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Missouri players question actions in teammate's death
Aug. 26, 2005
CBS SportsLine.com wire reports
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- From the frantic moments after 19-year-old Aaron O'Neal's death in July to the preseason practices leading to their first game next week, Missouri football players have publicly stood united in support of the program.
But Boone County medical examiner Valerie Rao -- who interviewed 10 of O'Neal's teammates as part of her autopsy investigation -- heard a different story. According to copies of her interview notes obtained by the Associated Press through a request under Missouri's open records law, several players openly questioned the response by trainers and strength coaches once O'Neal showed signs of trouble.
When wide receiver Brad Ekwerekwu attempted to pour water over a sluggish O'Neal's head, he was told by an unnamed coach "not to baby" his teammate, Ekwerekwu told Rao.
Three of the Tiger players interviewed by Rao identified Missouri sports medicine director Rex Sharp as the unnamed staff member in Rao's autopsy report who concluded that "there was nothing that could be done" when summoned by head conditioning coach Pat Ivey to help O'Neal during the July 12 voluntary workout.
Sharp declined comment Friday, referring questions to an athletics department spokesman. Missouri athletics director Mike Alden said the school cannot discuss its specific response to O'Neal's sudden death now that his father, Lonnie O'Neal, has filed suit against 14 university employees alleging negligence.
That suit was filed Tuesday, the same day Rao revealed O'Neal's cause of death as viral meningitis, a rare inflammation of the tissues and infection of the fluid covering the brain that is rarely fatal.
In interviews and her autopsy report, Rao repeatedly avoided a discussion of the response by team trainers and strength coaches, who under NCAA rules were allowed to supervise the preseason session.
But her autopsy report, which included interviews with Sharp, Ivey and nine other trainers and strength coaches, pointed out what O'Neal family attorney Bob Blitz has called several serious lapses, most seriously the decision to take a stricken O'Neal from the Faurot Field locker room to the football team offices rather than University Hospital.
Both buildings are across the street from the stadium, but on opposite sides.
O'Neal -- whose body by then was so limp that Ekwerekwu and strength coach Josh Stoner had trouble holding onto him -- was driven to the team offices in a campus landscaping truck that Stoner had to flag down. Stoner had to prop up the head of an unconscious O'Neal, Rao reported.
The decision not to immediately summon an ambulance may have violated the university athletic department's Emergency Action Plan, a detailed document that advises employees to call 911 "as soon as the situation is deemed an emergency situation or is life threatening."
O'Neal was in full cardiac arrest by the time a campus police officer and paramedics arrived at the team offices.
Defensive back Trenile Washington, a redshirt freshman classmate of O'Neal's, told Rao, "It took too long for A.O. to get help."
Washington also suggested that team officials have a hierarchy of concern: the better the player, the more serious his injury complaints are taken.
"Pay more attention to all the players. Ask if everything is OK," Washington told Rao when she asked for his suggestions on what needed to change. "They do it only for the players they think are going to play."
Lorenzo Williams, a sophomore defensive lineman, told Rao he "feels (O'Neal) did not get medical attention in a timely fashion." And freshman tight end Herman King said he was "discouraged by what happened."
In his interview with Rao, sports medicine director Sharp said O'Neal had "no complaints" that day, "just fatigue." And while some players interviewed by the medical examiner concurred that O'Neal was a quiet athlete who seldom complained, others offered contradictory accounts.
Williams told Rao that O'Neal, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, "had a glazed look in his eyes and said he can't go." O'Neal visibly weakened about 45 minutes into the hourlong conditions session, during which players wore shorts, T-shirts and football cleats but no helmets or pads.
Other players told Rao that O'Neal repeatedly lost his balance during a stretching exercise and complained to a player and a conditioning coach that "he could not see and his vision was blurred."
Williams, Ekwerekwu and teammate Chris Tipton said Sharp told Ivey -- who was leading the workout -- that O'Neal didn't need any help.
"Rex Sharp went over to Aaron and put his arms crossed, stood back and said that there was nothing to take care of," said Ekwerekwu. "He did not examine or check Aaron."
Shannon Turley, an assistant director of strength and conditioning, told Rao that he also thought O'Neal was pushed too hard.
"Turley thought there was a time that the drill should have been stopped," Rao's summary of the interview reads.
A battery of toxicology tests ruled out steroids, performance supplements, alcohol and other drugs as contributing factors to O'Neal's death. But two teammates told Rao that during the offseason O'Neal used a muscle-building supplement called Herculin MRF-4. Rao said the supplement is permitted under NCAA rules and played no role in O'Neal's death.
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