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My Mom, the Narc

When Lori Lewis learned that many players on her son’s Colleyville Heritage football team were using steroids, she blew the whistle. It was the right thing to do. And it has nearly ruined their lives.
By Eric Celeste |

MOM ON A MISSION: Lewis (left) admits that if she had known how her city would turn against her, how her son Bryan (right) would be ostracized, how her actions would be second-guessed by the police, it would have made her think twice.

Lori Lewis carried a pair of her son’s jeans into his closet. It was early afternoon on Wednesday, September 22, and the Colleyville mother, after putting away the jeans, noticed a black leather bag. Her son, a junior at Colleyville Heritage High School, had several such travel bags in his closet, but the others were all pressed flat, unused. This one held something.

She opened it wide and turned it to the light. First, she noticed the syringes. A wave of nausea swept through her. Then she reached inside and took hold of the vial. She stared at the label, trying to concentrate as her heart rate spiked. It read “nandrolone decanoate.”

She hurried downstairs and called the pharmacy at the nearby Walgreens. She asked the druggist to decipher the label for her. Lewis was convinced the tiny bottle held heroin, unaware that most illicit drugs are not sold with pharmaceutical labels.

The answer, anabolic steroids, provided a bit of relief. At least he’s not a drug addict, she thought.

Lewis hung up. It didn’t take long for more questions to come. Why would he use steroids? Aren’t they illegal now? He’s a good kid. He’s not even playing football this year. He decided in the summer to concentrate on baseball.

She checked the time. School would be out soon. Lewis jumped in her car and raced the two miles to CHHS.

Minutes later, her son, Bryan Dyer (Lewis remarried in 1993), walked out of the school with a friend and headed toward his truck. His friend stopped him. “Dude, I think that’s your mom.”

Lewis didn’t want to confront Bryan in front of his friends. “You—get home!” she told him.

Bryan is used to getting in trouble with his mom. He knows it’s just because she loves him, but, damn, so many other kids get away with telling white lies, staying out late. “My mom catches me at everything,” Bryan says. “My friends are used to it. I’m used to it.”

Mother and son had always been close, though. Bryan never had to wonder whether his mom was “engaged,” as Dr. Phil likes to say. He’d been playing sports in Colleyville since tee ball at age 4, and through select baseball and Pee Wee football, all the way through this, his junior year, she’d attended every game. “Never missed one,” she says proudly.

When Bryan got inside, Lewis pointed the bottle at him. She demanded to know why he was taking steroids.

Oh, that. Whatever. No big deal, Bryan thought. He’d only used them for a short while at the end of his sophomore year, when he wanted to make the varsity team as a junior. When he decided not to play (and when he noticed acne on his back during the family vacation in Florida), he stopped. That was months ago.

He talked quickly, stumbling over his words, trying to explain his reasoning. The coaches had told him to get bigger and stronger if he wanted to earn a starting position, he said. He knew—from friends, from weight-room whispers, from his own two eyes—that many of the starters were accomplishing just that task with injected aid.

Summarizing his defense, he finally blurted, “Mom, the majority of the football team is taking them.”

At that moment, it didn’t seem like an earth-shattering admission. He was just letting her know that he wasn’t alone.

But that one sentence stuck with Lewis. It ate at her. That evening, she obsessed about its implication. She knew he didn’t mean that literally more than half the Colleyville football team was on steroids. He meant half the players who mattered were juicing. Lewis decided that she had an obligation to inform the school. They had a problem and needed to know about it, for the kids’ safety. She went to sleep thinking it was the right thing to do.

Nearly a year later, she still believes this. But she acknowledges that if she’d known then how her city would turn against her, how her son would become ostracized by other kids, how her motives would be mocked on radio and television, how her actions would be second-guessed by police, it would have given her pause. For Lori Lewis is, if not a pariah in Colleyville, a shamed woman in the eyes of many who believe her campaign has unfairly smeared its high school, coach, and football program. In the minds of many, she carries with her the scarlet “S” affixed to those in small towns, suburban or rural, who don’t honor the sanctity of high school football: snitch, squealer, sinner.

She says she has had to endure the community’s anger despite what should have been ample vindication: the Dallas Morning News, in an ongoing and exhaustive investigative series, has proven that steroids use in North Texas high schools is greater than many want to believe. Nine CHHS players have admitted to using steroids. And the Grapevine-Colleyville ISD has adopted an aggressive drug-testing policy, due largely to the hot media glare Lewis helped focus on the school and its tepid (in her view) initial response to her charges.

“All that stuff I could handle, and I do handle,” she says. “I knew what I was getting into.” In fact, she knows that by filing a slander suit against the school’s football coach, Chris Cunningham, she has only invited more recrimination. She is suing the coach and the school district for $1.5 million because Cunningham said Lewis was a “liar” and “crazy” in an interview with the News. (Cunningham says that at the time of the remarks, he didn’t know Lewis’ identity, and he has since apologized.) “But I didn’t want any of this for Bryan,” Lewis says. “From the moment I called the school, I didn’t want him involved. I wanted to protect him. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”

No, it didn’t. Because even though Lewis did the right thing, and even though she took every measure to protect her son’s identity when she made that call and then later took her story to the media, it is Bryan who ultimately paid the price for his mom’s principled stand. Sitting in her living room, Lewis moans slightly and puts her head down when her son explains what his life is like now:

“I just want this to be over,” Bryan, 17, says. “I just want to get on with my life. Not one day has gone by that I haven’t had to deal with this or talk about it to someone. I’ve counted. Not one single day.”

THE SECRETARY AT COLLEYVILLE HERITAGE HIGH SCHOOL asked Lori Lewis for her son’s last name. This was so she could direct Lewis to the appropriate vice principal. CHHS has several sub-administrators who are given students to oversee based on last name. CHHS is a big school, with more than 2,200 students and an operating budget of $136.5 million for the past school year (although $44.1 million of that went to Robin Hood payments). It’s a smart school, too, well above state and national averages in students’ ACT and SAT scores.

When Ted Beal answered his phone that morning, September 23, the nightmare began for the CHHS administration. (CHHS officials declined to speak with D Magazine.) He took notes:

Most Football Team taking Steroids
Son Played last year
Coach Cunningham
Son Plays [blacked out]
*Anomysly*

The misspelled word had two arrows drawn toward it for emphasis. Lewis made it clear that they could not take her son out of class to talk to him. They could not tell anyone her identity—or else, as she put it, “I will sue you.” Given the extreme care administrators used with her identity in e-mail correspondence during the next few months (obtained by D Magazine), they took her threat seriously.

Lewis told Beal that her son had used steroids, that he obtained them from other kids on the team, that they got them from someone at the nearby Whataburger. She said that many other football players were using them, and her son told her that, because many players knew about it, the coaches either knew and didn’t care or didn’t want to know so they didn’t ask how players had made sudden increases in strength and size.

Beal asked her to come into the school for a talk. No, she said. No one could see her talking to school officials. “Besides,” she said. “I’ve told you everything I know. Bryan may be able to help, but don’t contact him at school.” She worried he would be labeled a snitch if it became a public ordeal.

Lewis asked that Beal call her back when his investigation was finished. She expected to hear from him in a week or so.

Three hours later, her phone rang.

As Lewis recalls, Beal said, “I’ve talked to Coach Cunningham, and he says it’s not true. There’s not a steroids problem on his team.”

Lewis was dumbfounded. That’s it? That’s your investigation? What did you expect him to say? “Dangit, you got me!”?

Beal said she was not cooperating. They needed more information. Lewis repeated that she’d told him everything she knew. “There were several long pauses,” she says.

Lewis told Beal she was left with no choice but to take her story to the media. Perhaps that would spur someone to investigate the problem more aggressively.

She called a reporter at the weekly Colleyville Courier and told him her story. He agreed not to name the family members. The paper sent a photographer, who took a picture of the vial of steroids, commonly known as “Deca.” And the story ran on the front page of the Courier on October 1, under a three-column headline that read: “Steroid Use Suspected in Some Area Schools.”

The impact on the administration was less than she’d hoped. No one from the school called her. “It was too quiet,” she says. “I thought, ’Wow, that didn’t work. I guess they don’t care.’”

But the students at CHHS had obviously read the story. For weeks, kids buzzed about who they thought might be the anonymous athlete caught using steroids. Bryan had to lie, even to friends who sidled up to him in private and asked if he was the one.

Faking it wasn’t easy. One day in the lunchroom, Bryan walked up to a group of students gathered around a table. They had the Courier article spread out, and several people were closely eyeing the photo accompanying the story. The vial had been photographed on Bryan’s glass dining room table, and the students were examining the fuzzy reflections in the glass to figure out whose house it was.

Then, one evening the Courier reporter called Lewis and asked if he could pass along her phone number to two reporters with the Dallas Morning News who were working on a series of stories examining steroid use in high schools all across North Texas.

She didn’t take long to make her decision: “Bring it on.”

NO NAMES. THOSE WERE THE GROUND RULES, never in question, always understood. No real names, anyway. Not Bryan’s. Not Lewis’. And the News reporters agreed that they wouldn’t identify any of the other students who Bryan knew or suspected used steroids. They would cooperate fully with the News reporters, but they wouldn’t give anyone up. They weren’t snitches. Only a worried mom and a kid who felt he owed it to her to fess up, do the right thing, be a man.

Gregg Jones and Gary Jacobson sat at Lewis’ kitchen table, in her upper-middle-class, redbrick home, on a quiet street in Colleyville, and grilled the mother and son for hours, during several interview sessions. They were extremely polite but thorough. Over time, Bryan began to trust them and open up.

Bryan sat across from them, Lewis next to him. They asked Bryan to relive every detail. Where did you get them? How did you get the syringes? Who knew? Where were you when you first injected them? How did you feel? How long did you do it? Why did you stop?

Jones and Jacobson, top-notch investigative reporters, had been working on a series of stories about steroid abuse in area high schools. They had pieced together a clear picture of a serious problem. Kids had easy access to steroids, athletes were using them, and high school administrators were in denial. But the reporters needed something else. The tick-tock drama of Bryan’s story, that compelling personal narrative, the hour-by-hour recounting of his traverse from good kid to drug user, would elevate the series. It was the sort of breakthrough that could take a pointy-headed newspaper treatise and make it touch people, win awards, effect change.

Jones and Jacobson talked to others in Colleyville who were suspected users, and all denied it. The reporters worked other sources. They even went to football games, sat in the stands, and made a list of the players who looked like they might be using steroids, based on the common signs: acne, muscular definition, rage. Later, they showed Bryan the list.

“That’s a pretty good list,” he said.

After months of trying, Jones and Jacobson finally interviewed coach Chris Cunningham, who declined to talk to D Magazine through a spokeswoman and through his lawyers. According to their story, Cunningham went on a 15-minute rant and blamed the then-unidentified mother for creating this problem.

During the following months, the reporters put together their package of stories. The weekend before the series was to run, a fax came to the Morning News. It was from the Grapevine-Colleyville school district. In response to written questions from Jones and Jacobson, the district acknowledged that nine CHHS football players, eight seniors and one junior, had admitted to using steroids. Admitted it months earlier, not long after the journalists had interviewed Coach Cunningham.

On February 4, the Morning News dropped that bombshell and used quotes and information from their interviews with Lewis and Bryan. But no names were used. They were identified merely as “the athlete and his mother.”

Sitting at her computer in her Mid Cities work cubicle, Lewis felt disheartened as she read the story. She didn’t feel proud that she’d proven the school wrong. She was sad that she’d been proven right.

A week later, she would feel much worse.

ON FEBRUARY 12, A SATURDAY, LEWIS WALKED into a salon to have her hair done. As she waited, she overheard customers gabbing.

“Can you believe those boys using steroids?” one asked. “The story said one boy admitted to using them. I wonder who it was.”

Lewis wanted to get up and walk out, but she stayed put, stayed silent. She knew it would have to be this way. Colleyville is a Yuppie burb, sure, with a median home price of $335,000, but it is affluence packed on top of a former tiny farming community, a fine cloth draped over an old couch. Only 22,000 people live in Colleyville. People know each other. In a town like Colleyville, you can’t tell anyone a secret you want kept.

The next day, Lewis picked up her Sunday Morning News and boarded a chartered bus to Austin for a sales meeting. On the front page blared her son’s story: “Colleyville player says pressure to improve prompted steroid use.”

On the bus, she read, careful not to catch anyone’s eye. It was all there. His decision. Her discovery. The school’s denial.

There were also names. Not their real names, of course. They were changed to Patrick and Michelle. As the editorial note at the story’s end explained, “She and her son feared retaliation from other Colleyville athletes, coaches, and parents. ’We’d have to move if our names came out,’ she said.”

The story was long, one of several the Morning News would run that week concerning steroid use. But as Lewis read it, she found something horrible.

“They’d made a mistake,” she says. “I knew it as soon as I finished the story. In two sentences, they’d given Bryan away.”

Paragraph five of the story:

“Patrick arranged the [steroids purchase] with a couple of phone calls, paying $200 to a varsity football player. A few days later, he dialed the player’s cell phone to arrange delivery, reaching him in an SAT preparation class.”

Good Lord, Lewis thought. That kid will know who Patrick is. How many varsity football players got calls for drug deals in their SAT prep class this year? Maybe he won’t tell anyone.

Then she read paragraph 33, which detailed “Patrick’s” efforts to have a woman buy his needles so he wouldn’t arouse suspicion:

“The cheerleader went to a nearby Kroger supermarket. She told the pharmacist she needed to vaccinate a horse. He sold her the needles.”

Oh, no. It’s bad enough they identified her as a cheerleader. How many of them bought needles for players? And even if the answer was all of them, how many had gone to Kroger and said she needed them for a horse? Only one. The one who could name Bryan.

When Bryan got to school on Monday, it didn’t take long to see that his cover had been blown. Football players were calling him “Patrick.” Conversations stopped when he arrived. And when he went to his truck after school, there was a sheet of notebook paper under his windshield wiper with one word scrawled across it: “SNITCH.”

“Well, I had an interesting day,” he told his mother by phone that night. She was still at her sales conference.

“Bryan, just keep denying everything.”

“Mom, they already know. It won’t change anything. They know.”

By midweek, Bryan couldn’t take the whispers and the barely contained seething of the football players. Except for a few friends, he felt ostracized. Lewis pulled him out of CHHS and would soon enroll him in a nearby private school. Jones and Jacobson, sick that they’d inadvertently revealed Bryan’s identity, suggested that the paper’s lawyers could convince the school district to pay for Bryan’s tuition. Lewis said she didn’t want the school’s help.

“Sports means everything to folks here,” Bryan says. “It’s pretty simple. They’re mad at my mom because she’s messing with that.”

He says that many of the football players at Colleyville were introduced to steroids by someone from a nearby rival. To the kids, it wasn’t just about making coaches happy. It was also about keeping up with bitter enemies from Southlake Carroll, Grapevine, Keller, all the schools on the schedule. And, of course, making everyone in town proud, which is what winning does.

“This is how competitive it is in this town,” Lewis says, smiling. “When the kids get to middle school, a lot of them go to sports camps in the summer to improve. But the moms wouldn’t tell the other moms about it, because they want their kid to have an edge. That’s how competitive it is.”

EVEN THOUGH LEWIS HAD PULLED BRYAN out of school, he was still getting hassled. That Friday after the story had come out, near midnight, Bryan got a call on his cell phone. It was a football player. He sounded drunk.

“Hey, you little pussy,” he said. “I’m gonna kick your ass.”

Bryan knew who it was. He knew where he was: at a party one block over. He marched into his mother’s room and paced in front of her.

“Mom, I’m going over there. I can’t run from this. I’m going to fight him.”

Lewis begged him to calm down. We just have to lay low, she said. Everyone would forget about it soon enough. She said it to calm her son. She didn’t believe it.

Then, two weeks later, Bryan left a movie theater on a weekend night. He called a few buddies shortly before midnight and told them to meet him at Whataburger, one of the town hangouts. (Even though, technically, it’s in Euless.) Ironically, it was the place where he’d purchased his steroids.

In Colleyville, there are four places where kids usually hang out after dark: Whataburger, Taco Bell, Sonic, and Wendy’s. They’re open late, they have cheap food, and they’re close by. The Colleyville kids rarely venture far from home.

So when Bryan pulled into the drive-thru and ordered, he wasn’t surprised to see people he knew. He pulled forward into a parking space and waited on his friends, hoping everyone else would ignore him.

Instead, a car slowly inched into the space next to him. There were four teenagers inside, two in the front seat, two in back. “Skater punks,” Bryan would call them.

All four got out of the car. The driver, the stockiest of the bunch, rapped on Bryan’s window. He rolled it down.

“Are you Bryan Dyer?”

“Yeah.”

The driver said he was friends with one of the players who used steroids. He had a Grapevine High School sticker on his car, so he didn’t go to Heritage. “Get out of the car, Dyer,” he said. “I’m gonna beat your ass.”

Bryan got out and starting jawing with him. “Let’s go, then,” he said.

The driver came after him. Bryan, three inches taller, popped him in the face. He came at him again—”Obviously,” Bryan says, “this kid did not know how to fight”—and this time Bryan’s punch knocked him to the ground. The foursome scrambled back into their car and took off. Bryan, afraid that someone inside had called the police, did the same.

And while her son was fighting his battles, Lewis was fighting hers. With some of her neighbors not talking to her, she decided to take the next step. By now, she had revealed her identity in subsequent newspaper stories. (“Everyone already knew,” she says.) It was time to do something about her own reputation—and those of future whistle-blowers.

HERE IS PART OF ABC CHANNEL 8 SPORTS director Dale Hansen’s on-air editorial from April 19, the day Lewis filed a lawsuit against Coach Chris Cunningham for slander, asking for $1.5 million in damages. Not quoted are the audible giggles of news anchor Gloria Campos:

“The mother who helped uncover the steroid use at Colleyville Heritage High School, Lori Lewis, is suing football coach Chris Cunningham. You heard that story earlier tonight. Cunningham wants to know, Why now? I just want to know, Why?

“It’s a stupid lawsuit. Too many of them are, but this one certainly is. Lewis is suing because Cunningham told the Morning News she was a liar and a crazy mom. If I called your boss and said your kids and their friends are using drugs, my kid says you’re looking the other way and not doing anything about it and that’s not true, what would you say?

“Cunningham has apologized and said it was wrong to say the things he did, but I think anybody would have reacted the same way. No one has provided any evidence that Cunningham knew about the steroid use on his football team, and there’s no evidence that Lori Lewis is a crazy mom.

“Cunningham says one of the reasons he reacted the way he did, he was told that she was screaming at school officials and accusing him of condoning the steroid use. She says she never used the word ’condone,’ and her demeanor in all those phone calls was completely appropriate. Anybody really believe that? …

“Lori Lewis says the comments by Coach Cunningham slandered her and her reputation has been damaged. She wants a million-five. But if we’re really concerned about reputations here, whose reputation has been damaged more? A mother raising a teenage boy who decided to use steroids like too many kids do, or a football coach who didn’t know? …

“Chris Cunningham … says he’s trying to do something about the problem so it doesn’t happen again. That’s what everybody should be doing. They shouldn’t be filing stupid lawsuits. But on the other hand, if you can get a million-five from everyone who says you’re a liar and you’re crazy, then I’m gonna get me a lawyer, and I’m gonna be a rich man.”

EVERYONE IS MAD AT LORI LEWIS these days, either for suing the high school football coach or for not keeping her mouth shut in the first place. Media pundits like Hansen say she should shut up and let it be. The parents she’s known since Bryan played tee ball with their kids a dozen years ago ignore her. The Tarrant County Narcotics Unit, now working the steroids investigation, told Lewis that her first call should have been to them months ago. “They weren’t too happy with me,” she says. “In hindsight, of course I should have just called them. But you figure there’s a problem at the school, you call the school. I don’t think that was crazy.”

It’s even tough to find a yardman in town. In June, Lewis scheduled to have her lawn mowed by a Mid Cities fireman who runs a small lawn-care company. When no one showed up, she called the owner to ask why.

“Didn’t you get my message?” he asked.

“No,” she replied.

“Well, I’m a friend of Coach Cunningham’s. So I wouldn’t feel comfortable mowing your lawn.”

Lewis was stunned. Had it come to that? She couldn’t even get her grass cut?

“If my house was on fire, would you put it out?” she asked. He hung up.

She laughs about it more than she complains. She knew the pettiness would get worse once she filed the lawsuit. Many in town obviously don’t take the steroids problem seriously. At the first public hearing the school district held to discuss the issue, including spending money for more drug testing, not one parent showed up. About 20 showed up to the second meeting. A few parents blamed Lewis for making this an issue. “I can control my kids,” one parent said to her during the meeting. “Why should my kid be drug-tested just because you can’t control yours?”

She tries to focus on the things she’s helped accomplish. The tough drug-testing program that Grapevine-Colleyville has adopted. She has begun to work with Don Hooton, the Plano father whose 17-year-old son committed suicide in July 2003 because of his steroids-induced depression, to raise steroid awareness and stiffen national testing laws. The e-mails from parents who say they are too scared to be named publicly but who thank her for shaking up the CHHS administration and mighty football program. The CHHS teacher who cornered her in the parking lot after the second public hearing and told her many teachers supported her but were afraid to speak out. The CHHS kids who posted to the Morning News steroids bulletin boards, saying everyone knew this was a problem, that it is still a problem.

“Oh, yeah, some of them are still doing it,” Bryan says. He mentions a senior. “I know he is. He’s on his third cycle.”

The one thing that bothers Lewis is how this has affected her family. It’s why she doesn’t let me talk to, or even see, her husband and younger daughter. She makes mention of “that one time” someone said or did something to her daughter relating to the steroids backlash, but when I ask about it, she says she won’t talk about it. All she does is shake her head and say, “The parents in this town—” She’s already seen how it has enveloped Bryan.

“It’s been a roller coaster for him,” she says. “We’ve always been close, but since this, it’s been tough. He’s not happy that I’m still talking to the media. He just wants to enjoy his senior year, and I want to do everything I can to help him.”

But, she says, she believes she has a mission. She says she sued Coach Cunningham not just because she feels his remarks made life tough in Colleyville, but because she says she wants to be sure other schools will think twice before ignoring a whistle-blower. “Bryan understands,” she says.
“But he doesn’t like it.”

When her son talks, she stares at him intently, looking for signs that he’s upset or angry. Like most teens, he acts blasé, even when talking about how much he can’t wait for college “so I can get away from this town, all the crap that’s gone on.”

Not that he’s obsessing about it, either, he says. He loves his new school. Three of his best friends have transferred to it in the past few years, so he has his core group of buddies together. “I do miss some of my friends from Heritage,” he says. “But other than that, it’s great. People leave me alone. I’ve moved on. I just wish everyone else would.”

He is rubbing his hands while he talks, trying to get the grime off his fingers. He’s been up at his school’s weight room with other athletes, cleaning the mats, spray-painting the weights, putting the gym junk away. They had to get everything ready for when they return after the summer, when Bryan plans to go out for the varsity team. He wants to play wide receiver. He hopes he starts, he says. Thinks he will. He’s just got to get a little faster, a little bigger, a little stronger.

Eric Celeste is the editor at Spirit, the inflight magazine of Southwest Airlines.


Lewis Photo: Allison V. Smith