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Mark Stepnoski Put a Lot on The Line in Marijuana Effort 


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Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Author: David Tarrant, The Dallas Morning News 
Published: Saturday, November 15, 2003 
Copyright: 2003 The Dallas Morning News
Contact: [email protected]

For the record, Mark Stepnoski says he is not moving to Vancouver because of pending legislation in the Canadian Parliament to decriminalize marijuana. 

"If that's all I cared about then I could move to one of the states that have decriminalized marijuana," he says. He has a lot of friends there, he says, and "it's one of the best cities in the world." 

He didn't say it, but a stint in the Great White North might also take some of the heat off after his year in the spotlight as president of the Texas Chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The group favors legalization of marijuana. 

For most of his National Football League career, Mr. Stepnoski preferred to let his accomplishments do the talking. And they spoke loudly. 

An All-American in high school and college, his 13 years in the NFL included five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and a spot on the NFL's all-1990s second team. He started at center for two Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl championship teams, paving the way for two sure-bet Hall of Famers, quarterback Troy Aikman and the NFL's record-setting running back Emmitt Smith. 

When Mr. Stepnoski retired from football last year, few people would have predicted anything other than his fading quietly and gratefully into private life at his home in west Plano. 

But for the past year, he has spoken out in a way that could cause his hard-earned reputation to go up in smoke. 

"I think the laws against marijuana use are hypocritical," he says, noting that marijuana is the third most-used recreational drug behind tobacco and alcohol. 

"We've all known people who have used it. If that many people have tried it, maybe they aren't all criminals. Maybe it's just a bad law," he says. 

A small force 

At 36, Mr. Stepnoski still resembles the disciplined player who spent hours in the weight room. He was always one of the league's smallest linemen at 6 feet 2 inches and 265 pounds – a throwback to the 1970s before the days of 300-pound behemoths pounding away at each other. 

Playing against much bigger defensive tackles, he made his reputation with his quickness, intelligence and determination. 

The other feature that set him apart was his shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle – another '70s throwback and the only sign that he might have a maverick side. 

On this autumn morning, his hair is still long as he sits at the kitchen table, sunlight streaming in through a large window looking out on the rolling greens of a posh golf course. 

The west Plano neighborhood is the kind of wealthy, Republican community where one might find a professional athlete, but not a leading marijuana advocate. His two-story house is listed on property tax rolls for nearly $1 million. 

Since buying the home a few years ago, Mr. Stepnoski has lived there with his girlfriend, Brandi Mollica. He met her in Houston when he played for the Oilers before the franchise moved to Tennessee. 

A "For Sale" sign stands in his front lawn. But it's not a sign of defeat, he says. He's not being run out of town. 

"Personally, I haven't heard from anyone who says I shouldn't be doing this. I know there are people who feel that way, who think I'm not being a good role model, but they don't feel compelled to tell me that." 

He plans to move to Vancouver sometime soon but will remain involved to some extent with NORML, probably as a speaker, he says. 

Mr. Aikman knows Mr. Stepnoski as well as any NFL player. As center, Mr. Stepnoski snapped the ball to Mr. Aikman and protected him from onrushing defensive lineman. He disagrees with Mr. Stepnoski, but the issue hasn't affected their friendship. 

"Mark's one of my closest friends," says Mr. Aikman, while visiting players at the Cowboys' practice facility at Valley Ranch in Irving. 

"As a teammate and a friend, he's always been there anytime I needed him," Mr. Aikman says. "I don't agree with what he's doing right now, and he respects my opinion on it." 

Mr. Aikman, now on Fox's lead NFL broadcast team, says that when Mr. Stepnoski went public with his views on marijuana last year, "it came something as a surprise." 

What didn't come as a surprise was Mr. Stepnoski's decision to stand up for his convictions. 

"He's someone who is extremely intelligent. His positions are well thought out. If he believes in something, he stands up for it – that's one of the reasons he was a leader in our locker room." 

Learning the issue 

In his home office, where he answers e-mails and keeps up with legislation, two replicas of Super Bowl trophies sit on his book shelves, along with photos of him with old teammates, including Mr. Aikman, Moose Johnson and Mr. Smith. The world of sports, with its clear-cut victories and defeats, heroes and villains, home teams and opponents, seems completely different from politics, where winning and losing is ambiguous, allies and opponents are hard to identify and progress can be hard to measure. 
Patience, Mr. Stepnoski says, is the most important lesson he learned playing football, and it applies just as well to politics. 

"In football, you have to have patience. It can take months and years to get to where you want to be. My rookie year, we won one game. Four years later, we won the Super Bowl," he says, leaning back in a leather chair by his desk. "You have to realize it's going to take awhile. Stuff is not going to happen right away. You have to look for gradual progress." 

Mr. Stepnoski says he started to read up on marijuana early in his career. 

From personal experience, he found that smoking marijuana "wasn't ruining my life. I was able to lead a productive life." 

The Drug Enforcement Administration says that marijuana smoking can lead to respiratory infections, impaired memory and learning, increased heart rate, anxiety, panic attacks and physical dependence. But Mr. Stepnoski considers marijuana to be "less harmful than alcohol. It's not going to give you a hangover and dehydrate you and all the other things that alcohol might do. 

"I just wanted to find out more about the truth. I wanted to see if it really coincided with my experiences. And I wanted to find out why it was illegal. It's not as harmful and damaging as what they say it is." 

He declined to elaborate about his personal use of marijuana. 

Last spring, however, he told The Associated Press that he began smoking marijuana as a teen growing up in Erie, Pa., and noticed that it did not seem to cause any harm. 

"I was serious about training and diet and everything else," he said. "That's one of the reasons I looked into marijuana so much, because I would use it and it didn't seem to have a negative effect." 

There wasn't drug testing in high school, he said. In college and later in the pros, he knew that the tests usually took place within a few months before the start of the season. 

"You just quit until you take the test and that's it, you're done," he told the AP. "It wasn't hard to quit because it's not addictive. I didn't cheat. I went in and took the test. I was by the book, so people shouldn't get mad and think I faked somebody out." 

He started making donations to NORML in 1998, while he was still playing. "I did it quietly. I kind of planned on becoming more involved in this once I was done playing – to what extent I didn't know. But I knew it would be to a greater extent than what I'd been doing up to that point because I would be retired and could be more vocal about it." 

In 2001, the previous president of Texas NORML, who was moving to Atlanta, asked Mr. Stepnoski if he was interested in taking over the post – a volunteer position. Mr. Stepnoski decided to wait until after the 2001-02 season, his last. 

At that point, Mr. Stepnoski, who had been a communications major at the University of Pittsburgh, also joined the organization's national advisory board. 

The player who went out of his way to avoid the media suddenly was holding forth in Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Fox TV. He was showing up on sports talk shows, as well as at community seminars and college forums. He was even lobbying state legislators in Austin. 

He hasn't had anyone tell him to his face that what he's doing is wrong, he says, though, "I'm sure a lot of people think that." 

Back in his hometown of Erie, however, the local media exploded with coverage of his views. His high school alma mater, Cathedral Prep, reversed an earlier decision to induct him into the school's Hall of Fame. Mr. Stepnoski, an all-state football player, graduated from the school in 1985. 

The headmaster, the Rev. Scott Jabo, says the decision was mutual. 

"Mark didn't want all the attention to be on him. He didn't want to deflect attention away from the other guys," Father Jabo says. 

Many in his hometown criticized him for setting a bad example for youth. 

Mr. Stepnoski says he does not advocate marijuana use for anyone under 18. But he also does not want youths to be subject to harsh, mandatory jail sentences for using marijuana. 

"I don't think it's right to put a nonviolent person in jail with violent criminals just for possession of a small amount of marijuana," he says. 

Avoiding controversy 

Professional athletes usually sprint from controversy – especially if the subject is drugs. Controversy can do nothing to help an athlete's public image, and the right image can bring a substantial boost in income. Popular athletes, such as Mr. Aikman, have entr้e to lucrative endorsement contracts, jobs as television analysts and other income-producing opportunities. 

Mr. Stepnoski says he dislikes the idea of pretending to be someone he is not, just to protect his image. 

"For a lot of athletes, who they are and what their image is is not the same thing," he says. 

"I'm not really interested in putting up some facade. I'd much rather just be who I am and do what I believe in. It's much easier that way." 

He also believes he has a duty to those people who are not in a position to publicly do what he does. 

Mr. Stepnoski acknowledges that his legacy, including the possibility of being voted into the NFL Hall of Fame, could be hurt by his stand. He never gave a second thought to losing lucrative endorsements, however. Those don't normally go to offensive linemen. 

"I'm lucky. I'm very lucky. I was able to play football for 13 years. I know how fortunate I am. I'll be proud of it forever. That's everything I wanted to do. 

"But the bottom line is it's done now. And when you are done, it's time to move on." 

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