Testifying for Taylor
Congress is the easy part.
The lights, the room full of people, the cameras, the testimony.
For Don Hooton, the problem comes in the dark. Before the glare of the lights comes the darkness of the hotel room.
Sitting on the bed, staring at a blank TV, just him and his son Taylor.
And Taylor died some 20 months ago.
"I was back in D.C. just a couple of weeks ago. Handled all the questions pretty calm and cool. Little did they know that just before meeting with them I was sitting in my hotel room bawling like a baby," says the man called to testify Thursday on Capitol Hill about how steroids took his son. "Holy God, guy. Why me? Why my son?"
Then silence. For he knows it's a question with no answer.
He lost his son, to the quest to hit the long ball.
Don and Gwen Hooton, a Hewlett-Packard guy and his elementary school teacher wife, say their son, Taylor, died as a result of his steroids use. Steroids didn't kill him, but the parents believe it put him in his grave.
Dead, because of his desire to be a better high school baseball player.
Taylor, nephew of former major league pitcher Burt Hooton, was a pitcher himself for the Plano West Senior High School of Plano, Texas. As a junior he recorded one save.
But he couldn't save himself.
For the Hootons, the impetus for their congressional testimony came on July 15, 2003. About a month past Taylor's 17th birthday. "We live in a normal kind of house: four bedrooms, master bedroom downstairs, the three kids' rooms upstairs.''
It's been 20 months since Gwen has been up those stairs. Twenty months since she found her son hanging in his room. "She hasn't been up the stairs since," Don says.
"I'm thinking, what the f---? How can this be? What happened? What's going on here?''
The answers, Don says, came before Taylor even made it to the hospital. "This detective comes downstairs, walks up to me and says, 'How long has Taylor been using steroids?'
Back upstairs in Taylor's room, the cops showed Don vials of steroids and syringes. He had no idea what he was looking at. Weeks later the autopsy report showed the presence of 19-norandrosterone and 19-noretocholanrolone in Taylor's body, but no other illegal drugs.
Official cause of death, suicide by hanging. The father's investigation, depression that overcame Taylor when he stopped using anabolic steroids. "I was clueless man, clueless. I had no friggin' idea what this was.''
Google told him.
After Taylor died, Don did what every parent would do. He took to the Net. "I type in 'teenagers' and 'steroids', and up pops hundreds of things.''
At night, after the other kids left the computer, the light glow of the monitor told Don everything he needed.
"It was like looking at a profile of my son. I just didn't know it at the time," he says. "In hindsight, after I went nutso, all the signs were there. The acne, the quick upper body weight gain, the oily skin, the temper.''
"Gwen shops at COSTCO where she buys these huge bottles of mouthwash. Peppermint," Don explains. "Normally for us they last awhile, several weeks, but Taylor used to go through a bottle a week. I remember asking him, 'What are you doing drinking the stuff?'
"Now I know bad breath is also a symptom of steroid use."
Taylor Hooton had a 3.8 GPA. Wore string necklaces with shells or beads. Had posters of "those Baywatch girlie types, athletes, and CD covers stapled to his wall." Drove a hand-me-down black Dodge truck, "with those boombox things in the back." Sometimes wore his sunglasses on backwards, "with the glasses facing back when the sun wasn't out.'' IM'ed friends every night. "I used to walk by and see all these little boxes opened, couldn't believe he was having 10 conversations at once.
"Sometimes in the mall now we'll see some kid from behind, and think, 'Is that Taylor? Or a song, I'll hear a song he used to play, and I'll just lose it. I'll take the dog out to pee and sometimes glimpse our stairs in the back, and just for an instant think I see him there yelling out, 'Hey Pops.' "
So this letter comes from Washington. It says that Congress would like him to come talk about how his son's death "affected him." Talk about steroids and teens.
Don knows what he wants to say. He's going to use their own numbers and throw them back on them.
"I'll tell them that based on their own numbers, the CDC estimates that 6 percent of the high school population have or are using steroids. That's one million kids. Worse, they estimate that 11 to 12 percent of all high school junior and senior males have used the stuff."
That's just his beginning.
"I'm going to tell them that, God damn it, the professional athletes have to set an example. We as parents deserve that. My wife and I have lived this nightmare, it's about saving your kid, all the kids. We have a right as parents that athletes set an example and do the right thing and not create an atmosphere where all of this crap seems OK."
And then he'll talk about coaches.
"One coach told me once that the problem is the coaches won't disarm themselves. Knowingly or unknowingly they reward the behavior, and won't stop until they know the other team, or other guy, stops first. This is not just a 'one school, one player' problem."
If the player across from me juices up, so must you.
High schools won't escape this testimony. Parenting 101 "teaches us to watch out for drug use: ecstasy, marijuana, crack. Not a word on steroids. Yet my son is upstairs in his bedroom injecting himself with steroids, for God's sake."
As he walks through the halls of Congress, one thought will be playing over and over in his mind, "Holy s---, I still can't believe this has happened to me. And if it can happen to me and my son, it can happen to you and your son."
He doesn't care if Congress is ready to hear that or not.
Don Barone, a feature producer with ESPN, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org