TEXAS, FOOTBALL AND JUICE

These were not standard cheers and jeers for a suburban Dallas high-school basketball game. Fans from Plano East on Friday night screamed at the rival Colleyville Heritage team in a local tournament: "Steroids! Steroids!" Some students held aloft a sign scribbled with the words GOT 'ROIDS? EAST DON'T. A scuffle erupted after the game, and a Plano East student was taken by ambulance to a local hospital.

In the warrior world of Texas high-school sports, tensions have become razor-sharp at Heritage High as a football steroid scandal has broken wide open. Nine unnamed Heritage students, most of them football players, have admitted to injecting the muscle-building drug in the past year. Police, meanwhile, are reportedly hunting for a "juice" peddler known as "Big Mike," thought to come from the affluent suburb of Southlake. Now Heritage coaches and administrators are scrambling to defend themselves against charges they ignored warnings from a parent. And some players are quietly pointing fingers at athletes from other schools, including a football powerhouse, Southlake Carroll Senior High, considered among the best in the nation. Nobody knows how severe the damage will be to Texas football. But this scandal has cast a serious pall on the glorious reputation of sports in Texas, a football-worshiping state where 20,000 fans often pack a high-school stadium under the Friday-night lights.

The steroid story at Heritage began to unfold one day last September, when a mom from suburban Dallas came across a strange travel bag in her son's closet. Lori Lewis opened the bag and gasped: she says she found syringes and a vial of liquid. Rushing to a drugstore, she learned it was steroids. When she confronted her son, a 17-year-old baseball player and former football player at Heritage, she says he confessed and told her he got the stuff from a senior on the football team.

The mom called the school and told an administrator her story. But instead of being grateful, Lewis told NEWSWEEK, school officials blew her off. Documents released by the school to comply with a Texas open-records request seem to bear out her claim. According to the documents, Steve Trachier, the district's executive director of administration, sent an e-mail to senior district officials saying that the mother's claim about steroids amounted to "unresearched and unfounded accusations." The football coach, Chris Cunningham, later went so far as to tell The Dallas Morning News: "The lady is a liar."

In October, the Morning News launched an investigation into steroid use at Heritage, after a local paper, Colleyville's Courier, ran a story that included quotes from students saying some Heritage athletes were on the juice. When reporters posed questions to the school, Heritage officials bore down and pushed for the truth. Pressed, nine students came forward in December and confessed, according to a school spokes-woman. When a Morning News series on steroids at Heritage was published in early February, it hit the Texas football community like a twister.

Faced with the crisis, Heritage school officials last Thursday held a forum, attended by 500 parents, to discuss the dangers of steroids. The principal, Robin Ryan, acknowledged the problem. An expert on steroids, Don Hooton, whose son, Taylor, hanged himself in 2003 after using the drug, spoke of the risks. Members of the Panther football squad sat in the front rows, looking stoic.

Officials at rival Southlake Carroll Senior High, whose football team is ranked in some polls as the best in America, say they are looking into the accusation that one of its football players uses steroids. At Heritage, meanwhile, school officials are defending their initial slowness to investigate by noting that Lewis's first call provided little more than unsubstantiated allegations. Robin McClure, a school-district spokesperson, stressed that coach Cunningham apologized on local television for calling the mom a liar, a statement he made because he felt as though he was being accused of knowing about the steroid use. McClure stresses that Cunningham confronted several of the athletes' parents months before the Morning News story was published.

Steroids can cause liver damage and severe mood swings. They can plunge a user into hopeless depression. But they can ?also turn an ordinary kid into a stud, a powerful lure in Texas sports culture, where gridiron stars are treated like kings. Texas kids learn early that sports stardom is heaven on earth. Ronnie Curcio, a supervisor at Sports Velocity Performance gym in Southlake, says kids pay up to $250 a month to pump iron. Curcio says the gym condemns the use of steroids.

At Heritage High, a school whose football team has lost more games than it's won in recent years, athletes ache with the desire to become champions. "Everybody wants to be number one, like Southlake Carroll," says Bradley Marshall, a Heritage student, but not a player. "They are big kids who win games."

As Hooton warned the Heritage community about the tragedies steroids can cause, there were tears in the eyes of some parents. Lori Lewis's son was not in the crowd. After she blew the whistle on steroid use, Lewis says, some of her son's friends turned their backs on him. The boy withdrew from Heritage and transferred to a nearby private school, where his mom says he hopes to play sports again. Soon after the Morning News series came out, some students hassled Lewis's son for coming forward, according to school records--and coaches held meetings with teams, lecturing against the hazing.

The school documents included letters of apology to the coach from steroid users. "I should have never lied to you," one student wrote. "The reason I lied to you was that I was scared and I did not want to disappoint you." The relentless pressure to win, it's clear, can make good kids do bad and dangerous things. There is life after sports, after all. Or at least there should be.

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