Steppin' Out

Former Cowboy Mark Stepnoski tackles a new role--leading the charge for marijuana reform

He knows it won't be easy--coming out of the "smoky closet," as one marijuana advocate puts it. After all, he has been a professional football player for 13 years, a five-time Pro-Bowler, a two-time Super Bowl champ, a Dallas Cowboy. He can almost hear the voices of those who would accuse him of all manner of betrayal. Wasn't he supposed to be a role model? Someone who needed to send the right message to kids--a message in lockstep with the hard-line anti-drug stance of the NFL? But to sign on as the new president of Texas NORML, an organization dedicated to reforming marijuana laws, to join its national advisory board, well that just seemed a reckless way to kick off his retirement.

At 34, Mark Stepnoski could no longer keep his principles to himself. He had known hypocrisy in a league that generates huge revenue from alcohol and tobacco advertising, drugs that he believes are much more harmful than marijuana. He had been subjected to random drug testing for a recreational drug that in no way affected his performance on the field. He had sensed the futility of an unwinnable drug war whose main victims are marijuana users like himself, their lives ruined because of a law that he believes is as wasteful as it is unjust. Yet despite 20 years of personal use, he remained silent until retiring this season. "To come out when I was playing would have caused a lot of grief," Stepnoski says. "The media would have had a field day, and it would have generated a lot of negative publicity that the team certainly wouldn't have wanted. I didn't want it either."

By outing himself now, Stepnoski becomes one of the first NFL football players past or present to publicly advocate the decriminalization of marijuana and a powerful pitch man for drug-law reform. It's a common tactic, really--to enlist celebrities to sell your point of view, a tactic also employed by drug-war advocates in their zeal to win the hearts and minds of those in the murky middle.

Even as a player, Stepnoski was never one to seek celebrity, though he seemed to attract it by the cut of his hair, which was unconventionally long for the NFL. He was the center whose sweaty shoulder-length strands dangled beneath his helmet on game day. He was the 260-pound lineman who had to compensate for his smaller size by being quicker, stronger, more agile than the 350-pounders he was assigned to block. He was the publicity-shy ball player who chose to do his weight training during lunch and dodge the daily meet-and-greet with the media. "Every sports interview is just like every other sports interview--mindless questions, clichéd responses," he says. "If I had a nickel for every time some reporter asked me about my hair."

Stepnoski says he was all about the game; of course, the $14 million, five-year contract he signed with the Cowboys in 1999 just made the game that much more enjoyable. But playing ball was all he ever wanted to do, and he wanted to do it better than anyone else. His father played in high school, his brother in college, and he took to it naturally by age 9, playing throughout his school days in Erie, Pennsylvania. At the University of Pittsburgh, he played guard, making several All-America teams and attracting the attention of the Dallas Cowboys, which drafted him in the third round in 1989, a few months after Jimmy Johnson became head coach.

Starting at center by the end of his rookie season, his play took on an intensity, a seriousness of purpose, that put everything else in his life on hold. "I knew the average NFL career is four to five years," he says. "I pushed everything else out of my mind but football. You never knew when it was going to end." He delayed marriage and kids and says he shunned the kind of off-field carousing for which the Cowboys had become notorious. "I was serious about the game, so I didn't want to do anything to detract from my performance on Sunday."

That didn't stop him from lighting up the occasional post-game reefer, or smoking a joint to alleviate the pain from his banged-up right knee and the six surgeries he underwent to keep it functioning. "From my own personal experience, it seemed inherently less harmful than alcohol," he says. "When you are playing football in 105 degrees, and you drink a couple of six-packs, you can't go out the next day and perform. That's just not the case with marijuana."

The league mandated that each player submit to one random drug test annually, which could be administered any time between minicamp in April and training camp in mid-August. By abstaining for four to six weeks before minicamp, he passed every drug test he took. "It's all about responsible use," he says. "I could quit anytime. There was no withdrawal. No nothing."

Drug warriors would disagree, particularly the Office of National Drug Control Policy, whose recent anti-marijuana media blitz warns parents: "And don't be fooled by popular beliefs. Kids can get hooked on pot. Research shows that marijuana use can lead to addiction."

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