Steppin' Out

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."

It's these kinds of ads, coached in qualifying words like "can" and "could," that cause drug-law reformers to brand them as propaganda, condemning their science as fuzzy, lacking peer review or replication. "Smoked marijuana is not harmless, but it is no more addictive than, say, coffee or tea," says Dr. Alan Robison, a former chairman of the department of pharmacology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. "Young people know they are not being told the truth," Stepnoski adds, "which is exactly what erodes their trust in authority."

Stepnoski says he made it his business to educate himself on these issues, subscribing to High Times magazine and occasionally contributing financially to NORML. Risking exposure, he became a lifetime member by donating $2,000 to the organization in 1998. He envisioned becoming more of an activist, particularly as his career began to wane. Returning to the Cowboys from the Oilers in 1999, the game just wasn't the same for him. His closest teammates had either retired, been traded or both. The Cowboys were playing poorly, posting two losing seasons (2000, 2001), and football just didn't seem as much fun anymore.

The call from Jerry Jones came as no surprise last February. The Cowboys would be releasing him; he was too expensive, they had to think salary cap. Stepnoski's agent said there was some interest from the Washington Redskins, but after 13 years, he knew he was done. "I felt fine walking away from the game, because I reached the point where I was convinced I just couldn't physically stand the rigors of an entire season."

A year earlier, Rick Day, then the executive director of Texas NORML, had written him a letter, hoping to enlist his support: "I expect you may be in the process of re-evaluating your let me suggest a new challenge: the regulation of marijuana for adults in Texas. Think of it as the culmination of a career as a Texas icon."

Once matters with Jones were settled, he phoned Day and told him he was ready to do what he could: help lobby the upcoming Texas Legislature to decriminalize marijuana; join NORML's national advisory board of celebrities; even take over as the new president of Texas NORML since Day would be moving to Atlanta.

"To change a law, you have to change people's minds about the law," says Allen St. Pierre, national executive director of the NORML Foundation. "Celebrities and athletes are the best placed to change the minds of others. Marketers know it. Politicians know it. Not surprisingly, drug-law reformers know it, too."

Stepnoski hopes to debunk what he calls the "faulty assumption" that pot causes amotivational syndrome, which is characterized by a decrease in drive, ambition and productivity (read: burned-out stoner). "Having someone like me on NORML's national board can dispel this myth. You can't play football in the NFL at my level for 13 years with amotivational syndrome."

The Cowboys refused to comment on Stepnoski's foray into pot politics, and when former teammate Darren Woodson heard about it, he acted surprised. "Whoa, no comment. I don't want to say anything about that. I got kids."

Sue Rusche, president of National Families in Action, a drug abuse prevention group, doesn't feel similarly restrained. "He is setting a terrible example," she says, and if given the chance, she would like to educate him on how marijuana use among teen-agers is on the rise and how its perception as a harmless drug is wrong. "There is no doubt that famous people have a major impact on kids, and it's really sad to me that a major sports figure would embrace legalization."

Stepnoski, however, believes he is acting as a positive role model by bringing truth to whoever is willing to hear it. He believes he is modeling "responsible use" by agitating for laws that allow only adults to possess marijuana in the privacy of their own homes, through a regulatory scheme similar to beer or tobacco, which does not waste valuable police resources and frees the nonviolent pot smoker from the risk of prison.

"Football is part of the American culture, but it is still a game," he says. "What I am dealing with now is not a game. We are talking about people's lives."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald