By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
JUNE 25, 2004. Three weeks before the one-year anniversary of Taylor Hooton's death.
Patrick Burke starts talking about steroids immediately after his lunch companion sits down. He parts his folded hands. His face comes alive.
"It's the elephant in the corner," says Burke, a friend of Taylor Hooton's who ran cross-country at Plano West and will graduate this summer. He says he's personally seen guys use steroids "a few dozen times" at West. "They would do it in the showers [at school] mostly. Some kids wouldn't have the nerves, I guess, to do it themselves, so they'd have others do it...They'd just carry it in with their stuff [for gym class]. They had those shower bags; they're, like, mesh. Just throw your stuff in there. Take a shower. When nobody was looking, when no coaches were around, just quick"--he sticks an imaginary needle in his butt.
"It's an everyday thing," Burke says. "I'd say 80 percent of the athletes either have used or are using--I mean, in the sports that you would need them. Wrestling, some track, a lot of football, baseball."
This is a widely contested estimate, even among kids who are former users. Still, no student who spoke with the Observer disagreed with Burke's overall assessment: Steroids are a problem at Plano West.
And that's what Burke's upset about. In March, district Superintendent Otto read a statement about steroid abuse within PISD at a seminar held at Plano East Senior High School. It was the third and last steroid seminar the Hootons had organized, having already held one at Plano West and another at Plano Senior High.
"We feel steroid usage is minimal," Otto said that night, "because of the work of our teachers and coaches. We want to emphasize that there is not extensive usage of this substance by young people who attend Plano ISD schools."
Burke, sitting in the audience that day, thought, "That's absurd." He says this past year at Plano West he saw signs of steroid abuse "every day."
So he wrote a letter to Otto. "In my personal experience," he wrote, "steroids as well as other illegal drugs have been readily available and at our students' fingertips since I have attended high school in Plano. To deny that such a situation exists is a cowardly and irresponsible approach to dealing with this deadly problem."
As for the teachers and coaches educating Plano's youths, Burke continued, "As a...student, I can only recall one section on steroid awareness that was buried within one chapter of one textbook in Plano's one required health class...I would call this education effort mediocre, at best." Burke wrote that the coaches and administrators are either "blind" to the steroid problem or they have their "heads in the sand."
"He wrote back," Burke says with a smirk. "It was basically a pat on the head thanking me for my opinion."
Otto did commend Burke for "taking a stand on this difficult issue." But he also wrote, "I'm sorry that you disagree with the position taken in my statement."
Today, you can see that the school's effort disgusts Burke. Otto told him he should come forward with any information he has, but Burke has seen guys use and later deny it. Testing is the only way to root out the problem, he says.
Nancy Long, a PISD spokeswoman, would not comment on whether Plano West or any other PISD school plans to do any random testing. But Don Hooton has asked the school before. Officials told him it would cost too much.
Yet in 2003 the district opened a 9,800-seat, $18.7 million football stadium for all three Plano high schools to use--as well as three indoor practice facilities for the teams, one at each school, replete with 50 yards of artificial turf and a weight room off to the side, for $6.9 million more.
Dr. Gary Wadler, professor of medicine at New York University and an expert on steroid abuse, says steroid testing is a "critical element" in fighting the problem. "And to ignore that is to ignore reality." In the case of PISD, he says, "The budget allocations really are a reflection of a philosophy."
Long says that's not fair. The football stadium and practice facilities were part of a $398 million bond package voters passed in 2001, she says.
Still, Burke says, if the school doesn't have the money for steroid testing, raise it. Increase the price of student activity fees. Heck, raise the money for testing through booster clubs, similar to the booster club the Plano West football team has. Maybe the steroid club could work year-round, as the football club does.
"Taylor Hooton's death," Burke wrote in his closing paragraph, "brought national...attention to our community. The eyes of the nation are upon us. Failure is no longer an option."
Sure, Emily Parker noticed Taylor getting bigger--it was hard not to--but because she spent every day with him, his increasing muscularity wasn't nearly as pronounced as his ego. As winter became spring, Taylor's clothes no longer hung off him--they clung to him. Still, he borrowed shirts from friends with smaller builds or bought smaller-sized clothing, the better to show off what he'd created. He still walked the school halls with insouciance, but now there was a hint of menace in his stride, in case anyone wanted to challenge him. No one ever did.