Ex-'American Gladiator' tells steroid-soaked tale

February 2, 2009 9:51:22 AM PST
"Gladiator: A True Story of 'Roids, Rage and Redemption" by Dan Clark.

Most super heroes suffer a radioactive accident or lightning strike or some other violent tragedy that changes them from normal people. For Dan Clark - better known as one of the titular combatants of the athletic TV game show "American Gladiators" - that event was watching his older brother get electrocuted to death at age 10.

"Randy was big. Bigger than I could ever be," Clark writes. "If he died, then what in the world was going to happen to me?"

That and other childhood traumas, any one of which might have unhinged an ordinary person, lead Clark to seek solace on the football field. A gifted athlete, he finds the validation there that his family life frequently lacks, and he soon grows dependent on the cheering crowd. He also covers up his feeling of vulnerability with a thick shield of muscle.

But when a hamstring injury threatens his dreams of a pro football career, a gym partner suggests an unfamiliar short-cut to recovery: steroids. Over time, they prove to be both the key to his success and the source of his destruction.

Sadly, the chemicals he injects are not enough to save his football career. But in 1989, he finds his niche as the spandex-clad, tough-talking, hard-hitting Nitro on the then-new show "American Gladiators." In front of the camera lens as well as a live studio audience, Clark basks in the fame and adulation he only got a taste of in football.

He soon finds himself living the high life, sleeping with porn stars and partying with celebrities including his hero Lyle Alzado, the legendary defensive end who would later die of illness he attributed to steroid abuse. (If Clark's fame seems unlikely today, consider that "American Gladiators" once drew more viewers than pro football in some markets.)

Clark's fast living comes at a heavy price. Apart from the punishment "American Gladiators" inflicts on his body with every episode, the steroids take their heavy toll. He candidly details the damage, including a near heart attack, shrunken gonads, impotence and a swelling of the breasts so severe he needed surgery to get them reduced. The steroids wreak havoc on his behavior, too, leading to bouts of depression and senseless violence, including a fight with his best friend.

Clark's dependence on steroids disgusts him, but they're the reason he can keep doing his job and maintain the massively built frame into which he's poured so much of his self-esteem. The pressures of his high-flying career and his own insecurities keep him going back to the medicine cabinet.

Through Clark's eyes, it's easy to watch the making of a steroid addict without judgment. When he was introduced to steroids in 1982, the risks weren't yet fully understood, and the drugs weren't even illegal yet. To a young athlete struggling to make it, there was little reason not to take them. By the time the truth caught up with him, it was too late for Clark to retreat without sacrificing everything for which he'd worked.

It isn't until he confronts his demons on the therapist's sofa and retires from competition that he kicks steroids for good.

Clark resists depicting himself as a victim, although he is deeply critical of the athletic system which he says turns a blind eye to steroids. He also describes a tough-guy mentality among athletes that enables them to keep abusing steroids even as their bodies rebel.

"I know somewhere deep inside I'm giving pieces of (my body) away ... but this Faustian bargain isn't something athletes want to deal with. We don't want to know," he writes. "We're used to pain. ... So when you get the inkling that something is wrong, you do not give in, you do not quit."

Clark often veers into the territory of too much information, and "Gladiator" is certainly not for the squeamish. However, it never comes off as exploitative, but as a frank warning about the dangers of steroids.


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