"I couldn't forgive him, because I thought he had some contribution to it," Erika Marrero said. Four months after her brother's suicide, she wipes tears from her eyes. "It's hard. You start to realize he's really gone."
Plenty of Company
"I don't think we have a problem here," said Ed Santopadre, the football coach at Vacaville High, "but you know, I'd be the last to know. They'd try to keep it from me."
Mr. Santopadre said he was perplexed by Mr. Marrero's use of steroids, describing him as a nice young man and a talented player.
"He was quick, big, strong and hit like a truck," Mr. Santopadre said. "Why? That's what I don't understand. Why? He didn't need them."
Mr. Marrero was recruited to play football in 2002 at the College of the Siskiyous, a two-year college in a small town 250 miles north of Vacaville. He joined a family friend, Casey Lee, who was a receiver and co-captain of the Siskiyous Eagles. Casey is the son of Mike Lee, who had coached Mr. Marrero in Pop Warner football, and Cathy Lee, who is Brenda Marrero's best friend.
The Siskiyous football program was awash in steroids, former players said.
"I don't want to badmouth my school, but there were at least a dozen people I know of who were on steroids," Casey Lee said.
Mr. Marrero hurt his knee and did not play his freshman year, but he stayed on the roster and attended practices.
Mr. Lee said at least 10 players had been injecting steroids and were open about it. "To the point where they were driving all the way from Northern California to Mexico to get it and then sell it," he said. "It was in-your-face. It was easy to get. It was not looked on as a big deal. Coaches didn't see it. I don't know if they wanted to or not."
Matt Ledbetter, another co-captain, said: "I personally knew of seven or eight people that were doing it. At a drop of the hat, you could get it from any of them."
The players said athletes at junior colleges, like those in high schools, are well aware that they will not be tested for steroids. Henry Ochs, a lineman at Siskiyous, said some players had taken steroids during the summer to bulk up. "I wouldn't say a lot," Mr. Ochs said. "I'd probably say 8 or 9 people in a 70-person team used them."
Dennis Roberts, the athletic director at Siskiyous who was the head football coach when Mr. Marrero was there, said he was "really, really surprised" to hear what former players had to say about steroids.
"It seems like somehow the coaching staff would have known about it," he said. Mr. Roberts said the college tests athletes for recreational drugs, but not for steroids, because of the additional cost. "If we suspected something, we would not let it go," he said, adding that Mr. Lee and Mr. Ledbetter, the former co-captains, were extremely credible. "They wouldn't make up anything that didn't really happen," he said.
Clues Begin to Emerge
Mr. Marrero left the college after one year, telling friends it was too remote. He lived with his family, worked at several local stores and enrolled at Solano Community College, near home.
He could not play football because of poor grades, but he hit the gym and planned to play the following year. He talked about his competition being bigger than ever. By then, his friends were certain he was taking steroids.
"He showed me what he was taking, and it was a lot more than anybody else," Kenny Groen, a friend from Vacaville, said.
When he confessed to his parents, Mr. Marrero said he had been taking steroids for six months, but his parents and friends think it was longer than that, perhaps years. They had seen a change in his physique - less fat, more muscle - and he had started wearing tighter clothes. His parents noticed mood swings, too, but they chalked it up to adolescence.
At one point, Mrs. Marrero confronted her son. "I said, 'Are you on steroids?' " she said. "He said, 'No, Mom.' Then he looked at me and said, 'Mom, why would you even ask me that?' I said, 'You're getting so big.' He said, 'That's what happens when you go to the gym every day. You get big when you work out.' "
Early last fall, Mr. Marrero told his mother he was feeling a little paranoid; he thought people were staring at him, laughing at him.
"I told him he was just looking really good," Mrs. Marrero said. "But like I told Frank, now I think I was just feeding the addiction to steroids."
Help Proves Elusive