By Ray Glier – for The New York Times
ATHENS, Ga. — Kolton Houston said he paid $10,000 to sit in a sauna with drug addicts for 31 days to try to sweat an anabolic steroid out of his body. A University of Georgia offensive lineman, Houston also took a pill normally prescribed for tuberculosis and had 60 ultrasound treatments to dislodge the banned substance, known as 19-norandrosterone. He tried hours of deep tissue massage, but each time his urine was tested, more than 100 times in three and a half years, the results always came back positive.
So from April 2010 to July 2013, Houston was a practice player for the Bulldogs, barred from playing in a game under the N.C.A.A.’s drug policies.
Finally, on Oct. 2, 2012, Houston took a dramatic step. A plastic surgeon made five lateral incisions across his buttocks and extracted the fatty tissues where the steroids had collected.
“I did a lot of unsafe things to myself just to play football,” Houston said.
It worked. On July 25, his 22nd birthday, Houston passed a drug test. He started at right tackle Saturday night at Clemson, his first college game. He is expected to start again on Saturday when No. 11 Georgia (0-1) hosts No. 6 South Carolina (1-0) and its all-everything defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who, as good as he is, surely will not be more challenging for Houston than what he went through.
An all-state offensive lineman at Buford High School, 40 miles northeast of Atlanta, Houston had surgery his junior year in high school to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He said both shoulders were treated by doctors off and on while he was in high school. There were injections, which he said were done to help promote recovery, although he was vague about what was injected.
His mother, Tiffany Houston, said she did not know the 19-norandrosterone was being injected into her son. She said it was not done by the surgeon who repaired his labrum. Asked how the anabolic steroid got into her son’s body, she declined to elaborate.
Houston entered Georgia as a freshman in January 2010, and failed his first drug test on April 13. He was suspended for a calendar year under N.C.A.A. rules.
On Feb. 2, 2011, Houston took a random N.C.A.A. drug test. The amount of the steroid in his system had dropped significantly, but it was still there, and he was barred from participating in N.C.A.A. athletics for life because of the second positive test.
Georgia appealed, saying the level of the drug in his system had declined and was evidence that he had not used the drug since the first positive test. The lifetime ban was lifted, but Houston was still ineligible for the 2011 season.
The level of the drug in Houston’s system continued to drop, but it never went as low as the N.C.A.A. threshold. Georgia’s trainer, Ron Courson, was once a member of the N.C.A.A.’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, and he argued that the 2012 level of the drug in Houston’s system offered no competitive advantage. Courson enlisted toxicologists and biochemists to search for a remedy on how to remove the drug from Houston’s system.
“It doesn’t matter if they are a great player, a scout team player or a walk-on, you treat him like he is your son,” Courson said. “If all we do is strictly get them ready for football, we’ve done them a disservice. We have to get them ready for life. What kind of message does it teach them if we quit?”
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Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity wrote a letter to the N.C.A.A. on Houston’s behalf asking for his penalty to be relaxed because he had not reused the drug. But the N.C.A.A. president, Mark Emmert, wrote a letter back to McGarity saying Georgia should not have made the request because it would undermine the drug-testing program.
When Houston continued to fail drug tests in 2012, he decided to try less orthodox methods to get the substance out of his body, which included his stint in the drug treatment facility sitting in the sauna.
“The fourth week of the sauna treatment, he wasn’t driving back home after the treatments, he was driving to Athens, 90 minutes, to practice with the team,” Tiffany Houston said. “They watched him closely at practice, but he didn’t want to miss. Some of the players complained about the heat one day, but Kolton knew all about the heat.
“It was painful for us to watch, but he was not going to leave a door unopened.”
The Southeastern Conference, which has produced the last seven national champions, can be a hostile place for players who are not physically fit. Injured players or players who do not fulfill their potential are discarded by teams in order to free up scholarships. Coach Mark Richt, however, told the Houstons their son would have a scholarship as long as he was studying at Georgia.
Tiffany Houston said the breakthrough came last September when a magnetic resonance imaging exam allowed doctors to pinpoint the location of the steroid — in Houston’s buttocks. A decision was made to surgically remove it.
On July 18, two weeks before Georgia was to begin training camp for this season, Houston took his last drug tests. He said if he failed, he would quit football.
Seven days later, at 11 a.m., Courson called Houston with the results.
“I expected him to say, ‘We got the test back, it’s above the N.C.A.A. threshold,’ ” Houston said. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘When one door closes, another one opens.’ I thought maybe he wanted me to become a trainer or something like that because the door was shut on football. Then he told me, ‘You’re going to be able to play against Clemson.’
“I couldn’t say anything for 30 seconds. Ron said, ‘How does that feel?’ I broke down and cried. For three and a half years, I imagined what the phone call would be like that I would be able to play.”
Houston started at right offensive tackle against Clemson and helped open a hole for Todd Gurley’s 75-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. He weighs 285 pounds, which makes him one of the lightest offensive lineman in the SEC. He was pushed around on some plays by the Tigers, but he did well enough to earn another start. Right now, that’s good enough for Houston.
“I’m not bitter, I’m not,” he said. “There is too much to look forward to this season than to look back.”