In the days before the phone call that upended his life — before the embarrassment, and the questions, and the haze — David Moore was buoyant.
He was, on Oct. 7, 2019, a starting FBS quarterback. And he walked with a confidence befitting one. When Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain called Moore to his office that Monday, two days after 303 total yards and a victory, Moore assumed the meeting’s subject would be football. Perhaps his burgeoning talent. Or his newfound grasp of the offense. Or an upcoming opponent. Moore arrived with energy, ready to work.
Then he sat down, and McElwain spoke.
You remember that drug test you took in September? the head coach asked his quarterback.
Moore’s mind flashed back to an early Wednesday morning; to a tiny, chaotic locker room; to a bathroom where he’d peed into a cup and thought nothing of it.
There’s an issue with it, McElwain said.
And in an instant, Moore’s world spun upside down. Adoring attention became skeptical stares. Headlines that once gushed with praise turned sour. Friends and family questioned him. Swirling thoughts kept him up at night. His mind, unable to endure the psychological pain, began disassociating from reality.
Moore tested positive for Ligandrol, a SARM; and for the M3 metabolite of Oral Turinabol, an anabolic steroid. McElwain remembers being “shocked.” Moore says the culprit “must have” been over-the-counter protein supplements from GNC. But he couldn’t prove that. The NCAA suspended him for a year. With his ascendant football career suddenly on hold, he endured what he describes as “a real, real tough” few months.
But now, speaking publicly for the first time about his suspension, he says he can accept it and “understand” it. “I can take that punishment,” he says. Moore claims he never intentionally used a banned substance. “It was unknowingly in my system,” he says. “But I get it. If there's steroids in your system,” NCAA rules call for a 365-day ban.
What he can’t accept, however, is that 12 months later, it happened again.
He can’t understand why, when an October 2020 drug test found traces of the same M3 metabolite in his system, the NCAA punished him a second time for what he says is only one transgression.
He can’t accept that, because repeat offenders lose all remaining eligibility. In other words, this alleged “double jeopardy” will cost him the rest of his college career.
Moore already lost his 2020 season to the second drug test. An appeal hearing on Thursday will determine whether he can return in 2021. Moore will argue that, “obviously,” he hasn’t taken anything remotely close to a banned substance since his first failed test. He’ll argue that the M3 metabolite simply lingered in his system, out of his control. High-profile examples from other sports could bolster his case.
And if the NCAA still doesn’t consider the context, and the evolving science?
“That would just be saying that they really don't care about their student-athletes,” Moore says.
He “one thousand percent” believes that if he were the quarterback at Alabama, the NCAA would handle the situation differently.
Because he’s at Central Michigan, he says, “I feel like they can just throw me under the rug.”
Is Moore’s argument valid?
Thousands of athletes have doped over the years. Many, when caught, use “the supplement excuse.” Whether Moore’s is legitimate, or whether he was negligent, or whether he cheated, is difficult to know. Moore says he’d used GNC protein powder and creatine throughout his college career, which began at Memphis. When he picked some up over the 2019 offseason, he says, he didn’t even consider consulting a coach or athletic trainer to double-check that it fell within NCAA rules. “And that's probably what my problem was,” he admits.
But what Moore ingested last summer is no longer the point of contention. The issue is M3, a substance that the doping world is still trying to figure out. One that “acts like no other steroid we’ve ever seen before,” as Daniel Eichner, president of the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory, said at a February hearing. And one that has seemingly subjected athletes to double jeopardy in the past.
The M3 metabolite is a long-term byproduct of DHCMT, or Oral Turinabol, a decades-old steroid popularized by East Germans in the 1970s and 80s. It’s still widely available today. And it was one of two banned substances found in Moore’s system last fall. Moore says he’s “been extremely, extremely cautious” ever since, refraining from all supplements. And the other substance, Ligandrol, no longer appeared when he submitted to a drug test this past October in search of reinstatement.
But the M3 metabolite did. The new point of contention is why. Moore contends that, because he hasn’t ingested anything that would re-insert DHCMT into his system, the likely explanation is that it’s still metabolizing in his system from last summer. He argues that its residual presence “has zero impact on my body at all.” And thus, he says, he should be cleared.
His story, experts say, is very plausible — because “the science,” says Oliver Catlin, president of the Banned Substances Control Group, “is relatively limited.” One 2011 paper essentially found that the M3 metabolite could be detected for at least 50 days. But anecdotal evidence has suggested it can remain in a person’s body for many months, if not years. Cody Stanley, a former Major League Baseball player, has said he tested positive for the metabolite nine times over multiple years. Jon Jones, the UFC fighter, tested positive for it more than 15 months after his initial positive — despite, in Eichner’s words, “no evidence that DHCMT has been re-administered.”
Experts also believe M3 levels can fluctuate over time, following no discernible pattern. When another baseball player was suspended for the drug in July, UFC’s senior VP of athlete health and performance, Jeff Novitzky, tweeted: “There is something screwy with this substance. We have athletes with small amounts of the DHCMT M3 metabolite in their systems for 2 and 3 years. [It] also ‘pulses’ … comes and goes.”
Back in 2015 and 2016, when understanding of the substance was nascent, MLB subjected Stanley to double jeopardy. It suspended him for 80 games, then again for 162. Other baseball players since, however, have reportedly been spared a second ban despite ongoing positive tests. Jones was allowed to fight. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Catlin says, now “analyzes the circumstances and will consider things like previous findings. … And they try to give the athletes the benefit of the doubt.”
But the NCAA, Catlin says, “does almost none of that, unless it's a super high-profile athlete.” College athletes, he says, “are held to the strictest standards pretty much anywhere in sport.” An NCAA spokeswoman, in response to a series of questions about Moore’s case, told Yahoo Sports that “all college athletes must meet the same drug testing requirements before stepping onto the field. The exit test policy requires student-athletes to test negative in an NCAA-administered test prior to competing against other college athletes.” The NCAA did not specifically address the possibility of double jeopardy.
And that’s why Moore worries that his case will be considered black-and-white — that, because the M3 metabolite remains in his system, he’ll be ineligible for good.
“It's very, very harsh,” Catlin says. “Very harsh.”
‘I served my suspension’
The source of Moore’s frustration, and the exasperation that simmers as he speaks, is that he feels he has done his time. “I served my suspension,” he wrote in a document submitted as part of his appeal. “My punishment has been thoroughly carried out.” And that punishment, he explains, caused “psychological and personal damages”; it affected him deeply, more than anybody on the outside could know.
It would affect him, occasionally, while driving around campus last fall. Or perhaps while observing football practice. He’d begin to feel hazy. He’d turn to the freshman quarterback next to him.
“Hey, is this real right now?” Moore would ask.
“Yeah, bro, what do you mean?” his teammate would respond.
“Yeah, I’m just kidding,” Moore would say, and they’d laugh. But he wasn’t kidding. He says his mind and body would disconnect. Life didn’t feel real. He met with a counselor, who helped him work through a dissociative disorder. “When your brain feels a lot of pain, it just kind of gives you that out-of-body experience, the it's-not-really-happening kind of feeling,” Moore explains.
The pain recurred often. After learning of the suspension, Moore had to inform teammates and parents. They offered support, but “even my mom, the person who loves me the most in this world,” he says, would question him: “Dave, are you being straight with me here? If you did take something, you can just tell me, I'm your mom, I'm not gonna think anything less of you.”
“Mom, I would never try to cheat,” he’d plead.
Similar skepticism plagued everyday life. Strangers would ask why he wasn’t playing. He’d explain. Even close friends would probe: “Dave, you got suspended for drugs? What happened? What were you doing?”
He’d also Google his name, or search it on Twitter. The criticism and jokes would bother him. The embarrassment sometimes kept him up at night.
At the football facility, he could still practice, but always with the scout team. He couldn’t travel to away games, so he’d watch at his apartment, alone. He did attend the MAC championship, but had to watch from the stands, in the “friends and family” section. As he walked to his seat, he felt eyes glued to him, and heard whispers: “Oh, that's the quarterback. That's the one who got suspended.”
Springtime, and in a strange way the COVID-19 pandemic, brought reprieves. A season that would ultimately start after Oct. 7 — the day his suspension was set to expire — brought hope. Moore powered through workouts, on his own, and with his top receivers. “Our timing was impeccable,” he says. He predicted they’d be “really, really good.” He envisioned interest from pro scouts. McElwain says “he obviously would have been one of the top QBs in [the MAC].” Moore felt that his circuitous career was back on its pre-suspension trajectory. Week 1 prep was well underway.
Then, in late October, came another phone call. Another meeting with Coach Mac. Another positive test. More questions. More I don’t knows.
“I don't know what my future's gonna look like right now,” Moore says. “And I haven't for this entire year.”
He wants to return to Central Michigan. He wants a year of grad school. He wants a full year as a Division I starting QB. “I owe it to my guys to come back and play another year, so that we can get closure,” he says.
But he knows the NCAA might not allow him. His future hinges on Thursday’s appeal. If he’s ruled ineligible, he’ll go in search of a new path. He mentions a second-tier showcase game for NFL draft prospects. He mentions the Canadian Football League. “I’m not giving up on football,” he says. “But that's obviously the much harder way of going.”
Dealing with the NCAA, he says, has been “mentally exhausting.” Through the exhaustion, he’s grown. He’s learned about adversity, and about mental health. He encourages anybody who’s struggling to seek help, and push through. He’s learned a lot about himself, too.
But more than anything, he wants to play football again. He wants to indulge in the sport that’s been his passion since age 6 or 7. Since he first pulled on a Pop Warner helmet. Long before he had any idea what an M3 metabolite even was.
Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel contributed reporting.
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