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Few get testy as NFL tries to clean up

Buffalo Bills linebacker Mario Haggan keeps winning the lottery no NFL player cares to win. Five times this season Haggan has been selected at random by computer. Five times he's been required to provide a urine sample to determine if performance-enhancing substances are at work in his system.

"A lot of the guys, we wonder why you get tested over and over if you're not coming up positive," Haggan said Monday. "That's the tough thing."

There's no telling when, where or how often NFL players will be asked to give it up during the course of the year. They might receive notice postgame on a Sunday that a Monday morning test awaits. They might arrive at work bright and early on a Wednesday to learn their time has come. Yet instances such as those represent but minor bothers.

One offseason, Haggan was preparing for a vacation when the phone call came from a tester. Haggan explained he was leaving town the next afternoon. Not a problem, he was told. The test could be administered at his home in the morning.

"I had a flight leaving that afternoon, for which I had to go to another city, so it was very inconvenient," Haggan said. "And he was a little late, so I almost missed the flight. It's a pretty tough deal. But it's my job, and my job is more important than a vacation."

The NFL is adamant about eliminating performance-enhancing substances like steroids from its ranks, a challenge it undertook long before Congress ordered Major League Baseball to get its act together. Each year, some 10,000 tests are administered, Steve Alic said from the league office in New York City. Every player is called on at least once. Six times a year is the max. The general in-season average is seven players per team per week. And those figures do not include the test for substances of abuse that players are given once per year, between April 20 and Aug. 9. About the only certainty is that evasion is not an option.

"They find us," said Bills long snapper Mike Schneck, a players' union rep while with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "They have our numbers. The last day of the year they always write down all of our information: where you're going to be, e-mail, cell phones, that stuff."

"I think during the season and during the training period, it's fine," Haggan said. "But in the offseason, I think a guy should be able to just enjoy the offseason."

Doubtless testing can be an imposition, an irritation, but it's a necessary evil of an era in which creative chemists are at work. Positive test results continue to come in. Last week, two players received mandatory four-game suspensions. A third, San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman, last season's Defensive Rookie of the Year, filed an appeal that figures to have little chance of success. The league has a 24-hour hotline available to players who want to know if something might trigger a positive. Therefore, pleas of accidental ingestion carry no sway.

"The NFL, we want to be proactive," Schneck said. "We don't want other people telling us, like baseball, how to regulate ourselves. This is my eighth year. Every year, it's gotten stricter. Now you have to drop your pants to your knees and take your shirt off so you can't hide anything. It's a pain, a lot of the changes they've made, but at the union meetings we talked about that. It's only for our own good because if Congress or somebody else gets involved the changes are going to be a lot worse."

So they do what they have to do, whenever they're told to do it, the pursuit of a pristine league, an even playing field, being worth the trouble.

"I think it is fair because I'm a clean guy," Haggan said. "I've worked for everything I've gotten."


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