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Waterloo football players gird for legal fight

University of Waterloo football player Patrick McGarry is interviewed after a press conference at the University of Waterloo, Monday, June 14, 2010. The school announced it was suspending the football program this year in light of the postive tests for performance enhancing drugs by players on the team.

Mathew McCarthy/The Canadian Press

The University of Waterloo athletic department was told five months ago football player Nathan Zettler may have been using performance-enhancing drugs, yet school officials chose to do nothing, according to several players and a former Warriors coach.

Team captains Patrick McGarry and Dustin Zender, along with Zender's father, Carl, the former receivers coach who resigned last week, said the university's athletic department was notified by football head coach Dennis McPhee that Zettler may have been taking anabolic steroids.

Zettler, a backup receiver, was arrested in late April, and charged with possession of steroids for the purpose of trafficking. In the wake of his arrest, Waterloo tested its 62 football players. On Monday, the school suspended the program for a year, after announcing there were nine adverse results through admission, refusal and positive tests.

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The players believe the cancellation of their 2010 season wouldn't have happened had the athletic department acted sooner.

"We had some suspicions in October," McGarry said. "Our coaches went to the athletic department and were told they couldn't prosecute a player under suspicion."

"[McPhee]went to the athletic department and said he had a kid he suspected was on the stuff," Carl Zender said. "Dennis was told he couldn't kick him off the team. … This situation would have never happened if the proper action had been taken."

Athletic director Bob Copeland described the Zettler situation as "a rumour" and declined to say anything more. McPhee is currently on a paid leave and unable to comment.

Waterloo vice-president Feridun Hamdullahpur said in a release on Tuesday that the university understands the disappointment, but will stand firm.

"The players, their families, coaches and supporters will have a difficult time accepting this," he said, "But there is a bigger picture here, one that relates to what we stand for, and our obligation to take a stand against substance abuse in university sports for future players everywhere."

McGarry insists the players did all they could and did not look the other way when it came to dealing with Zettler. After the players posed for the 2009 team photo, and after McPhee addressed the players saying if any of them were using drugs they should leave the locker room, the eight team captains met with Zettler. They made the 23-year-old Waterloo native sign a behavioural contract established by the football team and patterned after one used by the university to outline athlete conduct.

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"All the captains agreed to it," McGarry said. "[Zettler]had to act like a freshman. He couldn't miss practice. He had to report to the captains when he was going out. He did everything we asked. He stayed out of trouble. When I heard the news [of his arrest] it was a total shock to me. The steroids [for trafficking]came out of left field."

The players who live and work in the Kitchener/Waterloo area are committed to fighting for their season. In the last 24 hours, they have received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls of support. Money has poured in from alumni and friendly backers to offset costs, including any legal costs should matters come to that - and that's a possibility.

Thursday, at the university's Student Life Centre, several Warriors football captains, all of whom tested clean, will hold a news conference in the hopes of having the year-long suspension overturned. What they'd like is for the university to place the team on probation and test the players throughout the 2010 season.

Failing a turnabout by the university, legal action could ensue.

"When it gets to the discovery phase of legal suits, that's when settlements usually occur," Carl Zender said. "Do the kids want to go that far? No, they want to play. The university's response to me was: 'We have legal action taken against us every day.' That's their approach - very cavalier."

Waterloo's decision to suspend the entire team, even those players who didn't use drugs, has sparked a national debate. Some believe the right call was made; others view it as too stringent.

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"To be honest, I think Canadian Interuniversity Sport needed something big to happen if they wanted to make a strong statement [against drugs]" Saint Mary's Huskies football coach Steve Sumarah said. "If I was a player or a coach there, I would want to keep it going to prove that it was just a few bad apples. On the flip-side, I can understand that the administration needed to make a statement that this is unacceptable. It's a tough situation, one that I'm glad we're not in."

Sumarah pointed out there are four Halifax-born players on the Waterloo roster and that the father of one had already contacted Saint Mary's about his son transferring there.

The Warriors players are also looking for more information as to how they go about transferring to other schools, should that be their only option to play CIS football.

With files from Sean Gordon

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