Sean Riggins and some of his friends at Lincoln (Ill.) Community High had a name for it: jacketing. Before wrestling meets or football practices or even on Saturday nights when they wanted a surge of quick energy, they would pop a yellow-and-black-striped capsule called a Yellow Jacket. The pill, perfectly legal, contained ephedra and caffeine, a combination that speeds up the metabolism. According to the package, it was an EXTREME ENERGIZER! The ritual of jacketing also entailed chasing the pill with a swig of Mountain Dew or Red Bull, both heavily caffeinated beverages. In retrospect, it was nuts. But wisdom can be hard-won when you're 16 and trying to make the varsity football team.
Growing up in a sleepy town of 15,000, Sean was a jock for all seasons. He was a varsity wrestler as a freshman in 2001, had a black belt in taekwondo and, at a squat 5'6" and 170 pounds, delivered a mean hit as a linebacker. By all accounts Sean hardly cut a wild figure. His hair was closely cropped. He didn't smoke or drink. He worked out religiously, deadlifting 425 pounds when he was a sophomore. The year before that, he started jacketing. "I'm sure he thought it was going to help him play better," says Will Gilmer, one of Sean's best friends and a member of the football and wrestling teams. "Knowing Sean, I'm sure he thought it was O.K."
Who could blame him? The product, labeled a dietary supplement, was available right at the counter of the Apollo, the local minimart. Sean had seen countless similar products advertised in the muscle magazines he read and on the pro wrestling telecasts he watched. Marshall Faulk, star running back of the St. Louis Rams, had endorsed a supplement containing ephedra before it was banned by the NFL. The Yellow Jacket label warned SALE TO MINORS IS PROHIBITED, but all the kids knew that there was no legal age restriction on buying supplements. And at $1.19 for a package of three, the price was right.
At some point last Labor Day, friends and teammates say, Sean took part in the jacketing ritual. He had a jayvee football game that night, but told the Railsplitters coaches he was feeling out of sorts. He dressed but spent the game looking glassy-eyed on the sideline, an ice pack on his head. Once he lay down near the team's bench. "He wasn't himself at all," recalls sophomore teammate Tim Reddix. Sean drove home with his parents and went to sleep that night, and when he woke up on Tuesday, saw a doctor. After interviewing Sean and being told that he had not taken any drugs, the doctor assumed that he was dealing with a case of the flu that was going around; he prescribed a decongestant and sent Sean home. A few hours later Sean went into cardiac arrest, and by that afternoon he was dead.
The local coroner, Chuck Fricke, performed an autopsy and determined that the cause of death was acute myocardial infarction. "Basically his heart was pumping so fast, it gave out on him," says Fricke. This explanation didn't satisfy Sean's parents, Kevin and Debbie, who questioned why a healthy, athletic 16-year-old would have a heart attack. Fricke, too, was puzzled, and ordered tests on the water of Clinton Lake, where Sean and several friends had been swimming that weekend and which is near a power plant. It was only when the school nurse starting asking around that public health officials got wind that jacketing was a common practice among Lincoln High's football players and wrestlers. Though by then it was too late to test Sean's body for ephedra—the autopsy, as was common practice at the time, included no toxicology test for ephedra—his symptoms were typical of someone who had taken a substance that stimulates the cardiovascular system. "After we heard he had taken ephedra, it all made sense," says Kevin. "As much sense as you can make of having an active, athletic 16-year-old one day and then having him drop dead the next."
They are the 900-pound gorillas of sports. While illicit steroids hijacked headlines and preoccupied governing bodies, wholly legal, over-the-counter dietary supplements pumped up and burgeoned to become a $17.7 billion business (including $1.7 billion in so-called sports-nutrition supplements). Largely outside the FDA's purview, supplements are not federally approved. They haven't been subjected to clinical trials, and often little is known about their chemical composition, side effects or efficacy. "Basically, anyone who uses these products is a human lab rat," says Dr. Arthur Grollman, a professor of pharmacological sciences and medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
But millions of athletes are taking supplements containing everything from ephedra to creatine to andro in any of several forms—pills, powders, even gums—in hopes of gaining an edge in the weight room, on the field, in the pool. "It used to be that if you wanted performance enhancement, you'd have to go to the musclebound guy at the gym who was selling steroids," says Mike Perko, an associate professor of Health and Applied Human Sciences at UNC Wilmington and author of Taking One for the Team: The New Thinking on Dietary Supplements and Young Athletes. "Now you can go to the grocery or to GNC [General Nutrition Centers] or even Smoothie King and get your supplements."
The recent deaths of Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer, Northwestern safety Rashidi Wheeler and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler have underscored the prevalence of supplement use among elite athletes. But these elixirs are hardly used by high-level athletes only. Promising something for everyone—Michelangelo muscles, instant energy, washboard abs, overnight weight loss—sports supplements are in vogue with jocks at every level. Evidence suggests that the most eager consumers are young athletes not unlike Sean Riggins. A 2001 survey conducted by Blue Cross Blue Shield's Healthy Competition Foundation indicated that approximately one million kids had used supplements. Other experts wonder if the real number isn't double that. "Everyone, and I mean everyone, takes supplements now," says Southern Methodist University strength coach Chuck Faucette. "When a recruit comes in, the first question I get is, 'What kind of supplements can I take?' "
To be sure, the lure of a college scholarship is part of the appeal. When one tenth of a second in the 40 or a few pounds on your bench-press can make the difference between a full ride and walking on, it's easy to see why athletes would swallow anything with the potential to accord a competitive advantage. The appeal of supplements crosses gender lines as it taps into teens' insecurities about their bodies. For boys, they're tailored to the ideal of adding muscle and having cinder blocks for biceps. For girls, they're often aimed at aerobic improvement and weight loss. A 2001 NCAA study revealed that ephedra, though banned in college sports, was most popular among female gymnasts (8.3%) and male lacrosse players (5-5%). "It was obvious that the women were using it to drop weight and the guys were using it for something entirely different," says Frank Uryasz, president of the National Center for Drug Free Sport and former head of drug testing for the NCAA. "Most said they started using in high school."
If young athletes are a growth sector, it's not lost on the manufacturers. The marketplace is flooded with kid-friendly supplements available in in fruity flavors and products such as Cookies 'n Creatine and Teen Advantage Creatine Serum, the latter advertised as "developed especially for young aspiring athletes 8-19" Supplement companies advertise products in magazines, on websites and on television shows—including the Little League World Series—that have a demographic that skews young. Both the ads and the packaging are awash in teen vernacular; terms such as ripped, cut, mega, Xtreme and turbo are used repeatedly.