Twice a week, in the early morning, he takes his cane and tries to walk around the block. His steps are labored, his movements stiff and exaggerated, like a puppet yanked by strings. He passes the red brick house and the one with aluminum siding. Cane. Step. Cane. Step. You can do it, he’s thinking. But by the time he turns the corner, he is sweating. Soon he is short of breath. Past the silver fence now. Around the next corner. Cane. Step.
“You’re dragging your foot, Sam,” his therapist tells him. Sam grits his teeth. He is thinking “walk” but the message does not reach his legs. This is what happens when you have a stroke. It’s like someone snipped the phone lines from your brain.
Past another porch now. Another driveway. Past the house with the American flag. The third corner is in sight, but his foot is shaking, it is turning inward, against his will. Cane. Step. Come on . . .
“OK, good job, Sam, that’s enough for today,” the therapist finally says, and Sam stops, sweating hard. His wife, Laura, pulls up in the car. He rides the rest of the way home, cane on his lap. He went 500 yards. It took 40 minutes. A good day. Very good.
This is a story about a man and his muscle, and the pills and injections that made those muscles grow into his enemy. Back when Sam Virgo was turning heads with his physique, it was easy to get steroids. Doctors prescribed them. Weight lifters sold them. They were available at just about any gym, places you or your kids could enter today. Some came with a label on the bottle; some you took on faith. They are so common, these steroids, that once, Sam saw a guy shoot up, then walk around the gym with the syringe hanging from his butt.
“Crazy,” he says now, shaking his head. Crazy, yes, like those photos from five years ago, in which Sam’s leg muscles bulge, his waist is narrow as a basketball hoop, his lats form a V under his arms so thick he looks like a bat spreading its wings. Back then, as a bodybuilder, the mirror was his lover; he sculpted himself the way an artist sculpts clay. But now he looks in the mirror and sees the flabby stomach and the sunken flesh and the left side that feels as if it’s always asleep. Once in a while, he will try to flex a bicep and he will feel, he says, “like crying.”
Have you ever wanted to look big, to feel tough, to be noticed in a crowd? Have you ever wondered what you’d sacrifice for that? This is a not the story of some fallen NFL superstar. This is about one of us, a guy next door. All across America this month, kids return to high school football practice, college students are working out, adult males meet their lifting partners at the gym after work. And the little pills are there. Always have been. And everyone thinks he knows his limits. Which, of course, is what Sam Virgo thought. In 11 years of steroid use, he studied all he could about chemicals, proteins, hormones. He read books. He read medical journals. He thought he had learned it all. But it wasn’t until after the stroke, which hit him when he was 32 years old — “I tell people I had a stroke and they say ‘A stroke? My grandfather had a stroke,’ and I say, ‘Did he recover?” and they say, ‘He’s dead.’ ” — it wasn’t until after this that Sam learned courage. The kind it takes to say, “Help me. I want to live.”
Listen up, dumbbells. You might want to hear this. Superman and Hercules
“When I was a kid, you know who my heroes were?” says Virgo, 36, his speech still slow and soft from the stroke four years ago. “Superman. Hercules. I loved the way they were drawn. I wanted to look like that. And the closest I could come was bodybuilding.”
In this way, he was not alone. How many million Americans want a shape they can show off? Sam Virgo, understand, was not some crazy psychopath; he was a normal guy, a college student with a good head for business who, when he was 21, walked into a Vic Tanny’s, like a lot of us, and began working out. And he talked to other lifters. And he heard about these pills. And eventually, in the mid-1970s, he went to this doctor who ran a diet center and who asked Sam what he wanted. Sam said he wanted to get big. The doctor, according to Sam, then prescribed steroids, Dianabol, in pill form, and DecaDurabolin, which he injected into Sam’s hip every other month. Just like that. A doctor did this?
“He told me about how big all his other weight lifter patients had gotten with this stuff,” Virgo says. “He bragged about it.”
The doctor still practices today and has several offices. He wouldn’t discuss Virgo’s comments. One of the big boys
Sam saw the results of the steroids immediately. He arms grew thicker, his recovery time shorter. He could lift now with the big boys, hundreds of pounds in squats, bench presses, leg presses. For a year or two, he kept going to that doctor and another for pills and injections. Then he began buying at the gym. This is how it works: You see a guy. You ask what he’s using. You ask where you can get some. Maybe he sells it to you.
Now Sam was big. He could feel his bulk against the cotton of his T-shirts. When he walked, he felt power, and he thought people would find this attractive. “Actually,” he says now, “they were just scared. I looked like a brute.” He began to act like one, too. He grew moody. Aggressive. Steroids do this. One time, in the gym, some teenagers were watching him lift. He glared at them, picked up a bench, and threw it across the room. “How about working out someplace else?” he barked. They scattered.
He was sweating constantly. At night, he could barely sleep. He would rise and do hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups, just to burn off this energy. His sex drive was heightened. His anger was ever-boiling. He fell into a state of constant anxiety, a feeling, he says “like you have to go somewhere, even when you have no place to go.”
In 1982, he quit his job as a buyer for an aircraft parts manufacturer. He couldn’t get along with the people anymore. The gym. Only the gym was his sanctuary. He began working out all the time, six hours a day; he could bench-press 375 pounds and leg-press 860. He increased his steroids. He used multiple combinations. He began to think about bodybuilding competitions. He read the books. Studied the poses. In the spring of 1985, he entered a local contest called Mr. Highland. During the competition, he began to feel weak. He had to lie down backstage. “I must have overtrained,” he thought. He finished sixth.
Two weeks later, at an Ironman competition, the same thing happened. He was dizzy, short of breath. Deep down, he suspected the steroids were hurting him. But he kept swallowing them. Kept sticking himself with a needle in the mornings. “I once read a survey of bodybuilders that asked, “If you could take a pill that would guarantee you first place but would kill you in six months, would you do it?’ ” Sam says. “And 90 percent said they would.”
He pauses. “And I would have, too.”
‘A constant sense of doom’
The first stroke came a year later. Sam was living in a apartment with Laura, then his girlfriend. He woke up and the room was spinning. He stumbled into the bathroom, suffering diarrhea and vomiting at the same time. “The tops of his feet were sweating,” Laura recalls.
She phoned the doctor, who said it was probably food poisoning. When they finally went to the hospital, 12 hours later — Sam didn’t want to go because
“I wanted to work out the next day” — the people there didn’t know what to make of him. Tests, for some reason, revealed nothing. Only months later would
a neurologist determine it had been a stroke. At the time, one nurse thought he was a drug addict. A week later he was discharged.
From that point, Sam felt “a constant sense of doom.” He never wanted to be alone. In August of that year, during a workout at the gym, he was talking to some other lifters, and his speech began to slur. They laughed. “Am I talking funny?” he said. They said yeah. He panicked. He had read about this in the journals. A stroke. “I gotta get some air,” he said.
It was too late. He collapsed in the doorway. His eyes rolled back. The ambulance came. His left side went numb. In the hospital, he kept mumbling,
“Where’s my arm?” even though it was resting on his stomach. He couldn’t collect his thoughts. He was there, but not there. At one point, he tried to get out of bed and tumbled to the floor. His sister rushed to help him. “Get off of me!” he yelled. “Let me up! Get off me!” But she was nowhere near him. What he felt was his own dead weight, on top of him like a corpse. No fairy tales
There are stories about professional wrestlers who took steroids for years and now have failing livers and crumbling bones. There is the story of Steve Courson, a former NFL lineman who took steroids since college and now has cardiomyopathy — same as Sam — and needs a new heart. There are stories everywhere about what the little pills can do to you, and yet people keep taking them and medicine just doesn’t know the limits. Every day it’s a new horror. One doctor told Sam Virgo he would not live without a heart transplant. Another told him his heart “was the size of a basketball,” and the steroids could have done that, since the heart is a muscle, too. Maybe that led to the blood clots that led to the stroke.
All Sam knew was that he wished he were dead. He asked his mother where she had put his gun. “I couldn’t even wipe myself in the bathroom,” he says, softly. “Can you imagine the shame of that?”
With his left side paralyzed, Sam came home from the hospital in a wheelchair. Laura quit her job to take care of him. Within a short time, almost unbelievably, she became pregnant. Her first reaction was shock. “God, we didn’t want a baby,” she says. “We thought it would be born deformed, sick.” She considered an abortion.
Instead, she and Sam chose to marry. It was a quick and simple ceremony. The families squeezed into the front room of Sam’s parents’ house in Dearborn
— the same house where he grew up fantasizing about Superman, the house where he and Laura now lived. A judge read the vows. Sam slumped in a chair. When the part came to kiss the bride, Laura leaned over and found her husband’s lips. His face was half-stiff. It was not a fairy tale. It was not the way they dreamed it would be. Even today, strangers ask Laura, a very attractive woman, why she did it.
“Sometimes,” she says, “all you have in life is to say you love somebody.” A reason to live
And sometimes, that is enough. The baby was born, a beautiful healthy girl named Kimbra. And suddenly, Sam Virgo had a reason to live. He stopped thinking about guns. He signed up for rehab treatment. He regained some feeling on his left side; he got out of the wheelchair and began to walk with a cane, first a few steps, then a few more. His doctors were surprised. “Sam is very smart and extremely motivated,” says his therapist, Dan Geer, from the New Life Rehabilitation Center, who makes that walk with him in the mornings.
“He says to me all the time, did you read this article where thousands of high school kids are taking steroids now? They don’t know what they’re doing. Look at me, Dan. Look at me!”
Yes. Look at him. A nice guy. A smart guy. Maybe like a lot of guys you know. Sam has friends out there, pushing barbells over their heads even as you read this. They never call him. They pretend he doesn’t exist. “We used to say, ‘Let’s live dynamically until we’re 50, and then we won’t care,’ ” says Sam. He looks at his body, twisted and soft. “I didn’t quite make it. I lasted to 32.”
There is no happy ending to this story. There is only hope, the hope that someone hears it and throws the pills away, the hope that people stop thinking
strength and looks are so damn important. The hope that Sam Virgo can one day go the full distance on those sunny mornings, without a cane. “Crazy, no?” he sighs. Crazy, yes. But when it comes to steroids, going around the block is easy. It’s trying to get back that can break your heart.