Micah Rice: Dick Butkus tackles PED use in youth athletes

Commentary: Micah Rice

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor



He tells of the 9-year-old football players whose coach had them chug energy drinks before a game.

Then he mentions the teenage autograph seeker who took steroids because she thought it would help her become an Olympic gymnast.

Such stories drive Dick Butkus. Though the Hall of Fame linebacker made a career of breaking opponents down, he has found his post-football calling in trying to keep young athletes from destroying their own bodies.

Butkus will be in Vancouver on Nov. 2 to speak at a fundraiser for Marriage Team, which helps couples looking to enrich or salvage their marriage. The local nonprofit group will honor Butkus and his wife, Helen, for being married more than 50 years.

On the field, Butkus shot straight to the ballcarrier, hitting with the force of a cannonball.

Nowadays, Butkus is still a straight shooter on any topic you ask about. And his words make an impact when it comes to keeping youths off steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

That's a major mission of the Butkus Foundation. The eight-time All-Pro wondered whether 15- and 16-year-olds were too young for that message to resonate. But stories of drugs creeping into the lives of teenage athletes strengthened his resolve.

The foundation's "I Play Clean" campaign says about 400,000 teens report experimenting with performance-enhancing drugs, and that one third are young women. A 2012 study by the University of Minnesota found about 5 percent of high school athletes admitted taking PEDs.

"I Play Clean" aims to work with high school coaches, teachers and trainers to spread awareness about the risks of PEDs, which have been shown to inflict cardiovascular, hormonal and psychological damage.

If you go

■ What: Marriage Team Tailgate Party fundraiser.

■ Who: Dick Butkus will speak.

■ When: Saturday, Nov. 2.

■ Where: Hilton Vancouver Washington.

■ Cost: $51 per person, $510 for table, $151 for VIP reception.

■ More info: Call 360-450-3181 or www.marriageteam.org or www.butkusfoundation.org.

"It's not so much the 'skull-and-bones' approach," Butkus said in a phone interview last week. "We try to be comical. We say 'Hey guys, if you want to grow breasts, take steroids. Girls, if you want a moustache, take steroids.'"

Butkus blames overzealous parents and coaches willing to spare no expense or cut any corner for their young athlete to be a superstar. Butkus says he's frank with parents who ask how their child can become a professional athlete.

"The odds are so astronomical for anyone to make the pros in any sport," he said. "Why jeopardize the rest of your life for a goal that's really difficult?"

Steroids are a thorny issue has roots in many aspects of our society. It's a reflection on our desire to succeed at all costs, but it's also an economic issue as college athletic scholarships can make a six-figure difference to a family's bottom line.

Butkus sees it simply as a health issue, one that grows more serious each year.

"(Our mission) has gotten a little tougher because the drugs are so accessible," he said. "High school kids think they're invincible, so they don't think about the health risks."

Micah Rice is The Columbian's sports editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, micah.rice@columbian.com or on Twitter col_mrice .