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Perhaps the biggest soldier in the war on America’s war on drugs is leaving the country.

Last week, according to officials of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Mark Stepnoski stepped down as president of the organization. The 6-foot-2, 265-pound former gridiron star, who outed himself as a smoker last year when he took the job with the pro-pot advocacy group, said he was moving to Canada.

“I’m not surprised Mark is leaving. Not at all,” says Phil Woolridge, a former executive director of Texas NORML. “Mark always told me that as soon as Canada relaxed their marijuana laws, he’s moving up there.

Now it looks like Canada is doing just that. This is a very serious issue with Mark, and he meant what he said. So I knew this was coming.”

Stepnoski brought a lot of attention to marijuana-related issues, and himself, when he jumped into the legalization fight last year. No athlete of his stature had ever taken so public a stand. Before signing on with NORML, Stepnoski, now 36, had made a very big name for himself on the football field. He was an honor student and All-American football player at Cathedral Preparatory School in Erie, Pa.; his play there brought him a spot on his home state’s All Century Team compiled by the Pennsylvania Football News.

He again earned all-American honors as a player at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a two-time academic all-American as well. Stepnoski was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the third round of the 1989 draft. He played center for 13 years for Dallas and for the Houston/Tennessee Oilers. He made the Pro Bowl five times and was a part of two Super Bowl winners. During his first stint with the Cowboys, Stepnoski anchored what was perhaps the best offensive line of all time, protecting Troy Aikman and opening holes for all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith. Throughout his career, he also had what might have been the longest hair of any All-Pro performer in NFL history. He retired in 2002.

The Dallas Observer reported last year that Stepnoski had been a contributor to the national chapter of NORML throughout his NFL career and that in 1998 he had donated $2,000 to become a lifetime member of the group. He didn’t go public with the donation until his retirement because of fears that a media circus would result. Associates say that once he left the game, however, Stepnoski never worried that his decision to no longer keep his smoking habits to himself would cost him money.

“I asked Mark once if he was afraid of losing endorsements, and he said it didn’t matter to him,” says Michael Moore (no relation to the documentarian), who last week was named acting president of Texas NORML to fill the vacancy left by Stepnoski’s departure. “He said he came from the position that he used while he was in high school, used while he was in college, used while he was in the pros, yet he never failed a drug test. And that’s because he didn’t smoke during the season. He wanted people to know that even though he used, he was able to do everything he wanted in his career. And he really believed that in America you shouldn’t have to worry about going to jail for marijuana.”

Taking the NORML job was not without some nonmonetary costs to Stepnoski, however. Tom Riley, a spokesperson for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Washington Times that Stepnoski’s decision was “kind of sad.”

“It’s an incredibly cynical gesture, especially given that more teens now need treatment for marijuana than any other drug combined,” said Riley.

And just months after Stepnoski became the group’s president, Cathedral Prep (which also produced Tom Ridge) rescinded his nomination to the school’s athletic hall of fame.

But he made an impact. The national office of NORML put Stepnoski on its advisory board and promoted his involvement on the group’s Web site, alongside the “Free Tommy Chong” campaign.

“Mark spoke for us many times and lobbied for us on Capitol Hill,” says Paul Armentano, a senior policy analyst for NORML at the group’s K Street offices. “He was a perfect speaker, smart and eloquent.” And big? “Oh, yes,” says Armentano. “This was an issue he cares about, and he’s clearly thrown his weight behind NORML.”

Stepnoski brought “credibility and also something to humanize the institution” to the pro-pot fight, says longtime D.C. publisher Bill Regardie, who served with Stepnoski on the NORML advisory board and appeared with the ex-footballer at the organization’s national convention in San Francisco in April.

“You say, ‘Look, Mark Stepnoski is on our board!’ and that’s like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” says Regardie. “That makes it understandable.”

Moore says he was inspired to join the fight when he heard Stepnoski talk about the issues on the radio.

“I’ve been an advocate of legalization for 20 years, but when Mark Stepnoski got involved, that’s when I got involved,” says Moore. “He believed, just like I did, that people should know marijuana wasn’t an anti-motivational thing.”

Stepnoski told Texas NORML that he has put his house in the Dallas suburbs up for sale and will be unable to continue working for the group after he relocates to Vancouver, British Columbia. The mayor of that city, Larry Campbell, has been critical of Canada’s burgeoning pot-decriminalization movement—only because the legalization isn’t absolute.

“If you want to grow yourself a little bit of marijuana, you [should be able to] grow it,” Campbell told CNN. “Who really cares, quite frankly?”

Stepnoski did not return several phone messages left on his Texas home’s answering machine, which plays the intro from a Jimi Hendrix bootleg. —Dave McKenna