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Clemson lineman suspended by NCAA for positive ostarine test opens up for first time

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CLEMSON — Zach Giella had never been a household name. Some people, in fact, struggle to pronounce the 23-year-old’s surname (Gee-el-uh). They know how to properly say Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne and Isaiah Simmons, but Zach Giella? That’s tricky.

Had things gone according to plan, Giella likely would’ve faded from public consciousness when his Clemson football career ended. But then the reserve offensive lineman, who had one year of eligibility remaining, tested positive for trace amounts of ostarine, a banned performance-enhancing drug, and the NCAA suspended him for 365 days, effectively ending his college career.

Eleven months later, he still isn’t quite sure what happened. He has more questions than answers, and a renewed distaste for the NCAA.

Giella spoke with The Post and Courier multiple times this month, addressing for the first time publicly his suspension and the shock, embarrassment and harassment that followed.

Giella knows this: On the afternoon of Dec. 20, 2018, he opened his phone to a voicemail message from coach Dabo Swinney. Giella had graduated that morning and then spent the rest of the day celebrating with his family, his girlfriend — who had also graduated — and her family in a rented log cabin on Lake Hartwell.

He knew something was wrong when he pressed play and heard Swinney's voice. Swinney, normally chipper on the phone, spoke in a low tone. When Giella called back, Swinney broke the news. Giella tested positive for a banned substance.

Clemson vs Wake Forest

Former offensive lineman Zach Giella (77) was honored on Nov. 16 as part of Clemson's senior day festivities. Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

"I had a feeling deep in my bones that, man, this is not good  — at all" Giella said.

Giella, defensive end Dexter Lawrence and tight end Braden Galloway, both of whom also tested positive for ostarine (fewer than 20 Clemson players were tested before the College Football Playoff), sat out the Tigers' 30-3 win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29 and the team's 44-16 national championship victory over Alabama on Jan. 7.

The ostarine scandal hung over the program and put a damper on its second national championship in three seasons. Clemson officials claimed they had no idea how ostarine, a PED classified as a selective androgen receptor modulator (SARM) that is banned for human use by the FDA, had entered the players' systems.

“Oh yeah, I mean, there’s a chance that it could come from anything,” Swinney told The Post and Courier in February. “They’re going to test everything and look at everything. And that’s the problem. As you really look at this stuff, it could be a contaminant that came from anything, that was something that was cleared and not a problem, and all of a sudden, it becomes there was something.”

The ostarine story has faded in recent months, with Dexter Lawrence moving on to the NFL and Galloway still around the team with two years of eligibility remaining and the opportunity to play in this season’s College Football Playoff, if the Tigers earn an expected bid. 

Giella, an unheralded reserve lineman, was forced into an early retirement.

He watched much of this season from afar, but on Nov. 16 he got a bit of closure. It was Clemson's senior day, and Giella was honored alongside 18 Tigers players before the team's 52-3 win over Wake Forest. Wearing his No. 77 jersey, he jogged down The Hill for the final time as the home crowd roared.

It was a moment Giella said he’ll cherish. But it doesn’t make up for ugly things that preceded it, or that his career met a premature end for reasons he’s not clear on.

Giella knew he wasn’t going to the NFL. The suspension didn’t cost him future earnings, but perhaps something more valuable: It yanked him away from his best friends. 

“It still isn’t fair,” he said. “I had my senior year taken away from me for something that I didn’t do.”

***

After Giella, a Lincolnton, Ga., native, redshirted his first season at Clemson, he played sparingly over the next three years. He was slated to take on a bigger role in 2019, though he was unlikely to start. That hardly bothered him.

“Some people always ask me if they think I made the right choice. I could’ve gone somewhere else and played more,” Giella said. “I’m perfectly happy with my decision to go there.” 

Giella felt at home at Clemson, where he met “the love of my life” and made several close friends, including center Gage Cervenka. It was Cervenka who was sitting next to him on the team bus in Dallas five days before the 2018 Cotton Bowl when Swinney first announced the suspensions to the public.

The reaction was overwhelming for Giella. His name was all over Twitter. Soon, he had hundreds of texts, Facebook messages and Twitter mentions, including from some Clemson fans who denounced him as a “cheater.”

“It was a dark time for me,” he said. “People were saying some mean stuff, man. It came to the point where Gage was like, ‘screw that,’ and (he) took my phone.”

Giella made a resolution the following day. Still with the team but unable to practice, he decided to be “relentlessly positive.” He left his phone in his hotel room and during practices brought his teammates water and assisted with equipment. After the Tigers’ title win, Giella participated in the celebration on Jan. 12 at Death Valley, an orange Clemson beanie on his head and a smile on his face. 

***

Clemson hired Robert Arial, a veteran Greenville attorney, for its appeal of Galloway's and Giella’s suspensions. After months of delays, separate hearings for the players were conducted with NCAA officials via teleconference May 17. Giella believed he had a good case.

GWINN DAVIS MEDIA (copy)

Coach Dabo Swinney called former lineman Zach Giella the day he graduated to inform Giella he had tested positive for the banned substance ostarine. Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

“We had scientists and people that work with the drug regularly with different companies and drug testing services. All of us backed up the statement that this is not intentional doping, that it was caused by a contaminated product of some sort,” Giella said. “I had drug test records from a month before (the positive test). And then (drug test records from) two months afterwards, both of those being negatives, that my system was clean. And then I took a polygraph that I passed with flying colors, saying that I did not take this product.”

Giella also said the program tested more than 100 items around the football facility for potential ostarine, with all coming back negative. The NCAA disclosed its decision the following week: Both Galloway's and Giella's appeals were denied.

Giella’s career was over.

The NCAA didn't provide an explanation, he said. 

“They didn’t listen to anything I had to say. And they didn’t care. Didn’t listen to anything Braden had to say either,” Giella said. 

Giella had participated in spring ball in April, but by the start of fall camp in August he was gone from the team. He got a job in medical sales and tried to move on with his life. 

But he couldn’t completely stay away. He returned Aug. 29 for the season opener at Memorial Stadium, watching from the stands. Devastated, he teared up as he watched the offensive linemen go through their pregame routine, kneeling together in a prayer circle and then sitting in a semi-circle on the sideline, gameplanning for what was ahead. 

“I was like, 'Man, I miss that.' We would joke and laugh and all that stuff in that circle. We had weird little traditions that we would do and stuff like that," he said, his voice softening. "And I really missed that. That was something that I loved.”

Giella, who declined to comment when asked if he received a 2018 national championship ring, held out hope for a return, albeit under different circumstances. He reached out to offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell about participating in this season’s senior day and Swinney approved.

In the meantime, as the season wore on, Giella became active on Twitter, on which he often pokes at the NCAA and what he describes as the organization’s “stupid” rules. He wants his story to create awareness for what he believes to be the NCAA’s flawed drug-testing policy.

“That’s one thing that I really hope for in the future, is that people can look back on this, even other athletes can look back and (realize) they’re not the only ones, that this started gaining a lot of notoriety with those guys at Clemson,” Giella said. “I know life isn’t fair, but I want to at least bring some change about it, and all of it not be in vain.”

Advocacy wasn’t on his mind senior day. He arrived before Clemson players and coaches and sat silently at his old locker. Memories flooded back. His mind drifted to the start of his college career, when former Tigers offensive lineman Reid Webster passed on his No. 77 jersey and locker, at the top of which the word "ginger" is inscribed — both Webster and Giella have red hair.

Tigers players soon streamed in, and Giella was reunited with, among others, Cervenka. 

“That’s my best friend. We’ve been through a lot together,” Cervenka said. “What a lot of people don’t see is all the workouts and practices and drills and stuff that we had to do that’s not on the field.”

Wearing blue jeans, brown boots and his old orange jersey squeezed over a gray hooded sweatshirt, Giella came down The Hill and joined the offensive linemen in the pregame prayer circle. This time, he cried tears of joy. 

As the game started he retreated to the sideline and plopped himself on a bench behind the offensive linemen. The linemen then rose from their chairs, almost in sync, when it was time to take the field. Giella stood up, too, a tick slower than the rest.

Minutes into the game, he was asked to move. There’s a limit on how many non-players are allowed to stand inside the lines marking the official bench area for the teams, so Giella shuffled a few steps to his right.

“I followed that. Apparently there are huge consequences for that, too,” Giella said. “I didn’t want to step on any toes. I’m not essential.”

He pulled his hood over his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

The temperature dipped.

Old teammates stepped over the line to mingle and crack jokes. Giella kept peeking back at the field, absorbing it all, until the final whistle sounded and it was time for him to leave.

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.