNC and you see them all on the shelves, promising big strength gains and making you faster,” NU guard Jeff Roehl said. “A lot of them are legit vitamins and minerals, but other things you have to be very careful about because there can be adverse side effects.”

In Wheeler’s case, those side effects may have proven deadly. Roehl went on to explain how the school advises players about substances throughout the year, urging them to always check with team trainers before using a drug. He described the team weight room, decorated with warning signs, much like the iron castle at Cal.

But obviously this is not enough. These substances have to be wiped out – soon. In the meantime, college football coaches need to tone down the emphasis on lifting totals and 40 times. Motivation and competition are one thing – pushing players too far is another.

Heading into his senior season, Wheeler was a second-stringer fighting for the right to run with the ones. Sure, he saw the signs and heard the speeches. But he also read the labels on Ultimate Punch and Xenadrine, and felt he could gain that extra step.

“It’s obviously a temptation,” Roehl said, “but if you want to be a true athlete, you have to stay away from those type of things.”

Wheeler was a true athlete, too. He just took the bait when he should have laid off.

Whether or not he died from taking over-the-counter substances, Wheeler should never have had the chance to pull that jar off the shelf. Until decisive action is taken against these drugs and their manufacturers, more players will make the wrong choice and pay the ultimate price.

Adam Rittenberg is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]