Knocking back a few pints with fellow scribe Doug Merlino last night, the conversation inevitably turned to sports—or, more specifically, the late 1980s heyday of Sports Illustrated, the magazine that taught us both to love the art of storytelling. We both remembered that this vintage era of SI featured a ginormous number of “as told to” yarns, in which troubled athletes relayed their tales of woe through the magazine’s best writers. Perhaps the most classic example is Gary McLain’s famous mea culpa about his cocaine use, a piece that probably did more to convince me of the drug’s wickedness than 10,000 “Just Say No” spots. (FYI, McLain seems to have landed on his feet in the years since.)
The anti-drug story that occupies an even more prominent place in my memory banks, though, is the 1988 tale of Tommy Chaikin, a South Carolina football player who essentially lost his mind to steroids. The opener is a classic—a well-crafted shocker that still makes you believe that you’re reading Chaikin’s thoughts, not those of his co-writer:
I was sitting in my room at the roost, the athletic dorm at the University of South Carolina, with the barrel of a loaded .357 Magnum pressed under my chin. A .357 is a man’s gun, and I knew what it would do to me. My finger twitched on the trigger.
I was in bad shape, very bad shape. From the steroids. It had all come down from the steroids, the crap I’d taken to get big and strong and aggressive so I could play this game that I love.
I felt as though I were sitting next to my body, watching myself, and yet I was in my body, too. I was trying to get up that final bit of courage to end it all. Every nerve inside me was on fire. My mind was racing. I couldn’t get a grip on anything. The anxiety attacks I’d been having for the last five months had become so intense that I couldn’t stand them anymore. I’d lost control of everything—it’s impossible to describe the horror I felt, the fear, the anxiety over that loss of control.
I could hear my teammates outside my room. They were walking back and forth, listening at the door. They talked in low voices, and they sounded very concerned. Every now and then someone would try opening the door, but I’d locked it.
“Tommy,” someone would say quietly. “You O.K.?”
However, the image that’s really stuck with me all these years is not Chaikin with a gun beneath his chin, but rather the face of the poor delivery boy who had to endure the narrator’s drug-fueled thuggery:
One night in my dorm room, I pulled a shotgun on the pizza delivery boy, threw him down and put the gun in his face. It was loaded and I could have blown the kid all over the floor, but I was just fooling around. It was the kind of thing I thought was funny.
Even as a lad, I thought to myself, “Wait, the delivery boy didn’t report that to the cops?” I’ve been suspicious of the scene every since, but I have to admit that it does seem highly plausible. I wouldn’t put it past the Columbia police department to look the other way for the sake of Gamecocks football.