Father of SJSU QB made sure son didn't make same steroid mistakes

Mercury News

Gregg Tafralis felt he had no choice, which is why he never gave one to his son, Adam.

The father, an Olympic shot putter, had lived the life of a steroid user. There was no way he would allow his son to fall into the same pit.

A track career? Not after all he'd been through. His son would play quarterback, where, in his mind, success wouldn't require drugs.

So, while he watched Adam -- San Jose State's projected starter -- during practice last week, Gregg, 47, took a moment to lament what could have been. But only a moment.

He took far greater satisfaction in knowing his son wouldn't have to endure the indignity he went through.

``He could have been one of the best throwers in history,'' he said of his son's track and field potential. ``But my son's a quarterback for a reason. You can be natural your whole life.''

Adam Tafralis is in a tough spot. The redshirt sophomore, who turns 22 this month, has never played a full game, but he is being counted on to help resurrect a program that has had just one winning season since 1992.

Adam won the starting job with a solid second-half performance at the spring game, but his hold on the spot is tenuous. With redshirt junior J.P. Greco having an impressive camp, a slip could be costly.

``I still need to prove myself,'' Tafralis said. ``I try to tell myself every year that it's my spot. In my eyes, if I don't believe it's mine, I'll never achieve it. I'm competing with what I think should be perfection.''

His father had a similar desire. Eight times between 1985 and 1998, Gregg Tafralis was ranked among the world's top 10 shot putters. He reached the 1988 Seoul Games, and his best throw of 72 feet, 1 1/2 inches, remains No. 9 in U.S. history. In 1995, he received a four-year ban for doping (later reduced to two) from track's governing body, then called the International Amateur Athletic Federation. In 1999 a second positive test resulted in a lifetime ban.

``I didn't have a choice,'' he said of his steroid use. ``You want to go to the Olympics or not? The people in front of you did it. There's no such thing as a choice.''

Gregg Tafralis was one of the first athletes to seek out Victor Conte Jr. and his nutritional supplement business. He even introduced Conte to his boyhood friend, James Valente, who, with Conte, founded Balco Laboratories.

Conte, Valente and two other Bay Area men agreed to plea deals last month, admitting that they distributed steroids to elite athletes. They are scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 18; Conte is expected to serve four months in a minimum security federal prison.

``It hits home,'' Adam said. ``Victor's always been in my life. He's been like an uncle. Jimmy Valente, he's a very close family friend. They're family. I believe and I know that they are good people. And that they do a lot for other people, in legal and very positive ways. They're there for me if I need them. I know that.''

In some ways, Adam has been dogged by his father's past. Excessive teasing once prompted him to switch schools. Now, as a Division I athlete, he sometimes feels he's a victim of guilt by association.

But he has never blamed his dad -- ``He's been such a great father, I could never look down or badly at him'' -- and says he will never take steroids.

``I wouldn't let him,'' Gregg said.

In other ways, Adam seemed born to follow his father's footsteps. By age 3, he wasn't just wearing pull-ups, he was doing them. At 7, he learned the spin technique from legendary shot putter Brian Oldfield in the living room. As a teenager, he was power lifting with his dad in their San Bruno back yard.

Competing for Mills High, Tafralis finished third in the state in the shot and discus. He achieved it despite practicing the events only two months a year, after basketball was over.

``I saw, through my dad, what the life of a track and field athlete was,'' Adam said. ``It's not the most glamorous life. It doesn't compare with being an NFL athlete.''

Tafralis (6-foot-1, 223 pounds) has a strong arm and has shown himself to be an outstanding leader. Coach Dick Tomey calls Tafralis, ``the hardest-working athlete on the team.'' Teammates have noticed, as well.

``I've never seen anyone committed like that,'' said receiver James Jones, who received calls daily from Tafralis, as did many teammates, to work out in the off-season. ``He makes us committed. If he's got to be out here, we've got to be out here. And he's out here every day.''

But before handing Tafralis the starting job, Tomey wants more consistency in his performance and is eager to see how he handles himself in a game.

As Gregg Tafralis watched practice through an opening in the canvas-covered fence surrounding the Spartans' practice field, he seemed content that his son had made the right choices. He was in too deep to see an alternative to steroids, he said, but it made him even more determined to find one for his son.

``I wasted my whole career,'' he said. ``Sports aren't that important. I realized that after my career was over.''

Contact David Kiefer at dkiefer@mercurynews.com