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Walt Sweeney, 71; accused NFL team of supplying drugs

Walt Sweeney, a guard, played 13 NFL seasons without missing a game.

Associated Press/File 1970

Walt Sweeney, a guard, played 13 NFL seasons without missing a game.

NEW YORK — Walt Sweeney, an All-Pro guard for the San Diego Chargers in the 1960s and ’70s who accused the team of handing out drugs to players and fostering his own addiction, died Saturday at his home in San Diego. He was 71.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his daughter, Kristin Sweeney.

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Mr. Sweeney, who stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed more than 250 pounds — a modest weight for offensive linemen by today’s standards — was a 1963 first-round draft pick from Syracuse University. Later that year he helped the Chargers win the American Football League championship against the Boston Patriots. He played 11 years for the Chargers and played in either the AFL All-Star Game or the Pro Bowl nine straight seasons.

But he later said that drugs, administered by the Chargers, played a significant part in his professional career and were a destructive force afterward.

“My drug addiction is directly related to the game,’’ he wrote in a memoir published in 2012. ‘‘It was the San Diego Chargers trainers and doctors who gave pregame amphetamines to rev me up, postgame sedatives to bring me down, pain killers as ‘needed’ and steroids, said to be vitamins, for better health. I considered taking drugs as normal for game-day preparation as putting on my game face.”

Mr. Sweeney had been a hard drinker as well as a hard hitter. His memoir, “Off Guard: The Story of the Earliest Drug Scandal in Professional Football, as Told by One of the Best Linemen to Ever Play in the NFL,’’ written with Bill Swank, detailed many of his drinking bouts. After he stopped playing because of a knee injury at the end of the 1975 season, his substance abuse worsened.

He claimed he had been given prescription drugs regularly for his entire career. Players were fined if they did not take steroids, he said, and many other pills were made available.

The NFL began regulating the use of prescription drugs in the early 1970s. But the restrictions proved largely ineffective. Players were not tested, team doctors sometimes provided illicit prescriptions, and it was not difficult for players to obtain them from other sources.

Mr. Sweeney eventually sued the NFL, contending that the drugs he had been given led to addiction, as well as cognitive and physical damage.

The NFL countered that it was his decision to use the drugs and that the league was not liable for problems his addiction caused.

In 1995, Mr. Sweeney was awarded a $1.8 million judgment, but the decision was overturned on appeal in 1997.

Walter Francis Sweeney was born in Cohasset, Mass., to the former Mary Ann McCormick and Jack Sweeney, who was killed by a drunken driver when Walter was 2.

Mr. Sweeney accepted a football scholarship to Syracuse in part “because the drinking age in New York was 18,” he wrote. He played tight end and defensive end for Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder.

He finished his 13-season career — the last two with the Washington Redskins — without missing a game, and he was feared in all 181 of them.

Mr. Sweeney was inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame.

In addition to his daughter, he leaves a son, Patrick.

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