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Heart behind the headlines

5-26-03, 6:10 p.m.


He had lived basketball for a high school folk hero and sprinted up mountains heartbeat to heartbeat with a NFL legend.

His body had been rugged enough to survive the hit-and-run hoop of the ACC, wild enough to survive the cardio and cuts of kickboxing, and outrageously big enough to dabble in body building.

Then, out of the blue and in the middle of one night more than three years ago, Kurtis Shultz's heart betrayed him by leaping out of his chest. Just a few hours after looking for a jolt to get through a late-night workout, Shultz found what he thought was his invincible body, a 6-foot-6 vat of 290 pounds, crumbling from popping a couple of "fat burners," containing the stimulant supplement Ephedrine.

"Four hard beats, then 12 real fast," Shultz can still count. "My ventricles couldn't catch up to it. The blood was flowing too fast. It was 3 in the morning and my heart was out of whack. It felt like it was off rhythm."

His heart, locked into atrial fibrillation, wouldn't click back into place for 10 more scary days and batches of cardiograms later. Was Ephedrine the reason? It was enough for Shultz, now in his fifth month as the Bengals assistant strength and conditioning coach, to swear off even drinking coffee near the times when he works out.

Whether Ephedrine was the reason or not, Shultz is another exhibit why the Bengals continue to hold to their long-standing policy of discouraging the use of sports supplements (including high caffeine drinks such as Red Bull) by players, coaches, or staff.

It's been a staple of the Bengals' agenda since former strength coach Kim Wood took a pioneer stand in the Wild West days of drug use in the North Dallas Forty NFL of the 1970s.

Shultz and Chip Morton, the club's new strength and conditioning coach, as well as long-time trainer Paul Sparling, are also aware of the dangers supplements have suddenly visited on teen-age athletes in the past few years.

The April 7, 2003 issue of "Sports Illustrated," wasn't lost on Shultz. It featured on the cover NCAA basketball's Final Four, where he had gone the past two years as the University of Maryland's strength coach. It also contained a story in the wake of several deaths in which experts wondered if two million youth are using supplements.

In a recent talk Sparling gave at Grandview Hospital to the Dayton (Ohio) Sports Medicine Institute, he cited a 2001 Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association survey that indicated an estimated one million youngsters between 12 and 17 are taking supplements even though 70 percent of young people couldn't identify negative side effects and 80 percent had not talked to their parents about supplements.

Shultz's advice to kids is as pure as the bottle of water that's now manacled to his hand.

"Drink water. Lots of water. And eat right. It's that simple," Shultz says.

The sudden deaths in the past two years of Vikings tackle Korey Stringer and Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, as well as an Illinois high school football player and a Northwestern football player, have trained a microscope on supplements used not only by pro athletes, but youth.

"Not all supplements are bad, like Gatorade or Gator bars," Morton says. "The problem is the industry the way it stands today as unregulated by the FDA. (So) in some cases there are unscrupulous big money makers, and the potential hazards that we're seeing today. Since this is the state of affairs, I don't feel comfortable handing this to our guys or recommending it."

Gatorade is about as far as Morton is going to go. He views the taking of supplements as cutting corners in training and diet. He and Shultz have become as much nutritionists as coaches.

"The extent of what we do is have a Smoothie bar," Morton says. "Where we have protein base is a yogurt base, and we add fruit and juice and all that to make a protein carbohydrate drink.

"The problem is everybody involved in sports wants to get better," Morton says. "Some kids read the muscle magazines and that's all you see. Page after page of 'Take this and get big. Take this and whatever.' There's a lot of misinformation out there because of the people trying to make money. They're going to promote their products. People want a quick fix. Sound nutrition is boring. Doing it the right way is boring. If I tell a person to eat three meals a day, plus well-timed snacks and eat certain foods, that's not exciting enough. If we would all just do the basic things right, and train properly, then we wouldn't need to fill the gaps."

Shultz, 31, learned the hard way about short cuts even though he didn't take any as an elite basketball player. Before playing 67 basketball games at Maryland and serving as captain in his final two seasons from 1993-95, he came out of Morgan Wootten's storied DeMatha High School program in Washington, D.C.

After his college career, Shultz found himself burning the candle at both ends. Many days started at 4 a.m. so he could get a head start on his clients coming to him as a personal trainer. He also had to find time to train the Maryland basketball team, help out the Ravens' NFL training (such as running up ski slopes with Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis with a 45-pound weight), and he had to get a workout or two in for himself.

"I wasn't eating right and I was drinking five or six cups of coffee a day just for a kick to stay awake," Shultz says. "And I was trying to lose weight. I took a type of fat burner for a late workout and I knew something was wrong when it woke me up.

"I had to teach a class and I went anyway because I didn't have to do anything," Shultz says. "There was a doctor there and when I told her about it after the class, she got a stethoscope and said I was in 'A-Fib.' I was that way for 10 days."

Shultz says he suffered no heart damage, but there have been reminders. He remembers a moment when Maryland went to the Final Four and he drank a diet soda that contained caffeine before playing a pickup game. Halfway through the game, Shultz's heart started racing so fast that he put a friend's hand on his chest so that he could feel how out of whack it was.

Sparling says the most popular supplements among teen-age athletes are Ephedrine, Creatine, and Andro (or Androstenedione), and he emphasizes that supplements haven't been tested on teens and children, and that the issue is clouded by labels. He cites a report in the "New England Journal of Medicine," two years ago that said one study of nutritional supplements showed out of 140 samples, 31 percent would contain Ephedra , none of which listed Ephedra on the label.

Products with Ephedrine and Andro are banned by the NFL. Before the Ephedrine ban, the Bengals were convinced they had seen dangerous symptoms in some of their players. Creatine, which is naturally produced by the liver, kidneys, and pancreas, is not banned and there are Bengals who use it. The players figure since it is produced by the body, it can't be harmful if not abused.

But the Bengals have warned their players for the past decade that Creatine can play a role in muscle cramping, lack of water retention, and increases the vulnerability of heat illness, as well as induce diarrhea and dizziness. They also argue it has unknown effects on major organs.

Sparling says the American College of Sports Medicine has released a statement discouraging Creatine use by people younger than 18.

"You have to tip your hat to Kim Wood," says Morton of his predecessor. "He was right out in front with all this stuff and back in the day, he took what was an unpopular stand."

Shultz shakes his head. He doesn't even encourage the use of multi-grain vitamins, because how do you really know what's in the bottle compared to what's on the label?

"It's Russian roulette out there," Sparling says. "You simply don't know for sure what you're taking."

To Shultz, there's not only one answer for the kids, but for the pros.

"You've only got one body," Shultz says. "You've only got one shot. Why not treat it like a temple? Why wouldn't you do what you're supposed to do when it comes to diet and training? Why wouldn't you give yourself the best chance instead of taking short-cuts that could harm you?"

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