Making It Big

High School Athletes Turning To Drugs To Get Into Shape

Three years ago, when Chris Wash was a high school sophomore from West Plano, Texas, he put on 55 pounds in just a year.

"It didn't seem unrealistic for him to look the way he looked at what he weighed," recalls Chris' mother, Debbie Russo. "And it wasn't all muscle … so it just didn't seem to me like there were any red flags to be raised there, from that standpoint."

But Russo says she was horrified by her son's violent and erratic behavior: "He'd punch walls. He punched in a mailbox, punched a concrete wall in a parking lot. I had no clue, you know, what it was that was causing him to have that dramatic change in personality."

What his mother didn't know was that Chris had been taking anabolic steroids, growth hormones – forms of the male sex hormone, testosterone – which either come in pills or injections. Correspondent Troy Roberts reports.

High levels of anabolic steroids cause the body to put on extra muscle. They're sometimes used medically to treat victims of cancer or people with wasting illnesses, but there's a long list of possible side effects.

Chris played on his high school basketball team. But he didn't take steroids to play better; he wanted to look better.

"I was just 6 feet, 2 inches, 170-180 pounds, just kinda, like, scrawny kid," says Chris. "I didn't want to be tall and skinny. I wanted to be tall and big. Not big. I wanted to be huge."

At first, he was impressed with the results. "You got, like, a high from everyone being, like, 'Whoa, that guy's big' and everyone being, like, scared and intimidated and not wanting to have, like, anything to do with you," says Chris, who was taking steroids including dianabol, horse steroids.

Did he know that? "Yeah, but I didn't really, I guess I didn't really think about it," says Chris, who adds that he wasn't scared. "And then I did dianabol injections."

"This is a kid that if you take him to the doctor and they want to prick his finger to draw blood, you know, almost have to sit on him," says his mother, Debbie.

Chris soon began suffering from some of the side effects of steroid abuse: depression, mood swings, irrational anger, what steroid users call "roid rage."

"I was like a time bomb waiting to explode," says Chris. "When I, like, started raging, I'd be scared -- I'd be scared of what was gonna happen."

Chris is just one of an growing number of American kids who have abused steroids. According to a recent study, more than a million high school students have tried it.

Of course, parents always worry about peer pressure when it comes to kids and drugs. But the strongest pressure some kids feel to start using steroids is actually coming from their coaches and trainers.

At 7, Rob Garibaldi told his mother, "I want to be a professional baseball player." It was an all-consuming love for him, and he became the star player in his hometown of Petaluma, Calif.

His parents, Denise and Ray Garibaldi, shared his excitement. But the one thing that stood in the way of Rob's major league dreams was his size.

Rob weighed 165 pounds when he went to the 2001 college world series, playing right field for the nationally ranked University of Southern California Trojans.

He was big enough to belt a homer, but not big enough to please his coaches. Ray Garibaldi says they wanted Rob to put on another 20 pounds.

Rob tried to bulk up naturally, but he just couldn't seem to put on any more weight. So he secretly started injecting himself with steroids.

"He told me that a trainer at USC was able to get him the steroids and advised him to take them," says Ray Garibaldi, who adds that he and his wife didn't know who the trainer was because their son never told them.

Soon after Rob started using steroids, his weight did go up. But his behavior became extremely erratic.

"He started raging," recalls Ray. "And he was walking, just walking the neighborhoods until about 2, 3 a.m. because he couldn't sleep."

"He took a baseball bat to all his furniture in his apartment," adds Denise.

No one suspected steroids, and Rob hadn't told anyone he was using. His parents insisted he see a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants, but his condition worsened. Even his grades and his game were suffering.

The Garibaldis brought Rob home, but his depression and his rages continued.

"He would come up ready to fight, and there was a couple of times where he just grabbed a hold of me, threw me to the ground," says Ray Garibaldi. "Put his hands around my neck, was just choking me."

Finally, Rob admitted his use of steroids. "He said, 'That's what baseball players do.' Those were his exact words," says Ray.

"All I kept thinking of is that we sent USC this thriving young athlete with a lot of personality and hope and determination. And he came back broken," says Denise.

After an often-turbulent year, Rob seemed to be making some progress. One night, he told his mother he was feeling positive about the future.

"I went to sleep and slept very well that night for the first time in a very long time. I really thought I had my son back," says Debbie. "And we were woken at 6:20 that morning by a knock on the door that he had shot himself in the head in his car around the corner from our house."

Do the Garibaldis believe that their son's steroid abuse led to his suicide? "Without a doubt," says Ray. "Absolutely," adds Denise.

The University of Southern California says it has conducted a complete investigation of the case, and categorically denies all the allegations made by the Garibaldis.

Buying steroids is easy. Thousands of Internet sites sell them with no prescription. All it takes is a credit card and a few answers to a short questionnaire.

And then there's Mexico. When 48 Hours went to Tijuana, every other storefront seemed to be a pharmacy, and everything we asked for seemed to be readily available.

"I know they came from a Mexican pharmacy," says Chris Wash. "And that, you know, they still had the little Mexican caps on them."

After taking steroids for more than a year and a half, Chris knew he had to get off. So he went cold turkey.

"It affected me mentally. I crashed. Like right to the bottom," recalls Chris.

"I just remember just driving around in my car, just wanted to end my life. And I can remember one time standing on an overpass, you know, I just wanted to jump off. I just went into this like, just like deep, dark depression to where I didn't wanna leave my house."

Chris stopped himself from jumping that night. But just five days later, he went into an explosive episode of "roid rage."

"I just lost it. I went in my car and I was like, 'I'm gonna kill myself.' And you know, started driving around all crazy. I was racing up and down the toll way," says Chris.

His mom, Debbie Russo, became frantic, and drove through the night looking for him.

"He is clearly, you know, way over the edge emotionally. I was calling his cell phone. His friends were calling his cell phone, and he wouldn't answer," recalls Russo. "If he did answer he was screaming, 'I'm gonna kill myself' and crying."

This time, it took the police to calm Chris down. Desperate, Russo took her son to see a series of doctors. She says that none of them asked her if her son could be doing steroids.

Finally, it was a news story that made Chris realize the danger he was in. It was a story about a friend from school, Taylor Hooton, who had committed suicide six months earlier.

"Chris brought me this article. It was an article that Don and Gwen Hooton were convinced that steroids had taken their son's life," says Russo. "I realized like, wow, this is how I felt."

Hooton, 17, was a starting pitcher and a popular student at Plano West High School. His downward spiral is a hauntingly familiar story. When his coaches urged him to get bigger, somehow, the message he got was to use steroids.

A family vacation ended in disaster when Taylor was caught stealing. He was grounded, and sent to his room, where he later killed himself.

"He wanted to be No. 1. He wanted to look good and he took the easy way to get that effect, and it cost him his life," says Taylor's mom, Gwen.

Now, Taylor's father is on a mission. Don Hooton traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before a Senate hearing: "The reason that I am here today to share with you a little of what I've learned about steroids so that you will be able to benefit from our experience. … I am absolutely committed to seeing that Taylor's death will not go in vain."

Don and Gwen Hooton recently opened the Taylor Hooton Foundation. They are pushing for new laws, and spreading the word about the dangers of steroid abuse.

"Gwen and Don Hooton saved Chris' life," says Russo. "Because had they not decided to share their own personal tragedy, I'm fairly positive that Chris would have done the steroids again, and would probably be dead by now."

"He's going to have a tough fight, just like any other child who has done steroids," says Babette Farkus, Chris' psychiatrist. "I do think Chris, however, will stay clean because he's had such profound consequences to his personal life."

Chris is now on medication designed to help control his severe mood swings. He's been off steroids for a year now, but he says he doesn't feel good. "Everybody just says I'm starting to look better, but I feel like mentally drained," says Chris.

But no one thinks this battle will be easy.

"I would say right now we have more good days than bad days. And that's an improvement," says Russo. "The biggest fear that I have is that I don't know what long-term effects he's going to have from the steroid use. I don't know that anybody else knows that, either."