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Mike Wise

When Steroids Are All The Rage

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page D01

Before stopping at Chipotle for lunch, Mackenzie Hooton telephoned her mother at home to ask what kind of burrito her brother, Taylor, wanted. Gwen Hooton yelled upstairs to her son, but there was no answer. She entered his room to find Taylor hanging from his bedroom door.

"He used his belts to fashion a noose," said Don Hooton, Taylor's father, adding that those were the same belts his son wore to school.

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The Hootons looked long and hard at themselves to understand how Taylor -- a bright, popular kid a month past his 17th birthday -- could take his life two summers ago in Plano, Tex. They and doctors who have examined the case came to believe Taylor's death was directly related to depression after he discontinued the use of anabolic steroids.

Don Hooton is coming to Capitol Hill tomorrow to testify during a hearing on performance-enhancing drugs. He is not coming to out Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa. Don Hooton is coming for his son, a former high school pitcher, a kid enraptured by the thought of becoming as big and strong as the seven major leaguers subpoenaed to testify.

Baseball and many of the people too close to the sport to know better are calling this a witch hunt, the McCarthyism of Mark McGwire and all his power-hitting brethren. They say baseball is cleaning up the sport on its own. Leave the owners and players alone. Let them take care of it.

In their myopia and denial, they don't understand; this is not about baseball and steroids.

It is about kids who hang themselves in their bedrooms and put guns to their heads after putting syringes and pills into their bodies. It is, sadly, about how we culturally value young males in American society, by their size and strength and success -- not by their courage to build their bodies naturally.

"This is not about collective bargaining and this is not about rights to privacy," Don Hooton said in a telephone interview from his home yesterday. "This is about public health. It's about parents expecting a group of admired adults to set an example that does not constitute cheating, felonious behavior and does not endanger the public health. How does anybody argue with that?"

Don Hooton said he did not know his son the last year of his life. On steroids, Taylor Hooton didn't live; he ticked. He developed hand-grenade moods and an aggressive personality that put Taylor at ease in the musclehead subculture of his Plano gym. He beat up his girlfriend's former boyfriend. He threw telephones through the wall. The new ripples in Taylor's veins -- going from a sinewy, 170-pound kid to a 205-pound rock -- made the girls in the hall coo.

"When he started using them, he just wanted to be the number one pitcher," Don Hooton remembered. "Once Taylor started bulking up, then girls became involved. His look changed. It started as an athletic thing and then it became a vanity thing."

Hooton is on the same five-person panel tomorrow as Gary Wadler, a professor of medicine at New York University who has been involved in the World Anti-Doping Agency since its inception. In 1989, he wrote a seminal book titled "Drugs and the Athlete." In a frighteningly prophetic passage, Wadler writes that people have to be mindful of the dependency syndrome associated with anabolic steroids, including depression.

"My wife told me last night that all these things are playing out years later," Wadler said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Never mind the national pastime. More than 500,000 American boys are using anabolic steroids today. Across the prep-football-hungry South, the estimates are as high as 11 percent to 12 percent among high school juniors and seniors. In a recent national survey, 3.4 percent of high school seniors admitted they have used in the past year. As many as 2.5 percent said they had used within a month of the survey. About 2 percent of eighth-graders have used muscle-building drugs.

Eighth-graders, kids who can read about Jason Giambi admitting in federal grand jury testimony he had injected himself with, among other things, fertility drugs. Unless we're missing something, Jason Giambi cannot have twins.

"Taylor was doing the same thing after he used that Deca Durabolin," Don Hooton said, referring to the popular anabolic steroid. "He was using the same stuff Giambi 'allegedly' took. The steroids cause impotence. So they self-medicated themselves with female hormones to counteract it so they can have an erection. Pretty darn sad."

A recent Web search of Deca Durabolin brings up numerous hits. Seven of the first eight give instructions on how to purchase the steroid. It takes a while to scroll down and come upon "health risks." In the viewing room at Taylor's funeral, Don Hooton remembered how a classmate walked up to a family member and calmly explained how kids would make bi-monthly runs to Mexico to acquire steroids.

"I've since found out much of this stuff is veterinary grade," Don Hooton said. "This is what they use on cows, pigs and dogs."

"If you cut to the chase, this hearing is about drug dealing more than anything," Wadler said. "It's an enormous deception because kids on steroids don't look disheveled like other teenage drug abusers. They're healthy, strong. Bottom line, they see how their idols break records and they take a message from that."

Taylor was a cousin of former major league pitcher Burt Hooton. His brother pitched in college. Don Hooton had always wondered if he and his wife had put too much pressure on their children to succeed in athletics. "You always look back," he said. "Did we push him too hard? When you lose your kid, a whole bunch more than just steroids comes up. But I have no doubt -- and many credible doctors have no doubt -- that steroids contributed mightily to his severe depression."

Beneath every young, well-muscled exterior is a mind and a heart that may have to decide one day between the spoils of fame and the risks of health. There are weight rooms full of kids today facing that choice, pressing 250 pounds or more on the bench, trying to get bigger and stronger like their athletic heroes.

McGwire and others need to remember that when they take the oath to testify tomorrow. They need to remember Don Hooton and his family sitting at their kitchen table in Plano, trying to overcome the grief of a bright, young kid hanging himself.

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