No parent can imagine losing a child. But Don Hooton (Louisiana-Lafayette) came face-to-face with such tragedy ten years ago. He’s been fighting ever since for the lives of other young people — like his son Taylor — who believe anabolic steroids are no big deal.
By Merritt Onsa
Taylor Hooton was just 17 years old when he took his own life in July 2003. His parents, Don and Gwen Hooton, now believe his death was the result of steroid-induced depression.
A year prior, nothing about Taylor would have given cause for concern. He had a 3.8 GPA, was fun-spirited, active in church, had lots of friends and was a star pitcher on the Plano West High School JV baseball team. But a comment from one of his coaches that Taylor needed to “get bigger” may have planted an idea. At the time, 16-year-old Taylor was 180 pounds and six-foot-two.
Taylor had his heart set on becoming the number one pitcher on the varsity team. He was also enamored with the idea of improving his physique. And when he went looking for a shortcut to achieve his end goals, it seems steroids weren’t all that difficult to find.
Don looks back now on the months prior to Taylor’s death and, knowing what he knows today, says all the warning signs of steroid use were there, only they didn’t recognize them.
Early in his junior year, Taylor quickly gained nearly 30 lbs. of muscle, which his parents attributed to the extra time he’d been spending at the gym. But there were other, less pleasant, indicators. He’d developed a severe case of acne on his back, bad breath and extreme mood swings. He’d be aggressive one minute — yelling, screaming and hitting the wall or a table — and in tears the next, apologizing for his behavior. “We saw almost all of the signs, but we didn’t know what we were looking at,” says Don.
When Taylor was caught stealing, the Hootons suspected illicit drugs so they sent him for a drug test and counseling to tackle his mood swings. But Taylor tested negative for drugs. (As it turns out, the test did not include steroids.) Afterwards, Taylor assured his parents, “I wouldn’t do drugs.”
But his erratic behavior continued, and Taylor eventually admitted to his psychiatrist that he’d been using steroids. When she told him to stop, he did.
However, stopping didn’t mean Taylor was safe. Steroids cause a rush of testosterone to the body, which stops producing testosterone on its own. When ceasing use of the drugs, it can take weeks or even months for the body to kick in and start producing the hormone again. The result can be severe depression.
When Taylor’s parents found more evidence of stealing after a family trip to London in early July, they grounded him. He begged them not to enforce the punishment, but they held firm. The next morning they discovered Taylor had hung himself, leaving a note that said, “I love you guys. I’m sorry about everything.”
They were devastated, and Don began asking how this could have happened to their son.
Uncovering the Truth
Taylor’s girlfriend and some of his friends later admitted knowledge of his steroid use. In fact, half of Taylor’s baseball team was injecting anabolic steroids. Even if they’d heard about the dangers of the drugs — including liver damage, high blood pressure, depression, even a shortened life span — it didn’t seem to diminish the temptation to try this quick-fix. In fact, Don says, “Taylor did not think he was doing drugs.” He uses the following illustration to explain.
“Imagine a conference room table. At one end you have the typical illegal drugs like cocaine, meth, marijuana, etc. At the other end of the table you have supplements, protein shakes and creatine, which many kids are using today. If you were to bring steroids into the room and ask on which side of the table they belonged, most kids would put them with the supplements.”
“Think about it. We call them ‘performance enhancing drugs.’ In their minds, what could be wrong with that?” says Don.
That’s why, just six weeks following Taylor’s death, Don gave his first public talk about the dangers of steroid use and his suspicions that use among teens is more widespread than many adults understand. Soon after, the Dallas Morning News ran a story about Taylor’s death and steroid use. The New York Times also did three days of investigative reporting and published a story on the front page of the sports section the day before Thanksgiving. Two days later, a producer from 60 Minutes called; their story ran in March 2004.
As Taylor’s story gained momentum nationwide, Don started researching steroid use among teens, and he found an appalling lack of awareness about the dangers and prevalence of steroids in our schools. “We have a national void of information. We were so focused on Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire that we lost track of the kids,” he says.
That’s when Don gave up his position as an executive at Hewlett Packard and dedicated his life to educating young people, their parents and coaches about the real dangers of steroid use and abuse.
Fighting for Our Nation’s Children
In 2004, the Taylor Hooton Foundation (THF) was founded to carry out this work. Today, the Foundation is partnered with Major and Minor League Baseball, the NFL, the NHL, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and countless other organizations. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has offered his support. The organization has just hired its sixth employee and recently expanded its programs into Latin America.
Ten years following Taylor’s death Don says use of steroids among high school and even middle school students is as prevalent as ever. A University of Minnesota study published in the November 2012 issue of Pediatrics magazine shows it’s not just male athletes who are susceptible to the temptation of quick access to a better body. A survey of more than 2,700 students in grades six through twelve revealed 5.9-percent of boys and 4.6-percent of girls admitting to steroid use.
Those statistics don’t include the number of young people who may be ingesting steroids or other harmful substances by consuming protein shakes or other performance enhancing supplements, which are unregulated. According to Don, 20-25-percent of over-the-counter supplements are contaminated or spiked with banned substances like steroids. Of those students surveyed in the University of Minnesota study, 34-percent of boys and 21-percent of girls said they consume protein shakes or other appearance and performance enhancing supplements.
Different from what one might assume, the emotional draw of wanting a better body attracts a very different crowd than “traditional” illegal drugs, which are often consumed at high school parties and social events. Steroid users don’t necessarily fit into that crowd.
“These are our high-achievers. Our best kids are taking these drugs because they think it’ll make them better at what they do. Non-athletes are using them as well to get that athletic look to compete socially. If girls are interested in the look the quarterback or the starting pitcher have, other boys might take this stuff because they want to compete for the ladies,” says Don.
A Matter of Honor
Don believes the prevalence of steroid use is a symptom of a much larger problem. “It goes back to honor and knowing the difference between right and wrong. Today’s generation of teens is used to instant gratification; every answer has to be instant, and that’s what they think steroids will do for them,” says Don.
The emotional pressure on teens — already running high in those tumultuous years — is compounded by the behavior and decisions they see exemplified by steroid-abusing athlete-role models like Lance Armstrong, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds.
“Professional and elite athletes are setting the example. They are teaching kids to deny and lie about it. What message do kids get from these role models? Not only is it okay to cheat, it’s not cheating until you get caught, and if you do get caught, deny it until you can’t anymore,” he says.
Unfortunately, a study by Proctor and Gamble revealed that 85-percent of young people said they’d never had anyone talk to them about the dangers of appearance and performance enhancing drugs. A more recent study conducted by the Gallup Organization and co-commissioned by THF was released on May 2nd. In a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults, only 19-percent perceive steroid use as a big problem in the nation’s high schools.
“It’s time we wake up and realize what’s going on right under our noses. There are health implications and moral implications. Parents need to know what to look for and how to talk to their kids,” says Don.
“It goes back to honor and knowing the difference between right and wrong.”
To further emphasize the severity of the problem, Don stated at a recent press conference, “We have enough children using these drugs to fill up either nearly every Major League ballpark or about 20 NFL stadiums.”
In the fight for honor and what is right, Don is emphatic that it’s up to us, the loving, caring adults — fathers, teachers, coaches, brothers, uncles and grandfathers — who know the truth to share with the young people in our lives. If we are aren’t giving them the message, we shouldn’t be surprised when the Lance Armstrongs of the world teach them that life is about doing whatever you want to do — and getting away with it for as long as possible — regardless of the ethical considerations.
How to Talk to Your Kids
Conversations with children need to begin younger than you might think. Don says to start early to instill key values like honor, playing fair and working hard to achieve objectives the right way. Begin these conversations as soon as the child can understand and communicate about the rules of play and engagement.
“Children need to hear men talking about the importance of doing things the right way. Instead of listening to ESPN and debating whether Bonds should be allowed into the Hall of Fame, fathers need to make sure kids know these guys could be going to jail. It’s not about if they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. It’s about right and wrong, legal and illegal, honest versus dishonest,” says Don.
Kids also need to be warned that they will run into temptations to take short cuts and they need to be equipped to reject those opportunities. Then, they need to see examples of it lived out in their role models.
That means parents need to think twice about the priorities they set for their children. “If we are going to lecture kids on honor and integrity, we’ve got to behave the same way. We can’t put so much pressure on our kids to get a scholarship or make the starting line-up. We’re losing sight of what’s really important here, which is working hard, playing fair and competing in the right ways. We’ve got to circle back and talk about how to do it the right way,” he explains.
Parents who don’t believe their kids are at risk can take a lesson from Don and Gwen. “Everyone is inclined to see it in someone else’s kids. We couldn’t have imagined that Taylor or his buddies would be doing something like that.”
Getting the Word Out
The Taylor Hooton Foundation is committed to spreading awareness among students, parents, teachers and coaches about the prevalence and dangers of steroid use among youth.
In addition to online training, the Foundation provides entertaining multimedia educational programs across the U.S., Canada and Latin America. At its founding, their target audience was high schools. They’ve since been met with a great deal of interest from universities. Currently two-thirds of THF educational programs are conducted at universities.
Don believes it’s his life’s calling to sound the alarm about this issue. He knows he’ll face opposition — he already has — but he doesn’t care. “I know the truth. I know what happened to Taylor. We’ve talked to enough people to know what’s going on in the schools. People want to deny the problem, but I keep going because I know what the truth is.”
A Bible verse from the book of Genesis reminds him to stay the course: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of lives.” (Genesis 50:20) And, paraphrasing from Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, which he read shortly after losing Taylor, Don says, “Sometimes you find your purpose in life as a result of some of the most painful things you’ve been through.”
Now, he hopes he can give other parents what he wishes he’d had 10 years ago: an awareness of the signs and symptoms of steroid use.