Riches to Rags
Former bodybuilding champ speaks out about how steroids almost cost him his life
A quick glance at Michael Harris won't offer any palpable evidence of a tempestuous former lifestyle. A more exhaustive look won't render much more about the life of a man who abused steroids for four hard years of his life. A candid conversation about his past, however, unmasks a man once battered and bruised by the unyielding traps of poor decisions, now mended from the virtues gained from those very decisions.
If experience is the best teacher, then the 51-year old Harris' experience lends him the credence of the utmost sort. Harris soared to the top of the professional body-building world and came crashing down from it with one wicked culprit the cause for both - anabolic steroids.
Harris, now a Department Chairperson for Support Services at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in Lithonia, services the community by speaking out about the dangers of anabolic steroid use, an addiction that nearly claimed his life some twenty years ago.
Harris' story starts as a sad, but rather familiar one of a talented, yet immature high school athlete too engrossed in the present to be concerned about the future.
Harris graduated from Ferguson High School in Newport News, Virginia, in the same inner city sector that produced the likes of Michael Vick and Allen Iverson. Harris, a standout defensive back received scholarship offers from Louisville, The Citadel, and Bucknell but lost them all during his senior year due to, "just playing around with friends, marijuana use, and alcohol abuse."
A favor from his former middle school assistant principal with connections landed him a spot on Division II Shaw University squad where he excelled for three years before budget restraints forced the program to fold before Harris' senior year. With NFL scouts having backed off as a result, coupled with him being close to satisfying his degree requirements, Harris continued to pursue a career as an educator instead of transferring to another school to resume his athletic career.
One letter altered those immediate plans and forever changed the life of Michael Harris.
The letter was from a Dallas Cowboys scout inviting him to try out for a roster spot at the Dallas Cowboys' training camp in Thousand Oaks, California. Â Harris accepted the invitation only to be beaten out for the final defensive back spot by South Carolina State's Dexter Clinkscale, an outcome that left him deflated.
"I was very upset," Harris said of his release. "Playing in the NFL is the dream of every kid, but more so in our neighborhood coming from Newport News, Virginia. That was the standard."
Harris returned home, secured a teaching job, worked out at a local gym, the dream of playing professional football still intoxicatingly strong in his mind. Harris attempted to keep his football playing days alive in other burgeoning professional leagues like the CFL and the USFL but was unsuccessful, only adding to his frustration.
A powerbuilder fresh in town from Philadelphia, looking to open a Gold's Gym in the area, met Harris working out at a local gym and introduced him to the evil that would go on to affect him to this very day.
Harris was among the many bodybuilders and NFL cast-offs that the newly-arrived powerbuilder (who will go unnamed) successfully lured to join his new gym and he immediately took to the well-built Harris.
"He looked at my body structure and asked a lot about my athletic background and he said, 'I can give you something that will assist you with your athletic career and make you bigger, make you stronger, and make you faster if you want to get back to the NFL.'"
That 'something' was anabolic steroids. It is common knowledge that anabolic steroids do wonders in improving one's athletic performance and increasing muscle size. Sadly, the health ramifications of its use - sometimes irreversible - are often disregarded.
Anabolic steroids are man-made substances related to male sex hormones with side effects ranging from increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, testicular atrophy (shrinkage of the testicles), changes to or cessation of women's menstrual cycle, reduced sperm count, infertility, tumors and hepatitis. However, the immediate results are frequently so astonishing that its users are hoodwinked.
Harris still had the itch to play in the NFL so he began to use three different steroids simultaneously, a practice called "stacking." The results were rapid and according to Harris, "astronomical." Harris' weight ballooned to 248 from his playing weight of 199 in a month's time and his bench press max went from 185 to 400 pounds. Harris, however, outgrew his defensive back position and thus, his chances at playing in the NFL. After a meeting with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, whom he had previously met as a college junior when the owner had shown interest in him, he was quite convinced of this.
"He knew I was a defensive back and once he looked at the body structure [change] a red flag went off with him. The rate of anabolic steroid use in the NFL during that time was sort of taboo. Nobody really paid any attention to it, but once you notice someone's body structure change that fast, a red flag goes off so I've never heard from him since that day."
With his NFL dreams now in the rearview mirror, Harris opted to pursue a career in bodybuilding and with the help of the weightlifting guru, his career took off.
From 1984-1988, the new man of steel was seen on television commercials endorsing protein drinks and clothing stores, winning weightlifting contests and seemingly on top of the world. Harris qualified for Mr. America eight times, won the Mr. Tri-City in Richmond, Virginia and had his sights set on the ultimate prize - qualifying for the Mr. Olympia contest at Hagerstown, Maryland, which upon qualifying would place him there for life. Harris - then 6'2 - realized, however, that his height was working against him, which led to the implementation of more steroids to his routine.
Prior to the Mr. Tri-City contest, Harris competed in and won the tall division of the Mr. Old Dominion contest. His muscles chiseled to the point that his skin couldn't be separated from the muscle, Harris, however, lost the overall competition to a shorter competitor, something he vowed to never let happen again.
"The three drugs that I was taking - the Dianobol, the Deca-Durabolin, and the Testosterone Enanthate - were not enough for me to compete against guys who were four and five inches shorter than I was at the same weight. I had to get a little thicker, especially in my chest area, my leg area, and my shoulders and lats."
Harris' weight had fluctuated anywhere between 240 and 258 pounds of rock-hard muscle during his career, thanks to rigorous workout routine of three to four hours in the gym and a caloric intake of 20,000 calories a day. His diet consisted of 150 chicken breasts weekly, grits, a dozen egg whites per day, salads, one pound of macaroni and cheese a day, and even baby food.
To offset the height disadvantage however, Harris decreased his caloric intake to just 500 calories a day while continuing the same workout routine and incorporating two new anabolic steroids - Equipoise and Winstrol-V, which is often used in horses - to keep his body rigid as he dieted for the contest. Harris also started using STH, a human growth hormone secreted by the pituitary gland, which gains are maintained by the user for a lifetime.
During this time, Harris' weightlifting numbers peaked. "I could bench press maybe 550 pounds on the incline without breaking a sweat for 15 repetitions," he said. "I dead-lifted around 750 to 800 pounds and I could squat around the same." That is until a routine night in the gym preparing for a contest.
"Something happened prior to that contest where I was squatting maybe 600 to 700 pounds one night. The first one went very good but on the second one I tore my entire groin." Harris was rushed to the hospital and woke the next morning to a right leg so swollen that it completely covered his left leg.
This would be the final chapter in the saga of steroid abuse by Michael Harris, right? Quite the contrary.
Remarkably, Harris was back in the gym squatting lightly in a week's time and competing in the Mr. Virginia contest within three weeks. The Deca-Durabolin that he was injecting into his buttocks, which heals and repairs the muscles, tissues, and fibers at a much more rapid rate than normal, along with a steadily swelling ego, were the primary reasons.
"Once you're winning," Harris says, "and once you're popular and the money starts coming in, that's your mindset. Being a competitor you always want to win and because I was winning everything I was entering and taking steroids with my body structure the guys couldn't compete against me."
Shortly thereafter, Harris would encounter something that he couldn't compete with either. The years of abusing his body with anabolic steroids finally began to take its toll. His knees began to deteriorate to the point where climbing a flight of stairs was arduous. Like many others blinded by cheap success, Harris ignored what would ultimately be the aftermath. Amid the winning, he never took the time to read about the dangers of what he was doing. "I was so naÃ¯ve in taking the steroids that there are inserts that you can read that tells you all about the side effects. I never read it. I didn't know about the side effects. All I know was that I was winning, I was getting stronger, and I was getting more popular so I decided not to read the inserts - I would throw them in the trashcan."
At this point Harris felt like his knees could follow. By the time he was 31 and after several weightlifting victories, Harris' knees were ravaged. With the cartilage in both knees beginning to deteriorate, in addition to severe bone loss and calcium deficiency throughout his body, Harris could no longer compete.
The pain unbearable, Harris never made it to the Mr. Olympia contest or any other contests for that matter. What the torn groin had failed to do, the years of injecting steroids into his body did.
At age 31, Michael Harris was done desolating his body. His days as an anabolic steroid abuser were over.
Harris eventually sought the aid of orthopedic surgeon Bruce Reid who was dumbfounded at his condition.
"When I went into his office it baffled him that a 31-year old man would have the same knees as a 70-year old man," he says, "so he probed me for questions."
Questions that Harris wasn't intent on answering.
Prior to that appointment only one person besides his trainer and fellow steroid-using counterparts knew of his steroid use - his wife - and even that was a mistake.
"The only way she found out was because she asked me for a pen one day and I was half-sleep so I reached into my gym bag and pulled out a syringe instead of a pen."
With his habit now literally out of the bag, Harris felt compelled to tell the man that would play a vital role in his health today.
"I didn't want to tell anybody I was on anabolic steroids. I always denied it [but] I finally came clean and he finally understood exactly what was going on and so he did a total knee replacement on my left knee." The surgery took 48 staples and left a scar that serves as a reminder today of his past callow decisions.
The surgery, however, failed to completely remedy the situation. Harris, naturally bowlegged, now walked awkwardly with a newly corrected straight left leg and a still-bowed right leg. "It was a two-inch difference and so I was kind of walking like Fred Sanford."
After several years of shame and embarrassment, Harris opted to have a second surgery. Embarrassment was uncharted territory for the man who once had a 60 inch chest, 27 inch waist, and 23 inch biceps. The night of the surgery, Harris returned home and after taking the prescribed oxycontin, began to vomit blood and have trouble breathing and was rushed to a local hospital where his lifestyle was seemingly about to culminate in the loss of his life.
"They placed me under the care of a nurse because they thought I was going to die that night," he said. "They ran some X-rays and noticed that there was a blood cot headed toward my lungs and they just caught it in time."
Other tests revealed asthma, acid reflux disease, and a bleeding ulcer. Suddenly Harris didn't seem so invincible like he once did on stage with thousands gawking at his every move.
Steroids also caused his testicles to shrink to the size of peanuts, milk to secrete from his breasts, and his ego to be severely damaged with the cheers and chants of adoring fans summoned to mere imaginary whispers.
Researchers have theorized that steroids contribute to violence, rage and depression. Toxicology reports showed steroids in the system of former WWE wrestler Chris Benoit who murdered his wife and son before taking his own life in his Fayetteville home last June. Harris admits his abrupt stoppage from using steroids did induce bouts with depression, but it is something that he has overcome.
"The depressing thing," he says, "was the fact that I couldn't compete anymore. I'd say most of my withdrawals were mentally because of looking back at what I used to look like - you always want to be popular, you always want the applause of the audience because that's what I'd always received and that's what I was used to."
Harris, called to the ministry months after he quit, says his experience definitely brought him closer to God and he eventually came to grips with his new physique. He scoffs at the notion of ever using steroids again.
"It's given me a good, strong foundation," he says of his call to the ministry, "because I know that with Christ I can do all things so therefore, I would never, ever go back to taking anabolic steroids again. I'm not even tempted to."
Harris, who now stands 6'5 after two surgeries straightened his legs, has instead opted to spread the word about the pitfalls of "cheating" to young adults, who - like he once was - are allured to illusory fancies of quick success.
Harris speaks every year at the Peninsula All Star Football Camp. The National Football League Players Association, to college athletes in the NCAA and high school athletes and even non-athletes who he feels are just as pronged to succumb to the appeals of a quick fix.
"I speak, not only to athletes," he says, "but to non-athletes also because there's a body-image problem in our society. People want a six-pack or they want to look good like Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, LL Cool J or they want to look like 50 Cent."
His advice to youth is simple: "Don't cheat. Take your time. Do it all naturally. Use your God-given talents to take you where you need to go instead of putting an artificial substance in your body. It'll take you on a different route. You might get to the NFL, you might get to 'Mr. Olympia,' but you're taking a backdoor to get in."
"It may take more time but at least you'll have your health. I almost killed myself trying to get back into the NFL and trying to win Mr. Olympia."
As for his health today, Harris may not be quite as healthy as the typical 51-year old who's never used steroids, but relatively speaking, Harris is doing just fine.
"I feel good," he says. "The knee is great and if I wanted to run I could do it on the treadmill. Harris still takes medication for his lungs and asthma and says his bleeding ulcer is fine.
Steroids may have nearly taken his life, but he hopes his cautionary tale serves as a means to save many others.