BOCA RATON, Fla. – Tim Couch dropped to one knee, took aim at the crossbar about 40 yards downfield and launched a football with an arm he once feared was damaged beyond repair. The ball traced a low arc as it sailed toward the goalpost, and no one watched with more interest than a man who has referred to Couch as "my Frankenstein."
That man is Brian Yusem, a self-styled nutritionist who has distributed human growth hormone to some of his clients and, in treating certain individuals, recommends anabolic steroids and testosterone. He is associated with a growing number of athletes and is working with a self-taught chemist named Mark Thierman, who served prison time for conspiracy and selling mislabeled, illegal drugs touted as a muscle-building product, according to published reports. With help from Thierman and a product they call Laxogenin, Yusem predicts he will revolutionize sports science.
His test case is Couch, who is endorsing Yusem's Laxogenin. But the player's connections to the nutritionist and chemist aren't the only thing that will put Couch's NFL comeback under scrutiny.
During a recent interview, Couch told Yahoo! Sports he used HGH briefly while trying to rehabilitate his shoulder. He said a doctor gave him a prescription for the HGH, but when asked who the doctor was, Couch replied, "I can't even remember, to be honest with you. I mean, I don't feel real comfortable talking about it."
Couch denied using steroids or any other substances banned by the NFL, but a former business associate of Yusem's said he saw Couch being injected with steroids and saw Couch pick up steroids at the nutritionist's office. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said he fears for his safety, also provided Yahoo! Sports with documents that allegedly outline Couch's regimen for taking steroids and HGH.
On Aug. 18, less than a month after signing a two-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team released Couch. But the alleged use of banned drugs and his dealings with the nutritionist and chemist could be the most damaging developments in the rise and fall of Tim Couch.
When the Cleveland Browns drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick in 1999, he drew comparisons to the NFL's all-time great quarterbacks. But he went from savior to scapegoat before his career flamed out in 2004. Now Yusem's "Frankenstein" is back on the NFL's radar, and strange circumstances have linked three disparate men.
The determined-to-succeed athlete. The business-minded "nutritionist." The eccentric "chemist." They say they've found a potent non-steroidal elixir in Laxogenin, a claim challenged by drug-testing experts who have analyzed the compound.
A lab analysis suggests that at least two samples of the product being marketed as Laxogenin were likely inactive. The lab run by Dr. Don Catlin, one of the world's foremost anti-doping experts, conducted a study for Yahoo! Sports that showed two samples of the product contained no banned steroids, and no laxogenin. Laxogenin is a plant steroid that is unavailable commercially, but it can be made by altering the molecular structure of another plant-based steroid, diosgenin.
What chemists found in the two samples of the product being marketed as Laxogenin, Dr. Catlin said, is diosgenin, which can be extracted from the dried roots of wild yam and is available commercially. It's a substance with which Catlin and other anti-doping experts are familiar, and for good reason. When subjected to the proper chemical process, diosgenin can be converted into testosterone.
That's one reason Dr. Catlin said he remains intrigued by the product that Couch said he took during his rehabilitation.
"It's on our mind now," said Dr. Catlin, whose groundbreaking work helped set off the BALCO doping scandal. "We know it's out there, and I learned a long time ago that when something is out there, and when it's selling, and when people are talking about it, to take it seriously."
Yusem said Thierman told him the laxogenin in the product would escape detection and called the results of Catlin's lab analysis "beautiful news." But Thierman said the lab analysis was flawed and a different method of testing would reveal Laxogenin was more than diosgenin.
"As long as he won't ban it, we're going to be rich," Yusem said.
Insisting Laxogenin is an active product, Yusem showed startling before-and-after photos of a shirtless client he said was as a high school quarterback who had gained about 20 pounds in 74 days. The player, who had no discernible muscular definition and a thin frame in the first photo, looked thickly muscled and chiseled in a flexed pose for the second photo.
"I know what this (stuff) does," Yusem said. "… It's not a placebo, I'll tell you that."
Although scientists contacted by Yahoo! Sports said no clinical studies on humans support claims that Laxogenin promotes muscle growth, increases stamina and helps recovery from injury – all of which Couch asserted in a taped testimonial that was posted on Yusem's website – his own muscle gains and recovery are astounding and irrefutable.
Couch's comeback gained momentum July 29 when he signed a two-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the team's preseason opener Aug. 11, he made his first appearance in an NFL game since 2004. So continued a journey marked by determination, if not desperation, with results that have surprised a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon.
Dr. James Andrews, the renowned surgeon who operated on Couch's right shoulder twice since 2005, said the quarterback's injuries were so severe that the goal was to get Couch to the point where he could "play golf and enjoy himself." As for Couch resuming his career as an NFL quarterback, Dr. Andrews said he thought the chances were about 20 percent. But in July 2006, after the second operation on his shoulder, Couch demonstrated he was willing to go to great lengths to beat the odds.
He enlisted the help of a physical therapist, a personal trainer and a quarterback coach. But his comeback attempt began in earnest with Yusem, the relatively obscure nutritionist who in the increasingly overlapping fields of sports and science intends to become a household name.
When they first met, Couch showed up with his bum right shoulder and slender build. But during a five-month period, Couch surprised people – including his orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Andrews – by adding about 40 pounds of muscle. Couch also regained his swagger, and so there he and Yusem were on a football field in Boca Raton, several weeks before the Jaguars made their contract offer, Couch doing what he once considered unthinkable.
From one knee, he threw the ball with a quick, powerful release and watched it spiral through a clear Florida sky. Then he groaned – not because he felt pain, but because the ball sailed just over the crossbar, his intended target. Incredible. The same guy who once worried his arm was ruined had to ease up if he hoped to hit a target 40 yards away from one knee. What would people think?
Couch wondered, and during one workout he said, "The thing that's going to freak people out most is, how can you have a stronger arm after two surgeries?"
James Harris, the Jaguars' vice president of player personnel and in charge of player acquisitions, said he and Couch never discussed specifics of the player's rehabilitation.
At the time when Barry Bonds eclipsed Hank Aaron's record for home runs in the face of allegations that Bonds used steroids, at a time when the BALCO doping scandal remains fresh in the minds of sports fans, and at a time when the use of banned, performance-enhancing drugs hovers over the world of athletics, Couch was reluctant to talk publicly about the relationship with Yusem, the nutritionist said. But Yusem has been eager for recognition.
"He was a car wreck," Yusem said of Couch's physical condition when they first met. "We had to do a ground-up restoration."
Yusem said he hopes to attract other athletes in need of help – and he's confident he can restore them and enhance their performance thanks to the Laxogenin product. He said he can sell it to anyone because it's a dietary supplement, not a controlled substance such as steroids.
The chemical formula comes from Thierman, who works out of a makeshift lab in Tucson, Ariz., and was imprisoned in the 1990s for making and distributing Gama Hydroxybutyric Acid (GHB), an illegal substance that was marketed as an alternative to anabolic steroids, according to published reports. Diosgenin and the Laxogenin product Theirman mixes are entirely different products than GHB, which was used by some as a "date rape" drug.
Thierman said he buys a kilo of diosgenin for about $300, synthesizes it into Laxogenin and sells the raw material to Yusem for $4,500 per kilo. Yusem, who has the substance converted into gel tablets and sells a 30-day supply for $120 for clients of his Maxim Rejuvenation and $150 retail, said he can gross $500,000 from that same kilo – and Couch could help drive sales.
Shortly before signing with the Jaguars, Couch taped a video testimonial despite suffering a health-related scare under Yusem's watch.
Heart palpitations. Anxiety. Night sweats. Five months ago, according to Yusem, Couch experienced all three.
Laxogenin's potency, Yusem said, sent Couch's metabolism into overdrive and forced him onto a diet of 5,000 calories a day. Yusem also attributed the irregularities to supplements from Maxim's "detox line," which includes products called "intestinal cleanse" and "chemical cleanse" that Yusem said flushed toxins from Couch's body.
"Oh, his heartbeat was going," Yusem said. "He was getting heart palpitations. That was from chemicals. He had night sweats. Like two changes of clothes and washed the sheets. … This is like he was running 10 miles in his sleep."
Couch downplayed the episode. Thierman said he had never seen or heard of such side effects from Laxogenin "no matter what the dose."
In June, Couch made a visit to Yusem's office. He was waiting in a hallway when a receptionist handed him a small brown bag one might get at a boutique store. She told Couch it contained Laxogenin for him and his wife, former Playboy model Heather Kozar, the 1999 Playmate of the Year. Couch peered inside the bag.
"What's this?" he asked, looking at a bottle of pills.
"That's for anxiety," the receptionist said.
Couch nodded, and, taking the bag with a reporter present, explained he needed anxiety medication to combat his fear of flying. He hoped to be boarding a plane that month and traveling to the headquarters of NFL teams interested in evaluating his rehabilitated arm.
He was waiting for a call from his agents. He also was waiting for Yusem and later eyed the 53-year-old man who proclaims to be more a product of science than training.
"He's a freak of nature," said Couch, who recently turned 30. "Look at that guy. …
"That's the thing that got me. I was like, dude, he's 50 years old and he looks like he can play in the NFL." Couch apparently knew little of Thierman's credentials and reacted with surprise when informed about Thierman's criminal past. "Oh, wow," he said. "That's crazy."
Near the outset of a 15-minute interview, after being told about the results of Catlin's lab analysis, Couch said he stopped taking Laxogenin when he joined the Jaguars but also reiterated that "it was working good for me." After being told of Thierman's conviction on the GHB charges, however, Couch said of Laxogenin, "I never really took it a lot, to be honest with you. I just took it a few times because I didn't know what it was really."