By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, who was renowned for playing with a menacing fury, is putting his passion into the fight against steroids.
Butkus said the linking of steroids and sports disgusted him and the former Chicago Bear is tackling the problem by delivering a message on the dangers of doping through his "I Play Clean" campaign aimed at high-school students.
Last month's admission by baseball's highest-paid player Alex Rodriguez that he had taken steroids from 2001-2003 while with the Texas Rangers, shone the light again on performance-enhancing drugs in sports, something Butkus abhors.
"As an ex-football guy, I still enjoy watching it," the gruff Butkus told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"It just disgusts me and I hope it doesn't come to a point where I'm sitting there watching a Senate hearing and have them drilling some ex-football players on their steroids habit," he said, referring to baseball's appearance before Congress. "I want to lick this before that happens."
The NFL has had its share of steroids cheats, notably San Diego Chargers Pro-Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman, suspended for four games in 2006, and now-retired 1997 Defensive Player of the Year Dana Stubblefield, sentenced last month to two years' probation for lying to investigators about his steroid use.
Butkus, who became an actor and TV pitchman after knee injuries cut short his NFL career in 1973, dedicated himself to medical causes after the shock of needing a five-way heart bypass operation eight years ago.
That experience led him to a California medical center. In 2007 he joined its board and lent his name to the Dick Butkus Center for Cardiovascular Wellness.
Over time, he learned that steroid use could damage the heart among its other dangers, and his own heart ached at what he heard from parents of teenage users.
"I met four parents with three boys and a daughter who committed suicide coming off this stuff," he said.
Butkus joined forces with one parent, Don Hooton, who began the Taylor Hooton Foundation for Fighting Steroid Abuse in honor of his 17-year-old son, who committed suicide after abusing anabolic steroids.
"Dick is the guy with the persona and recognition, raising awareness and generating interest," Hooton told Reuters a day after meeting his new anti-steroids recruit Rodriguez, who agreed to work with the Taylor Foundation after he owned up to using performance enhancers.
"We're the clean-up act. Once he's generated interest, we can come into the schools or into coaches' groups and deliver an actual training program and put some meat on the bones."
Besides heart disease, steroids can cause infertility, suppress growth, lead to tendon rupture and cause cancer and tumors in the liver. Psychiatric effects can include delusion, rage and depression, according to doctor Gerard Varlotta, Director of Sports Rehabilitation at NYU Medical Center.
"I think we need to nip it before it becomes a public health concern," Varlotta told Reuters.
A recent study showed 6.1 percent of high school students used anabolic steroids -- more then 850,000 students -- with numbers appearing to be on the rise, doctor Teri McCambridge, chairperson of the council on sports medicine and fitness of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told Reuters in an e-mail.
Hooton has approached the cause with missionary fervor.
"I'm proud to tell you we've talked to over 50,000 kids but that's a drop in the bucket," he said.
Butkus, 66, tries to pave the way for Hooton, arranging distribution of educational material to 10,000 high schools through sponsor Old Spice.
Butkus has the gridiron credentials to command attention. This year NFL TV Network named him the league's "scariest" player. Even before he joined the NFL's Chicago Bears, his reputation had been cemented.
"If every college football team had a linebacker like Dick Butkus of Illinois, all (opposing) fullbacks would soon be three feet tall and sing soprano," wrote Dan Jenkins in a 1964 Sports Illustrated cover story.
Hooton and Butkus worked with Texas legislators to pass a law requiring random drug testing among high school athletes, the first such program in the United States.
Athletes, however, are not the only teens using steroids.
"It's moving out of the locker room," Hooton said. "It started with kids, athletes, trying to emulate their favorite professional player in whatever sport.
"Now you've got kids competing not just on athletic fields, they're competing for the girls in the hallways.
"We call them mirror athletes. They want to look in the mirror and look like athletes but have no interest at all in competing on athletic fields. You got a group of kids injecting themselves with anabolic steroids just to look better."
Hooton said teenage girls were the fastest-growing user group. "They want that six-pack abs look without having to do quite as many sit-ups."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)