Healing process continues at Mizzou

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Members of the football program still are dealing with the loss of teammate O'Neal.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- At a time of day when many are still settling in for their first morning coffee, a cacophony of sound floods the University of Missouri's football training complex.

Left unspoken -- but seared in the memories of returning players and coaches -- are events of a year ago today, when 19-year-old Aaron O'Neal, a redshirt freshman and reserve linebacker, collapsed on Faurot Field during a voluntary summer workout.

He died less than two hours later.

Missouri dedicated its 2005 season to O'Neal, honoring their fallen teammate -- who wore No. 25 -- with helmet decals, celebrations on the 25-yard-line and a vacant locker that will carry his name through what would be his senior season of 2008.

As the 2006 season approaches, O'Neal's death may no longer serve as the rallying cry for a stunned and later determined Tigers team that won the Independence Bowl. But for those who experienced the events of July 12, 2005, and their aftermath, memories of O'Neal will always endure.

"He only still goes on," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "I don't think that the healing process will ever stop."

Pinkel was on vacation in Las Vegas last summer when the urgent messages from Columbia arrived. NCAA rules prohibit head coaches and their assistants from attending the workouts, which are instead overseen by strength and conditioning coaches and supervised by athletic trainers.

Pinkel was subsequently sued by O'Neal's parents. Also named in the lawsuit are athletic director Mike Alden, team medical director Rex Sharp and 11 trainers and strength coaches. The lawsuit accuses university officials of failing to recognize signs of medical distress that could have prevented O'Neal's death.

So as Missouri's coach continues to mourn O'Neal, Pinkel also is faced with the prospect of testifying under oath in a sworn deposition later this year. The inherent conflict in those roles doesn't seem to deter Pinkel.

"I have no control over that," Pinkel said. "And I certainly respect Aaron's family and their right to do what they think is necessary."

For junior defensive lineman Lorenzo Williams, today's one-year anniversary of O'Neal's death means another opportunity for personal reflection.

"It could all end so fast," said Williams, one of 11 teammates on the field when O'Neal faltered, 45 minutes into an hourlong series of sprints and noncontact agility drills beneath an afternoon sun and temperatures in the mid-80s. "You can't take a day for granted."

The former Boone County medical examiner cited viral meningitis as O'Neal's cause of death. Her report, based on interviews with a total of 23 players, trainers and strength coaches, also determined that O'Neal had repeatedly lost his balance during a stretching exercise and had complained of blurred vision.

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 Dr. Valerie Rao, the former medical examiner.

Three Tigers players interviewed by Rao said Sharp concluded that "there was nothing that could be done" when summoned by head conditioning coach Pat Ivey to help O'Neal.

Ekwerekwu, along with strength coach Josh Stoner, also had to help transport O'Neal to the team offices in a campus landscaping truck that Stoner had to flag down. O'Neal was in cardiac arrest when he was eventually transported to a campus hospital across the street from both the team offices and the football stadium.

While those observations raised questions about Missouri's summer workout protocol, Pinkel said the team has not substantially changed its preseason regimen.

Sharp did not respond to several interview requests.

"My professional process hasn't changed at all," said Pinkel. "Every year, we evaluate what we can do to make it better."

The NCAA passed 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.

Unlike last year, afternoon workouts aren't part of the regimen. But that's a concession to training room renovations that have forced a temporary move of the football weight room to an area without air conditioning.

"Everything has evolved," head conditioning coach Pat Ivey said. "But nothing has changed."

Angry and confused at first, O'Neal's former teammates have accepted the diagnosis of his death and, to the extent possible, kept their focus on football, said junior tight end Martin Rucker.

"He'll never be forgotten. You just can't get hung up on it," Rucker said. "Once you come up here, it's still business. You got to be ready to go."

The team has no firm plans to commemorate the one-year mark of O'Neal's death, though Pinkel said there might be a private memorial dinner for players and coaches.

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