Report: MU player was not taken directly to hospital

Thursday, July 28, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The Missouri football player who collapsed on the field and later died after a preseason workout wasn't immediately taken to the hospital across the street once he was unconscious but instead driven to the football team's offices, a university police report shows.

Aaron O'Neal, 19, was "in full cardiac arrest" by the time campus police officer Clayton Henke and University Hospital paramedics arrived at the Tom Taylor Building on July 12, Henke wrote in a police report obtained by The Associated Press under Missouri's public records law.

"He was brought to our door in the back of a pickup from afternoon workouts," athletic trainer Greg Nagel told emergency dispatchers in a 911 call from the Taylor building, according to a copy of the call obtained by the AP. "We need someone here in a hurry."

Both University Hospital and the Taylor building are across the street from Faurot Field, but on opposite sides.

Fifteen minutes after Nagel's call to 911, Henke was sent to the scene at 3:24 p.m., nearly one hour after the conclusion of the hourlong voluntary workout. O'Neal, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, started to struggle during conditioning drills about 45 minutes into the session, during which players wore shorts, T-shirts and football cleats but no helmets or pads.

The backup middle linebacker slumped to the ground after the final drill and was helped off the field by a teammate. He was pronounced dead at the hospital at 4:05 p.m., or just over 90 minutes after the workout ended.

The Boone County medical examiner completed an autopsy the day after O'Neal's death and ruled out infection, trauma and foul play as causes of death. Complete results won't be available for several weeks, pending toxicology tests and other laboratory analysis.

But while the final report remains incomplete, the county's deputy medical examiner said the circumstances surrounding O'Neal's death suggest the need for systematic changes in the way such workouts are conducted and monitored.

"Clearly, everybody felt that this was just athletic fatigue and he felt fine," said Eddie Adelstein, who is also an associate professor of pathology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to say that anyone who shows fatigue at the level he did, the rational thing would have been to stop and examine him."

University officials said Tuesday that they won't discuss the events leading up to O'Neal's death until after an internal review is complete.

The line between heat stroke and heat exhaustion can be difficult to define, said Douglas Kleiner, a University of Florida professor of medicine and former team trainer for Auburn University and the Miami Dolphins.

"There's a problem in sports medicine," he said. "There's not a clear-cut way of distinguishing when you get in that danger zone when it comes to heat stroke."

NCAA rules require summer workouts to be supervised by strength and conditioning directors and athletic trainers, who presumably would better recognize that danger zone than coaches. The organization adopted a series of stringent regulations governing summer workouts after the deaths of three Division I football players in the summer of 2001, including a requirement that those supervising the workouts be trained and certified in CPR and first aid techniques.

That official has the "unchallengeable authority to cancel or modify the workout for health and safety reasons," the rules stipulate.

Three of Missouri's five athletics trainers were at the July 12 workout, according to a football team press release issued the next day. Missouri athletics spokesman Chad Moller declined a written Associated Press request to identify those trainers by name or specify whether any trainers were present when O'Neal was taken to the locker room.

University officials also declined to say whether any trainers left the workout early or accompanied O'Neal in the car that took the player from Memorial Stadium to the athletics building.

O'Neal was unconscious when he arrived at the Taylor athletics building, assistant athletic trainer Alfred Castillo told university police. He was taken there rather than the nearby hospital "so that O'Neal could be seen by staff members," Henke wrote.

O'Neal had a pulse inside the car, Castillo told police. Once inside the athletics building, O'Neal's pulse further weakened. When Castillo couldn't identify an auditory heart beat, he attached an automatic defribillator to O'Neal in an attempt to shock him back to life, according to the report.

Paramedics arrived before Castillo could do so. They performed chest compressions in the ambulance and administered CPR en route to the hospital.

"You would think if he was unconscious, they would have taken him (first) to the hospital," said Fred Mueller, a sports exercise professor and former assistant football coach at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who conducts an annual survey of football-related deaths nationwide. "If it was a heat stroke death, the sooner he got to a medical facility, the more advantageous it would be."

O'Neal, a four-sport prep athlete, starred as a running back at Parkway North High School in St. Louis before sitting out his first year at Missouri as a redshirt freshman. He was third on the team's depth chart at middle linebacker.

Along with the forensic review, Boone County medical examiner Valerie Rao will also interview each of the 22 players, trainers and strength coaches on the field when O'Neal collapsed.

Though the death has shaken the team, coach Gary Pinkel has said he doesn't plan to change the way summer workouts are conducted.

Phone messages left with O'Neal's family in St. Louis were not returned.

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