Like most coaches, Doug Berry and his Alta High School football staff found the demands of their jobs stretched far beyond the playing field last season. They monitored players' grades. They were confidants for players' girlfriend and job troubles. They disciplined several players for a weekend drinking binge and made anti-drug pleas. They even chauffeured one ill-fated player to school every morning.
The coaches also went the extra mile to pull the team together. Berry invited his 60 players into his own home each Thursday night, and he dreamed up the idea of wearing a black bracelet throughout the season."This is for team unity," he explained. "If you ever have the desire or opportunity to drink or take drugs or sluff school, maybe you'll look at this and remember 60 other kids are counting on you."
That statement would become bitter irony. On Feb. 27, three months after the Hawks won the state championship - three months after teammates had stopped counting on him to blow open holes in the right side of the line - Todd Hunter, an All-State guard and team captain whom everyone thought they knew but didn't, put a bullet through his heart.
And no one saw it coming - not even his coaches, who, given their close involvement with their players, had every reason to believe they knew and understood them.
"He was a lot more than a football player here," said Berry. "He was very well liked. He was a natural leader. No one had any idea. He was always kind of quiet, but I never ever thought he was depressed."
Similarly, Brad Pino, an assistant coach who drove Hunter to school every morning to remedy the latter's habitual tardiness, said, "He was in fine shape. I never saw any big mood swings."
But for that matter, the coaches had missed something else about Hunter: drug use. A toxicology report showed his blood alcohol level at a staggering .33 percent - more than four times Utah's drunken driving limit of .08 percent - when he took his life. According to Draper City Police Chief Wayne Riley, the report showed a buildup of dextromethorphan, which is "substantial evidence" he was using Robitussin-DM.
Robitussin is the latest fad drug among youths, so common that Alta coaches say they see empty bottles of the stuff in school bathrooms or while jogging around the track.
"We didn't know anything for sure about Todd using it," said Berry. "You hear things. Even the year before we'd heard that."
Some teammates were more clued in. "He used alcohol and Robitussin," said Stephan Micklos, a friend and teammate of Hunter's. "But I think he tapered off; it used to be worse."
In the weeks that have followed, Hunter's friends, teammates and coaches have puzzled over his death. By all accounts, Hunter was popular. When the Hawks voted for team captains, Hunter was a unanimous selection.
"I was not going to pick Todd," said Berry. "But he got more votes than anyone by a long shot. I had no choice."
As for athletic ability, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Hunter was slow afoot, which is why he played only part time on defense, but he was a standout in the offensive line, which earned him a scholarship to Dixie College next fall.
"All we did was run over the right side where he was," said quarterback Tyler DeHart.
Looking back, DeHart echoes the sentiment of many when he said, "He was always pretty sturdy. He had his days when he was depressed. But we never thought he would do this. He had everything going for him. We're all just trying to figure out why."
That's a question that probably never will be answered. There are many theories: self-imposed pressure, fear of failure, slumping grades. "I think Todd knew in his own heart that he wasn't going to graduate," said Berry. "He was a bad student. I think that got to him."
Hunter's grades had declined since the end of the football season, which, for the second consecutive year, made him ineligible for wrestling. But if he was despondent, Hunter hid it well. "I was with him a few days before he died, and by no means was he depressed," said Micklos. "I just wonder why didn't he say anything."
"I saw him the day he died," said Pino, "and all he could talk about was a trip to Las Vegas with the baseball team."
Hunter's history of drug and alcohol use was likely a factor in his apparent despair. But it's uncertain if or where anabolic steroids fit in the puzzle. His father, Lynn, said his son used steroids briefly as a sophomore two years ago, largely to rehabilitate a knee injury. His weight gains were noticeable enough at the time to attract the attention of Berry, who confronted him about steroid use. Hunter denied using the drug. Lynn Hunter, Micklos and the Alta coaches all believe he hasn't used them since.
That notwithstanding, Draper and Sandy police say they will begin a drug investigation, based on what they've learned from the Hunter death. The investigation, at least one police officer said, will be difficult. As one student told the Deseret News, Alta students are scared to talk, fearing ostracism and violent retribution.
"Now that things are calming down, we're going to start looking at some things we've heard," said Sgt. Terry Pepper of the Sandy Police Department.
In the meantime, at least part of the fallout from the tragedy seems to have landed squarely on the Alta coaches and players.
"I don't think anybody did steroids on this team," said Berry. "I really felt like we were drug free last season. If we do have a problem I want to know about it. I want the truth . . . I don't want an asterisk by the '88 championship team."
Berry has interviewed some of his players individually in recent weeks, trying to determine if he missed something. But he has learned nothing new.
Berry has previously made his position on alcohol and drugs clear to his players. Only last fall he suspended a handful of players for the season-opener for drinking beer at a school dance. As a scare tactic, he told his players he would conduct drug testing during the season, never intending to do so.
"No one on our team used steroids, and I think I would know," said Micklos adamantly.
But, sadly, as Berry said, "If no one had any suspicions about Todd, then maybe you just don't ever know."
As a last formal gesture, the Alta football team presented the Hunters with two signed footballs and their son's jersey, No. 58, plus a videotape of Todd's play on the gridiron. "Football was his life," say his friends. Would that he had only remembered the black bracelet and what it stood for.