George could have been anyone's 16-year-old son.
Five-foot-four, 140 pounds of bombast and misdirection, unsure of himself but crazy about girls.
He spent hours pumping dumbbells at home in Ronkonkoma with Nickleback or Metallica screeching behind his closed bedroom door where he became fixated on bodybuilders, soldiers and ripped movie stars like Sylvester Stallone.
George started reading body-building magazines and poring over muscle sites on the Internet. At the gym, he would approach anyone for advice. One day, he asked a guy working at the gym for something more -- a shortcut. The man led George to his car, reached under his seat and pulled out a large canvas bag of vials and syringes. George wanted $150 of testosterone, and he was in a rush to get started.
The teenager rolled up his sleeve and allowed a stranger to slide a hypodermic needle into his arm.
Dozens of interviews with area gym owners, amateur weight-lifters, law enforcement officials and teenagers suggest that steroids are widely used, easily obtained and beneath the radar of police and schools. One recent national poll by the University of Michigan's Institute of Social Research reported that 3.5 percent of 12th graders have tried the synthetic testosterone replacement.
While Major League Baseball players Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi have become notorious for using steroids, the hormone has also crept into ordinary suburban life. Anecdotal evidence suggests it is taken less as a shortcut to athletic performance and more out of pure vanity. Users -- most often young men -- risk liver and heart failure, sterility and increased aggression or depression to look good without a shirt.
Steve Michalik, a bodybuilder from Farmingdale who won Mr. USA, Mr. America and Mr. Universe competitions in the 1970s and later developed liver cysts from steroid abuse, says he can tell the effects of anabolic steroids and if someone's juicing by the pungent odor on their skin. He can spot what bodybuilders call a "hammerhead" by the rounded shoulders, square jaw, tight skin and water-heavy muscles.
Like rocket fuel for the body, steroids supercharge growth by spurring cells to do what they do, only more intensely. Protein synthesis and calcium retention are revved up. Red blood cell production spikes. Oxygen flows faster. Weightlifting speeds up growth even more by stressing the muscles. So steroid users who hit the gym hard can bulk up by several pounds of muscle mass a week. (Taking steroids without weight training can add some bulk, but not as much.)
The synthetic hormone becomes dangerous when testosterone overloads the system, prompting the pituitary gland to shut off the body's natural production of the male hormone in the testes. Excess testosterone is converted into the female sex hormone estrogen. Men retain water. Their breasts grow. Their testes shrink. They develop oily skin. Acne. Hair loss. And, those are only short-term effects. Liver cysts, stunted growth and heart failure are the long-term risks.
In the last 35 years, G.I. Joe's biceps have more than doubled in size, McPherson said. Professional wrestlers, and bodybuilders are oafish misrepresentations of the human form. Movie stars with tough-guy personas are no longer slender and sly. They are men like The Rock and Vin Diesel, whose chiseled bodies are weapons themselves.
The pressure on boys and young men to bulk up is powerful, whether they are athletes or not.