Steroids Built Mike Keys Up; Then They Tore Him Down

updated 03/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

For most of his young life, Michael Keys saw himself as a weakling. But on the day he turned 13, the Mount Clemens, Mich., boy resolved to build his slender frame to Charles Atlas proportions. He bought a set of weights with $300 of his birthday money, and by the time he turned 16, he stood 5'9" and had hit 165 lbs. But it wasn't enough. "The bigger he got, the bigger he wanted to be," recalls his mother, Vera. "It was like a reversal of anorexia nervosa." Then Keys discovered what he thought was a magical elixir: anabolic steroids. With the muscle-building drugs, he quickly bulked up to 193 lbs. and developed 17¼-inch biceps. Yet even as he was mastering his body, his moods seemed to spin out of control. Last Dec. 16, at 17, Michael Keys put a .22-cal. rifle to his head and pulled the trigger.

Though Keys had his share of the usual adolescent problems, his family insists that the psychological effects of his drug use were what drove him to suicide. Says his sister, Jacquelyn, 15: "The steroids pulled the trigger." The Macomb County medical examiner's office agrees, saying there was "no question that steroids were a contributing factor in this case." Only a few states—Michigan not among them—have outlawed the sale or possession of these drugs without a prescription. The side effects of unsupervised steroid use can include acne, impotence, liver cancer and heart disease. Users may also become highly aggressive, only to suffer severe depression when they come off the drugs.

A recent study by Penn State professor William E. Buckley and his colleagues found that as many as half a million high school athletes admitted using steroids. Efforts to discourage such experimentation are hampered by the perception that steroids may make the difference between stardom and failure. Only this month, Charlie Francis, who coached Canadian super-sprinter Ben Johnson, testified that the world record holder in the 100-meter dash had used steroids since 1981, seven years before he was stripped of his 1988 Olympic gold medal after testing positive for drug use.

Bodybuilder Wayne Brahim, 20, a close friend of Keys's, understands the Atlas urge. "You work out two years and you gain 10 lbs.," he says. "You see another guy gain 30 lbs. with steroids. It's depressing." For Keys, the feelings of in adequacy may have run deeper. "He got tired of kids ripping on him," says his father, Blaine, a die designer. "And he wanted to be popular with the girls."

After his parents divorced in 1979, Michael, his sister and his brother, Philip, now 18, moved with their mother to nearby Roseville. "Classmates excluded him and picked on him because he was small," Vera says. Keys began working out up to four hours a day, but the results never satisfied him until he started using steroids, which he obtained from suppliers at local gyms.

Michael started out with Dianabol tablets, then worked his way up to regular injections of testosterone. Eventually he became a guardian angel for boys who resembled his former puny self. "Whenever somebody picked on the littler kids, Mike would stick up for them," says his friend Edward Plucinski. Yet self-confidence somehow eluded Keys. "He wondered why he couldn't get a girlfriend," says his buddy Kurt Curtis. "A couple of girls cheated on him and dumped him. So he thought no girl wanted to be with him."

Meanwhile, Keys's family grew concerned. "I asked Michael if he took steroids," says Vera. "He said he was getting off them. Maybe I wanted to believe him." Blaine also confronted his son. "I thought I had convinced him to stay away from it," he says.

That fall Keys began to show signs of " 'roid rage," the aggression and irritability that often affects steroid users. "After a while he started acting different," says Philip. "He took everything the wrong way. You'd say one word, and he'd get upset and walk away." At school, he threw temper tantrums, and his grades began to slip.

Still, both Mike's parents say he was cheerful on the morning of his death. The door of his 1980 Dodge had frozen shut, so his father drove him to school. Later in the morning Michael returned home to pick up his car, but called his father to say he still couldn't get the door open. Blaine suggested using a hair dryer to thaw the latch. Shortly after 7 P.M., he came home and discovered his son's body lying next to his weight-lifting equipment.

The family believes Keys was overwhelmed by his frustration at not being able to open the car door, and in his state of chemical imbalance that trivial annoyance drove him into a suicidal rage. "Something ticked him off, and within 30 seconds he did it," says Blaine. Dr. Bob Goldman, chief physician for the International Federation of Body-Builders, agrees this is possible, but points out that most suicides occur when athletes come off steroids and slip into depression. If Keys had been trying to give up steroids, he might have made himself even more vulnerable to the self-doubt that no drug could cure.

—Montgomery Brower, Carol Azizian in Mount Clemens

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