Steroid testing is the only option

You may ask what the fuss is about.

Published May 17, 2007

You may ask what the fuss is about.

Why state legislators are concerning themselves with something so obscure as steroids in high school sports.

Don't studies show barely 4 percent of prep students have admitted taking steroids? And why are schools testing for steroids while ignoring cocaine, marijuana and alcohol? And couldn't the money be better spent elsewhere?

You may ask any of those questions, and I would have no answer.

Only a story.

A story about a teenage baseball player in an affluent Dallas suburb. A sandy-haired honor student with a smile that could turn all the girls' heads.

His name is Taylor Hooton, and he began taking steroids as a high school junior. Maybe it was to help him with baseball. Or maybe it was just a way to bulk up and better fill out the tank tops he was soon wearing.

We'll never know for sure, because one July afternoon, Taylor wrapped a belt around his neck and hanged himself from his bedroom door.

He was a month past his 17th birthday.

And 3, 000 people attended his funeral.

Taylor's story may be extreme, but it is not the only one. Don Hooton knows this because he has been researching the topic since his youngest son died. And Hooton has been campaigning for states to pass legislation, much like Florida did last week, to initiate steroid testing in high school.

"The only way to know if a kid is on steroids is if you have a testing program. That's not an opinion, that's a statement of fact, " Hooton said. "One of the characteristics of steroid abuse is denial. Whether it's pro or Olympic athletes or high school kids, nobody admits using steroids. Even the guys testing positive. 'Oh, I must have gotten it from my Cheerios.' Or, 'The wind was blowing it in from the guy next door.' Ridiculous stuff. That's why testing is the only answer."

Politicians are starting to agree. Lawmakers in Florida recently passed a one-year pilot program that will subject 1 percent of random athletes in football, baseball and weightlifting to steroid testing. If Gov. Charlie Crist signs off on the bill, it will go into effect in the coming school year.

Florida is the second state to take this step, following a New Jersey initiative in 2006. New Jersey schools test for steroids in all sports, but only at the state playoff level. The first round of tests from winter sports in New Jersey all came back negative.

Texas is also on the verge of adding steroid testing, with several other states in various stages of discussion.

Hooton is not sure Florida's 1 percent solution is enough to act as a legitimate deterrent, but he is not complaining.

"All of this is a step in the right direction, " Hooton said. "Just two years ago we couldn't get anybody to talk about testing."

You may remember Hooton. On that day in Washington when Mark McGwire was ducking questions, Sammy Sosa was pleading ignorance and Rafael Palmeiro was pointing his finger, Hooton talked to Congressional leaders about his son.

About a boy who went from sweet-natured to ill-tempered without provocation. A boy who would explode in rages at his parents, and then return minutes later, crying and begging forgiveness.

Taylor showed all the classic signs of steroid use - sudden muscle and weight gain, acne on his back and shoulders, mood swings - but the Hootons never understood what they were seeing. They brought him to doctors and psychiatrists, but did not realize steroids were the problem until too late.

After Taylor's death, Don Hooton devoted himself to finding out more about steroid use among teenagers. He formed the Taylor Hooton Foundation to "evaluate, educate and eliminate" steroid abuse among young people.

Hooton, who is taking an early retirement from Hewlett Packard to devote more time to the foundation, said the biggest problem is breaking through misconceptions. Teaching parents and coaches that it is more prevalent than they realize. And teaching teenagers the dangers involved.

"Think about how we identify steroids. They're performance-enhancers. That's why you see the quarterback taking it. The kid trying to get a scholarship. The achievers, " Hooton said.

"Put cocaine and crack and methamphetamines on one side of a table and protein shakes and Creatine on the other side. Then ask kids what stack do you put steroids in. They'd put it with the nutritional supplements.

"That's the problem. They're not afraid of this stuff."

As our conversation winds down, I ask Hooton if the foundation has somehow helped to ease his pain.

"We went to a suicide survivor's class, and one of the things they taught us was to not be afraid to talk about your loved one, " he said. "So many people don't want to bring up Taylor because they don't want to remind me about what happened. Remind me? You can't remind me of that. That's something I'll live with forever.

"But knowing we're trying to do something about it has been a tremendous healing vehicle for us."