For the first four years of his NFL career as a guard with the Philadelphia Eagles, John Welbourn found his pregame buzz in a little bottle of pills he bought at a truck stop. "Mini-Thins," Welbourn says. "Basically, they're truckers' speed. Boy, did they light you up. I'd take two of them before a game, and it felt like I was putting on a suit of armor." Welbourn's pills contained ephedrine, a derivative of ephedra, which the NFL banned before the start of the 2002 season. Welbourn says he plays now without them, and without other supplements containing ephedra that he used to take. "Maybe I have a cup of coffee or an espresso," he says. "I don't think my play was affected, but I did feel different, and I wasn't the only one. [Then teammate] Hugh Douglas would say, 'They're sending us into battle without our bulletproof jackets.' "
The NFL now suspends players without pay for four games the first time they test positive for ephedra. But for years before the league took that step, ephedra was used before workouts to increase energy and exercise capacity and as a pregame pep aid.
Welbourn, a starter for the NFC East champions last year, looks like a 6'5", 308-pound block of granite as he sits down to breakfast near his Tampa home and talks about his regimen. He says he started downing protein shakes and creatine as a 16-year-old, 6'2", 225-pound football player at Palos Verdes ( Calif.) Peninsula High, desperate to gain weight to become a two-way lineman. "I had a trainer who fold me to take one teaspoon of creatine five times a day and take it religiously. It killed my stomach, but I wanted to be a player," he says. After getting a scholarship to Cal, Welbourn continued using ephedra-laced products for a pep boost. In the NFL he has shed 15 pounds from his college weight while increasing his strength, he says. Now his regimen includes a multivitamin and a saw palmetto capsule (for prostate health) in the morning; Methoxy Stack, a liquid containing amino acids; and, after the workout, a creatine drink and a carbohydrate-and protein-loaded drink.
Welbourn, like many of his peers in professional football, thinks that ephedra has gotten a bad rap. "The NFL basically scapegoated ephedra," he says. "The Chinese have been taking it for 2,000 years. It's stupid. I worry a lot more about all the anti-inflammatories NFL teams hand out."
He knows, though, that everything he's taken could someday come back to haunt him. "Hopefully all the creatine and the Mini-Thins and supplements won't kill me," he says. "But what's worse—working out, eating right, being in great shape and taking the supplements? Or sitting on your ass in some office drinking five cups of coffee, two Pepsis and eating a bacon double cheeseburger for lunch, then munching on a box of Jujubes? Everybody in the NFL's going to pay the price down the road for playing this game, but I think it'll be more because of the 70 or so 30-mph car wrecks I have on the field every Sunday than because of the supplements."