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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Lights-Out Performance Conjures Up Controversy

October 24, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

Conspiracy theories were running rampant. An outraged Coach Mike Herrington of Newhall Hart seemed ready to call in the FBI to investigate why the lights at Canyon High suddenly went dark after his football team took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter Thursday night.

Dozens of glow sticks were being waved by giddy Canyon fans in the bleachers. They knew the blackout couldn't have come at a more opportune moment to squash Hart's momentum.

"That has to be staged," Herrington said in the middle of a dark stadium. "Why would you have 500 glow sticks in the stands?"

Little did Herrington know that the blackout only delayed the inevitable: Another Hart victory in Foothill League play. The only suspense was whether Hart officials would ask for an L.A. County Sheriff's deputy to guard the circuit breaker.

By halftime, Hart led, 42-7, and quarterback Sean Norton had thrown four touchdown passes and ran for two more scores. In the end, Hart won, 56-21, before a sellout crowd and live television audience to pick up its 60th consecutive Foothill League victory.

Canyon was supposed to have offered a severe challenge. Except Norton was at his best. He can pick apart any secondary when given time to throw, and Hart's offensive line did its job. Twice Norton found his third target wide open streaking down the middle for touchdowns. In the first half, he completed 12 of 18 passes for 260 yards.

It was a great atmosphere for high school football. Dozens of Canyon students painted their hair and faces green and yellow. Hundreds of spectators lined up more than three hours before game time in sweltering heat just to enter the stadium. Lots of fans had to walk long distances because of scarce parking spaces.

Even the 32-minute power outage was exciting. While conspiracy theories were debated, Canyon officials insisted the power went off because of an overload.

Once again, it was a false alarm about the demise of Hart. The Indians started the year 0-3, but lost to Los Alamitos, Ventura St. Bonaventure and Westlake Village Westlake, which are a combined 18-0. Their tough nonleague schedule was better preparation for league play than the weak schedule Canyon faced.

Most important, Norton rose up to show he has no intention of letting Hart's "other" streak end. That's a streak of 18 consecutive seasons of producing All-Southern Section quarterbacks. Norton struggled early in the season, perhaps because he was trying to do too much. But he's back on target, and so is Hart.

*

Billy Ajello, a high school baseball player from Plano, Texas, flew to Los Angeles earlier this week with his mother to participate in an important panel discussion entitled, "Sports, Drugs & Teens."

Ajello would have preferred to be hanging out back home with one of his best friends, Taylor Hooton, a senior pitcher who was a member of a Bible study group. But Hooton, 17, killed himself on July 15, and a medical examiner's toxicology report revealed anabolic steroids in his urine.

Hooton's father, Don, a first cousin of former Dodger pitcher Burt Hooton, gave a presentation to students and parents at Plano West High last month, blaming steroids for his son's "irrational step."

Ajello agreed to join the panel discussion at Staples Center despite the possibility of recriminations from classmates not thrilled about outside exposure to the issue. His motivation was to sound the alarm that steroids are being used by teenagers who don't understand the consequences of their actions.

"The kid always had a smile on his face and he'd be the last kid you'd think [this would] happen to," Ajello said. "He wanted to have the good body and be big and strong. He fell into depression and hit rock bottom. He decided life wasn't worth it."

Ajello said Hooton told him he was taking steroids, but the shroud of secrecy combined with the illusion of invincibility kept everyone silent.

"They don't seem to care what's going to happen to them when they're 50 or 60, just what can happen when they're in high school," he said. "I want this to be a warning what can actually happen."

Don Hooton said his son admitted taking steroids two months before his death. He had gone from weighing 170 pounds to over 200 pounds. He believes his son's depression was the result of steroid use.

He tried to alert parents in his presentation in Plano as to clues that their child might be abusing steroids.

Does their face look bloated? Have they gotten really "big" all of a sudden? Are their wrists swollen? Are there spurts of rage or sudden and exaggerated mood swings? Have any unmarked pills or syringes been found in their child's room?

Hooton said he reared three children and never violated their space by searching their rooms. In hindsight, he wishes he had searched Taylor's room.

"Because all of the signs that would have told us what was going on with Taylor were hidden in various places in his room," Hooton told the parents.

Texas is different than California, but teenagers using steroids is a concern parents and coaches everywhere must take seriously.

"I don't think people are making the change in their lives that they should," Ajello said. "This is a real problem going on in high school sports."

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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