Pushed too far: Overexertion has claimed lives of 22 Division I football players since 2000
Twenty-two Division I college football players have died since 2000 from exertion-related illnesses suffered during a workout or practice, according to an analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Yet football programs and coaches face few repercussions from institutions or the NCAA, even when they violate recommended safety precautions that might have prevented death.
The causes of death include collapse from sickle cell trait, heatstroke and sudden cardiac arrest — all largely preventable, medical experts say.
The NCAA has taken steps in the past two decades to address these deaths, and although that includes several rules changes, the association also has issued recommendations that do not carry penalties and sometimes are not followed by athletics programs.
There have been no fatalities in Division I since 2018, but earlier this week a Division II player died during a preseason practice. The cause remains under investigation. Regardless, experts say the risk to football players remains, and that coaches need to be held accountable for dangerous workouts and training sessions.
NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline said he recognizes there is a “gap” when it comes to holding coaches and programs responsible.
“That’s sort of the next step. … How do we actually legislate health and safety?” Hainline said.
Some state and federal legislators have looked to regulate college athletics in ways that go beyond the NCAA’s recommendations concerning athlete safety.
“We need to create enforceable protocols that have consequences when young people’s health is being compromised,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J, in an interview with the Howard Center. Booker, who played football at Stanford, introduced a College Athletes Bill of Rights in December and has discussed a similar measure during this Congressional session.
“I just think there’s a lot more work to be done to really secure the safety of college athletes. If there is no accountability, it’s hard to drive change.”
The NCAA has not punished any trainers, coaches or schools involved in the 22 deaths. When trainers and coaches did resign or were fired, several were rehired at other schools. The schools described the deaths as regrettable tragedies, but rejected claims that their personnel should be held responsible or workouts were excessive.
In 2008, University of Central Florida receiver Ereck Plancher died from complications due to the sickle cell trait after a 75-minute training session. The workout included weight lifting, sprints and agility drills. Former player Cody Minnich testified during a wrongful death trial that while performing the workout, he had “blurred vision.”
“The majority of it was just spent like being dizzy,” he said.
UCF athletics director at the time, Keith Tribble, called the workout “non-taxing” in the immediate aftermath of Plancher’s death. In 2011, a Florida state court jury ruled that UCF’s athletics department was negligent and it awarded Plancher’s family $10 million in damages. In 2015, according to the Orlando Sentinel, the amount was reduced to $200,000 by Florida’s Supreme Court, which said the department was entitled to sovereign immunity protection even though it is organized as a private, non-profit organization.
In 2010, Don Decker was the head strength and conditioning coach at the University of Mississippi running the workout that led to the death of Bennie “Buster’’ Abram III.
As winter workouts began Feb. 19, 2010, Abram told the coaching staff he felt ill and requested not to participate. But coaches allegedly told Abram, a 20-year-old community college transfer student and walk-on, that if he didn’t join his teammates, he would be off the team, according to the family’s wrongful death suit.
After stretching and a half-mile run, players performed strength and agility drills at 10 different stations. Abram collapsed after the first station and was allegedly castigated by coaches and pushed to continue, according to the family’s complaint.
At the second station, he again collapsed and was helped to the sideline. As players lined up for wind sprints, Abram was treated and then transported to the hospital, where he died later that day from complications related to the sickle cell trait.
The Ole Miss Athletics Foundation paid $50,000 to the Abram family "as a settlement to avoid further legal expenses," the university said in a statement at the time. The family also received $250,000 from the university's student-athlete insurance policy and $25,000 from an NCAA insurance policy, the statement said.
"Early in the lawsuit, it became apparent from the lawsuit's allegations that the family did not know what had happened," said Lee Tyner, then-university attorney and chief of staff, said in the statement. "We decided that they deserved an opportunity to ask any question in a candid, straightforward way. So we did something extraordinary: in the summer of 2012, with litigation ongoing, the family met with our athletic trainers and the treating physician to ask anything they wanted. This effort to take care of the family's need for accurate information helped clear the air and led directly to the settlement."
Douglas Casa, CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. of exercise physiology, said it’s “a travesty that we allow these big-time college programs to abuse these athletes."
“Unfortunately, almost all the deaths come from just completely inappropriate strength and conditioning sessions,” said Casa, whose organization educates athletes at all levels on how to prevent illnesses and death caused by exertion. “That’s the single biggest cause presenting all those conditions."
The Korey Stringer Institute is named for the former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman who died from heatstroke in 2001.
Decker stayed on as the Mississippi head strength and conditioning coach until 2011. He was even named the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year by the Professional Football Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association the year Abram died. Decker, who along with Ole Miss denied responsibility for Abram’s death, was hired by New Mexico State in 2013 and is currently director of sports performance.
Decker declined to discuss Abram’s death, but said in an interview that too much blame is placed on strength coaches when it comes to exertional death of football players. Decker, who sits on the board of the College Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association, said athletic trainers also are present at every practice and share in the responsibility of conditioning athletes.
“Nobody at those workouts wanted there to be a negative outcome, and both professions were represented in those situations,” he said. “We’ve been entrusted with helping these athletes achieve their goals and dreams, and the last thing that anybody wants that were present at those workouts was for anything bad to happen.”
When Jordan McNair, an offensive lineman for the University of Maryland, became ill while running 110-yard sprints during a conditioning workout in 2018, head athletic trainer Wes Robinson yelled to “get him the (expletive) up” and “drag his ass across the field,” according to a player quoted in the university’s internal investigation. McNair later died from heat stroke.
The only head coach fired following the death of a football player was D.J. Durkin at Maryland. He was later hired as an assistant coach at Mississippi. Durkin, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Robert Jackson was the athletic trainer supervising the workout when Plancher died. He later became the head football trainer at the University of California. Another player, Ted Agu,, died after a sickling collapse under the supervision of Jackson at Cal in 2014.
Cal spokesperson Herb Benenson said the athletics department was “aware that Mr. Jackson was an assistant trainer at UCF” when Plancher died. Jackson, who left his position at Cal in 2016, is no longer working in college sports. He declined comment.
Since 2000, Division I institutions and their affiliated entities have paid more than $29.5 million to resolve 12 wrongful death and negligence lawsuits, including $3.5 million in January to McNair’s family. These negotiated resolutions typically involve no admission of liability.
Eleven families received money in settlements on behalf of their sons who died from either sickle cell trait collapse or exertional heatstroke. One family settled a lawsuit after a player died from an exercise-induced asthma attack. Three lawsuits were settled for undisclosed amounts and are not included in the above figure. Two other families brought lawsuits that were dismissed in court and did not receive compensation. The additional five families did not seek legal restitution.
In July 2019, a year after McNair died, the NCAA issued updated guidelines on preventing sudden death in athletes from conditions such as brain injuries, spine injuries and asthma, as well as sudden cardiac arrest, sickling collapse and heatstroke. The NCAA has had a wide-ranging sports medicine handbook for decades, though the most recent version was published in August 2014.
The July 2019 document – and an eight-page frequently asked questions supplement – was one of several that evolved out of a two-day “Safety in College Football Summit” held in 2016, the second such conference in a two-year span. It gives athletics programs guidelines, including refraining from using exercise punitively, making sure workouts are based in science and are sport-specific and ensuring staff have emergency action plans to treat athletes with serious illnesses.
Hainline said the “most important” aspect of the 2019 best-practices document is guidance that strength and conditioning coaches no longer report to head coaches and instead report to sports medicine personnel. However, this is a recommendation and not a requirement.
That is unlike legislation put into effect in 2016 by the Power Five conferences, and in 2020 by the rest of Division I, that requires schools to have an administrative structure that “provides independent medical care and affirms the unchallengeable autonomous authority of primary athletics health-care providers (team physicians and athletic trainers) to determine medical management.”
The July 2019 document states that football strength coaches frequently are hired by the head coach or subject to their administrative oversight. “Such singular alignment and reporting are not consistent with this document. All strength and conditioning professionals should have a reporting line into the sports medicine or sport performances lines of the institution.”
The FAQ supplement adds: “The intent of the document is to guide schools regarding the avoidance of an intentional administrative relationship between a strength and conditioning professional and a sport coach. … The document does not preclude a secondary ‘dotted line’ reporting line to a sport coach.”
The University of Minnesota’s contracts with football strength coach Dan Nichol, dated Feb. 1, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021, state: “Coach’s position reports to the Head Football Coach. Coach will also have a dotted reporting line to the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Health and Performance for issues related to the student athlete wellbeing, sports medicine or sports performance.”
In an email, university athletics spokesman Paul Rovnak said in May that Nichol reports to both head coach P.J. Fleck and executive associate athletics director/health and performance Joi Thomas.
Minnesota was not alone in having this type of contractual setup. Illinois' contract in effect for the 2020 season said the strength coach’s “immediate supervisor” was the head coach and his “secondary supervisor” was the senior associate athletic director.
In an email, athletics spokesman Kent Brown said after making a coaching change this past winter, "we have taken advantage to modify contract language used for previous strength coaches … to more accurately reflect the reporting lines for these positions." Brown said the new contract has the reporting line directly to chief integrity officer Ryan Squire and to the head coach, "not using 'primary' or 'secondary' in the language."
For the upcoming season, Auburn’s agreement – dated Jan. 3, 2021 – states that the strength and conditioning coach “will report only to the Head Football Coach, the Athletics Director (or designee) and ultimately to the University President, and will perform his job duties within this chain of command.” North Carolina State's agreement — dated Jan. 22, 2021 — says the strength and conditioning coach "will report directly to Dave Doeren, Head Coach for Football."
There are schools at the other end of the spectrum. At Kansas, for example, the football strength coach is an employee of the University of Kansas Hospital Authority, and his pay is funded at least in part by Kansas’ athletics department. The strength coach reports to the team physician, who is an employee of the Hospital Authority. At Michigan State, the job description incorporated into the contract for the 2020 season said the strength coach “reports to the Director of High Performance with medical oversight by the Head Athletic Trainer, and works directly with the football staff.” The 2021 contract says that the position reports to the deputy athletics director, with the same medical oversight.
Decker, a Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association board member, and Scott Bennett, the association’s president, said they were unaware of the NCAA recommendation that strength coaches report to medical staff. Still, the CSCCA is one of the 13 organizations that signed onto the NCAA document.
“You have to question whether or not the colleges and the NCAA prioritizes players’ health,” said Ramogi Huma, founder and executive director of the National College Players Association. “And absolutely not. It doesn’t.”
In court documents, the University of Mississippi defended the conditioning workout that led to Abram’s death by pointing out that any NCAA recommendation is not a “statute, ordinance, or regulation.”
The NCAA’s member schools “don’t want to pass any rules because they feel like if they pass a rule and something doesn’t get done right, somebody like me is going to go sue them,” said Eugene Egdorf, an attorney who represented the Abram family.
When asked why the NCAA has not adopted a rule requiring strength and conditioning coaches to report to medical personnel, NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said in a statement: “The catastrophic injury prevention policy is a framework endorsed by the Board of Governors and leading medical/sports medicine organizations in the country. Member institutions are expected to apply the framework outlined in the policy on their individual campuses using independent judgment exercised by their campus medical professionals.”
Abram, the player at Mississippi, was not in poor physical condition before starting practice. After joining the Rebels, Abram, like every football player, underwent an extensive medical evaluation. A blood test revealed he carried the sickle cell trait.
According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, although carrying the gene is benign, intense and sustained physical stress can cause red blood cells of those with the trait to change shape and reduce blood flow — similar to the red blood cells of people who suffer from sickle cell anemia. This reduction in blood flow can lead to rapid breakdown of muscle tissue and cell death.
Analysis by the Povich and Howard centers found that from 2000 to 2010, nine Division I football players with sickle cell trait died.
The NCAA did not start requiring schools to test for sickle cell trait until August 2010 as part of a wrongful death settlement on behalf of Rice University player Dale Lloyd II,, who died in 2006. One player – Agu – has died from a sickling collapse in the 10 years since.
“With knowledge, with education and with precautions, we can eliminate 100% of the sickle cell trait deaths,” said Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma and president of the College Athletic Trainers’ Society. “I’m a very strong advocate that we can eliminate 100% of the exertional heatstroke deaths. But we’ve got to fix the cause, not just the cure.”
Just two exertion-related deaths of a football player — Tyler Heintz at Kent State University in 2017 and McNair at Maryland in 2018 — led to dismissals of team staff.
After Heintz died of heatstroke, a university investigation claimed that strength and conditioning coach Ross Bowsher, who was supervising the drills that led to Heintz’s death, falsified his professional certification. Bowsher responded that he had always been transparent with the school regarding his credentials and noted that the same investigation found the drills were conducted appropriately.
At Maryland, it was only after news reports and an internal investigation found McNair had not been properly treated for heatstroke that the university fired four members of the training and coaching staff – Durkin, football head strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, head athletic trainer Wes Robinson and assistant athletic director of athletic training Steve Nordwall.
Court, who received $315,000 in severance pay, Robinson and Nordwall have not returned to a college football staff.
The University System of Maryland Board of Regents eventually reinstated Durkin, but then-Maryland President Wallace Loh fired him shortly thereafter. Durkin received $5.4 million in severance pay and got the assistant coaching job at Mississippi less than two years later.
All of this occurred four years after another player died from heatstroke at a Maryland university — Marquese Meadow at Morgan State.
In April, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act, and on May 18, Gov. Larry Hogan signed it into law. The measure requires public college sports programs in Maryland to “adopt and implement” guidelines “to prevent, assess and treat serious sports-related conditions.” It also requires the schools to annually report to the General Assembly on athletes, including any policy changes “related to the health and safety of student athletes.”
Anderson said McNair, Heintz and other players should never be put in the position to suffer heatstroke or sickle cell collapse in the first place.
“Is there an exercise science that says 110 yards [sprints that McNair ran] is the magic number?” Anderson said. “Is there an exercise science in terms of how fast it should be run? Is there an exercise science that says how many should be run? Is there an exercise science about what the rest and recovery should be? Is there an exercise science behind this? And the answer is no.”
Along with the rule mandating that players be tested for sickle cell trait, the NCAA has taken steps to mitigate exertional deaths, with mixed success.
After three players — Rashidi Wheeler at Northwestern University, Devaughn Darling at Florida State University and Eraste Autin at the University of Florida — died in 2001 from offseason conditioning, the NCAA passed several rules governing preseason practice time, including restrictions on two-a-day practices (which the NCAA has since banned) and limits on the number of daily practice hours. The requirements, which went into effect in 2003, also instituted a mandatory five-day acclimatization period for football players to build fitness as preseason practice begins.
On May 19, the Division I Council voted to increase the acclimatization period to seven days as part of preseason-practice changes driven by concerns about concussions.
Since the five-day period’s introduction, just one player has died during the first week of preseason practice.
However, six others died during the first week of winter, spring or voluntary workouts. The 2003 NCAA rule about acclimatization does not apply to voluntary workouts or to practices outside of the summer preseason. The 2019 recommendations – in an update of the 2014 handbook – say gradually increasing activity during the first seven days of any new conditioning cycle “should be considered.”
Also in 2003, the NCAA instituted a rule that requires an athletic trainer or physician to be present during all voluntary summer football conditioning activities conducted by a strength coach that involve running. In addition, the trainer or physician must be given authority to end any practice they think is unsafe. Yet, according to a survey conducted in 2019 by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, nearly a quarter of college trainers feel they do not have that authority.
Anderson said he’s hopeful that NCAA policies are responsible in part for a lack of fatalities in Division I since 2018, although the time frame is too short to make a definitive judgment.
“This is not my belief today, but for a very long time (the NCAA) did not prioritize health and safety,” Casa said. “I think the NCAA has done more in the past three or four years than they did in the last hundred years prior.”
Player advocates such as Egdorf and Huma will be unmoved by NCAA efforts until coaches and institutions face consequences.
Devard Darling, a former player at Florida State whose twin brother and teammate Devaughn died in 2001 after an extreme workout, said a death devastates families, who trust coaches and staff to keep their children safe.
“You go into a family’s home, you sit down, you talk to their parents, you tell them how you’re going to take care of them and help them become men. No one sends their kids off to school to die.”
Dan Novak began reporting this story as a master’s student in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He completed the reporting for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism in Merrill College after graduation.
A note on methodology:
This story focuses on 22 NCAA Division I football players who died from an exertion-related illness suffered during a practice or conditioning session from 2000-2018. The primary causes of death for these incidents are sudden cardiac arrest, exertional sickling collapse and exertional heatstroke. One player died of an exercise-induced asthma attack. The story does not include players who died from sudden cardiac arrest unrelated to football practice or athletes who died from medical issues or accidents not tied to exertion. The research was based on cases gathered from publicly available court records, legislative reports, media reports and interviews.
22 lives claimed: A visual timeline from 2000 to 2018
Tennessee Tech University
Date of death: Aug. 13, 2000
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Birdsong was reportedly in good shape when he collapsed while running sprints on the first day of preseason workouts. The freshman defensive back’s death was originally attributed to heatstroke, but was later connected to sickle cell trait. University spokesperson Monica Greppin said at the time that the practice “was a pretty light workout.”
Florida State University
Date of death: Feb. 26, 2001
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Darling collapsed after a 75-minute continuous conditioning workout known as “mat drills,” designed to push players to their limits over 10 consecutive days during offseason training. The sophomore linebacker complained to his teammates but not to coaches of pain in his chest and depleted vision. Coaches made him finish the drills. After collapsing, Darling was rushed to the hospital, where he died. An autopsy revealed Darling carried the sickle cell trait. His parents filed a lawsuit against Florida State alleging coaches and trainers were responsible for the death, which was settled for $2 million. Florida’s sovereign immunity law caps settlements from state institutions at $200,000 unless the state legislature approves a higher amount via a claims bill, so the family did not see the remaining $1.8 million until state legislation passed in 2017. Darling’s twin brother and teammate Devard, who also tested positive for the trait, claimed he was kicked off the team for being a liability. He transferred to play at Washington State University. After Darling’s death, Florida State continued the mat drills with far more precautions, including more rest time, water coolers and an ambulance on standby.
University of Florida
Date of death: July 25, 2001
Autin was participating in a voluntary summer workout on July 19, 2001, which included 50 minutes of stretching, sprints and agility drills. The freshman fullback looked disoriented while returning to the locker room, so a bystander got him to stop and lie down outside the stadium. He was taken to the hospital and six days later, Autin died from complications related to heatstroke. Autin’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the University of Florida Athletic Association and received an undisclosed settlement.
Date of death: Aug. 3, 2001
The senior safety was going through a preseason conditioning test when he struggled to breathe during a set of wind sprints. At least three other players collapsed during the drill. Coaches and paramedics performed CPR on Wheeler, who was athsmatic, before he had to be taken to the hospital, where he died later that day. The medical examiner ruled the death from exercise-induced bronchial asthma.
In the days after Wheeler’s death, head coach Randy Walker said, “I have no doubt a better-conditioned athlete is a whole lot more likely to survive the game of football. I didn’t write the rules. But it is a rigorous sport.” Wheeler’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Northwestern, which was settled for $16 million.
Northern Illinois University
Date of death: Feb. 1, 2002
Jackson, a freshman attempting to walk on the team, collapsed on his second day of conditioning drills. Jackson showed no sign of struggle through most of the workout, until about halfway through wind sprints. Results of an autopsy were inconclusive, but noted that Jackson had an enlarged heart. Jackson was a football and track team captain in high school.
NCAA implements several rules governing preseason practice time, including restrictions on two-a-day practices and limits on the number of daily practice hours. The NCAA also mandates a mandatory five-day “acclimatization” period to allow players to ease into workouts as football practice resumes after the offseason.
NCAA implements bylaw empowering sports medicine staff with the “unchallengeable authority to cancel or modify the workout for health and safety reasons” during voluntary conditioning activities conducted by a strength coach.
Northwestern State University
Date of death: March 1, 2004
Waddell joined the Northwestern State team as a walk-on and was participating in his first spring conditioning workout with the team when he suddenly collapsed. Athletic trainers tended to Waddell, attempting to resuscitate him, but he was pronounced dead at the hospital. The coroner specified the official cause of death as a heart attack, related to a heart condition Waddell was diagnosed with when he was a child. His mother said her son had received treatment for the condition and was medically cleared for all activities. Waddell passed a medical exam in August 2003 and was permitted to play.
University of Arizona
Date of death: June 8, 2004
Umeh reported for the first voluntary workout with Arizona. That morning, he underwent a physical exam before heading out into 95-degree heat. He collapsed 15 minutes into the workout and was taken to a nearby medical center. Umeh was pronounced dead less than an hour later. Through an autopsy, the coroner found Umeh had an enlarged heart. Umeh was the second Arizona football player in a decade to die after a workout — Damon Terrell died in 1995 after collapsing during practice.
Bowling Green State University
Date of death: Sept. 15, 2004
A three-sport high school athlete trying to walk on to BGSU’s football team, the freshman Richardson died after his first practice. The practice started with a series of sprints for about 10 minutes — known as “gassers.” Richardson complained of calf cramps afterward and was allegedly cursed at by Defensive Coordinator Tim Beckman for failing to continue. He was taken to the locker room where he became unresponsive, and the assistant athletic trainer called 911. Less than two hours later, he was pronounced dead at the hospital.
An autopsy revealed Richardson died from complications surrounding sickle cell trait. Richardson’s mother filed a wrongful death suit against the university, but the Court of Claims of Ohio and an appeals court found the university not liable. Richardson was the second BGSU athlete to die within two years while playing for the school — soccer player Leslie Dawley collapsed on the field during a game in 2002 and later died.
University of Missouri
Date of death: July 12, 2005
The St. Louis native O’Neal was a 19-year-old redshirt freshman heading into the 2005 season with Missouri. He started to struggle during agility drills about 45 minutes into a preseason voluntary workout, which the media was invited to observe. O’Neal told coaches, “I’m trying. I’m not weak. I just can’t go on,” court records say. A teammate was chastised for helping him back to the locker room. Rather than taking O’Neal immediately to a nearby hospital when his condition worsened, coaches sent him in a campus truck to the team offices. A trainer called 911, and O’Neal died soon after he arrived at the hospital — about 90 minutes after the workout ended. The medical examiner originally attributed the death to viral meningitis, but during litigation, experts called the cause of death into question and attributed it to sickle cell trait.
The O’Neal family received $2 million in the wrongful death settlement against the university, in addition to $250,000 to a scholarship fund at the University of Missouri in Aaron’s name.
Date of death: Sept. 25, 2006
Rice players who saw a lot of playing time in the previous day’s game reported for practice to undergo a vigorous weight training and conditioning workout. After lifting weights, the players needed to run 16 100-yard sprints, each at 18 seconds or less. Shortly after beginning the sprints, Lloyd became short of breath, and his muscles started tightening. Coaches did nothing to help Lloyd when it became clear he was suffering from physical distress, court documents allege. Some players tried to help their teammate, but a coach told them to leave Lloyd alone. He collapsed on the field and lost consciousness. He died the following day from collapse due to sickle cell trait.
Lloyd’s family received an undisclosed settlement in a wrongful death suit against the university. As a part of a settlement, the NCAA started advising its members to test players for sickle cell trait, which led to a testing requirement.
University of South Florida
Date of death: Jan. 17, 2007
Dorsey passed out during an offseason conditioning workout, and he was given immediate first-aid attention. Dorsey was later transported to the university hospital, where he died. A medical examiner determined that the 5-foot-11, 210-pound freshman running back may have suffered from an existing heart condition that led to his fatal collapse, but DNA tests were unable to confirm it. The family hired a law firm to pursue possible litigation, but opted not to file suit against the university.
University of Central Florida
Date of death: March 18, 2008
During an offseason workout, Plancher was participating in mat drills, which consisted of weight training, conditioning, agility drills, sprints and gassers that “push many of the UCF football team’s members beyond the point of exhaustion,” court documents say. During the workout, Plancher started experiencing dizziness, shortness of breath and an inability to verbally respond to questions, according to his family’s lawsuit.
Three players testified that head coach George O’Leary ordered water and trainers to be removed from the field, though O’Leary and three other players disputed this in testimony. According to the Orlando Sentinel, O’Leary swore at Plancher when he fell during the workout. “I remember having blurred vision when I was trying to do the offensive drills,” former UCF player Cody Minnich testified in court. “The majority of it was just spent like being dizzy.”
Plancher died from complications due to sickle cell trait.
A jury ruled the UCF Athletics Association negligent in Plancher’s death and ordered the family be given $10 million. However, the Florida Supreme Court ruled on appeal that damages must be limited to $200,000 because of state sovereign immunity laws.
North Carolina A&T State University
Date of death: May 28, 2008
The two-year starting offensive lineman collapsed after a voluntary offseason workout that began with 45 minutes of weightlifting, and proceeded with sprints up and down a hill. He complained of dizziness when returning to the locker room and lost consciousness shortly thereafter. He died the following day. His death was attributed to heatstroke, but the medical examiner ruled that sickle cell trait played a role in his death. His mother sued the university and received a $350,000 settlement, according to the North Carolina Department of Justice.
In 2010, Jospin Milandu died from collapse from sickle cell trait while trying out for North Carolina A&T’s track team. Athletic trainer Roland Lovelace was fired after emails emerged revealing he advised coaches against testing for the condition.
Western Carolina University
Date of death: July 8, 2009
Junior defensive back Ja’Quayvin Smalls, a transfer student, died following his first voluntary offseason practice with the team. About 90 minutes into the workout, Smalls complained of cramps. While he was being treated, Smalls stopped breathing. He was transported to an area hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Court documents say Smalls’ mother disclosed to the university in a questionnaire that he carried the sickle cell trait, according to The Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina). The Smalls family settled with Western Carolina for $600,000, but the agreement does not include any admission of guilt by the athletics program. After Smalls’ death, the university began mandatory sickle cell testing.
University of Mississippi
Date of death: Feb. 19, 2010
As the first day of winter workouts began, Abram told the coaching staff he felt ill and requested to not participate, according to documents from a wrongful death lawsuit. But coaches allegedly told the 20-year-old community college transfer student and walk-on that if he didn’t join his teammates he would be off the team.
After stretching and a half-mile run, players went through strength and agility drills at 10 different stations. Abram collapsed after the first drill, and was castigated by coaches and pushed to continue, court documents say. At the second station, Abram again collapsed, and was helped to the sidelines. As players lined up for wind sprints, Abram was transported to the hospital. He died about six hours after arriving at the hospital from complications connected to sickle cell trait.
The Ole Miss Athletics Foundation paid $50,000 to the Abram family “as a settlement to avoid further legal expenses,” the university said in a statement at the time. The family also received $275,000 under an NCAA insurance policy.
NCAA begins sickle cell solubility testing of student-athletes who are beginning their first season or are trying out for a team. Athletes may opt out of the test if they desire.
The National Athletic Trainers’ Association releases “The Inter-Association Task Force for Preventing Sudden Death in Collegiate Conditioning Sessions: Best Practices Recommendations,” endorsed by 11 medical, training and sports science organizations. The NCAA does not endorse the document.
Tennessee State University
Date of death: Nov. 7, 2012
A redshirt freshman defensive back, Jones suffered a cardiac arrest shortly after beginning a noncontact practice. A wrongful death lawsuit, which was eventually dismissed, claimed Jones said he did not feel well earlier in the day, and athletic personnel failed to provide Jones with adequate care after he collapsed during a “deep ball” drill for defensive backs. "No assistance was provided to him, and an unreasonable period of time elapsed before anyone approached him or attempted to provide any help," the lawsuit says. Tennessee courts dismissed the suit, ruling that TSU’s medical care “did not cause Mr. Jones’ death.”
University of California, Berkeley
Date of death: Feb. 7, 2014
Agu, a defensive lineman, collapsed after repeated sprints up and down a hill while holding onto a rope. Head strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington designed the new drill to try “something new, exciting, fresh, kind of keep the guys engaged,” he said in his deposition.
A lawsuit alleged that coaches ignored Agu as he was clearly struggling and falling before collapsing. The medical examiner originally attributed his death to cardiac arrest from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, but changed the determination to collapse from sickle cell trait after learning the account of the players.
Agu was diagnosed with sickle cell trait in 2010, and the team’s head physician, Casey Batten, had informed the team that he should be handled with care. After testimony in a wrongful death lawsuit, it came to light that Batten and other team officials did not disclose to county coroners that Agu carried the trait. Head football trainer Robert Jackson observed the workout as Agu collapsed. He was previously the trainer who led the workout at the University of Central Florida when Ereck Plancher died of sickle cell collapse.
California-Berkeley admitted liability after the suit and settled with the family for $4.75 million.
NCAA starts requiring member schools to submit data on student-athlete fatalities, near-fatalities and catastrophic injuries.
Morgan State University
Date of Death: Aug. 24, 2014
Meadow was 18 when he collapsed from heatstroke during a preseason practice. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound freshman spent two weeks in the hospital before he died. A lawsuit claimed Meadow died during a “punishment practice,” where players ran for over an hour straight in the summer heat. A wrongful death lawsuit alleged that after Meadow was removed from the field, staff did not record his temperature accurately and tried to lower his body temperature by putting cold water on his groin and armpits.
The lawsuit ended with an undisclosed settlement. One year after Meadow’s death, head athletic trainer Michelle Daniels told The Baltimore Sun the team had not changed how it monitors or hydrates players during workouts.
NCAA requires that strength coaches be certified through a nationally accredited certification program.
University at Buffalo
Date of death: Feb. 29, 2016
Jackson, a sophomore redshirt defensive end, collapsed during the first offseason conditioning workout of the season. According to the University at Buffalo’s student newspaper, The Spectrum, it was a “nonstop” workout with hurdles, running and agility training. After collapsing, Jackson was sent to the hospital, where he died a week later. The university said in a statement that Jackson died of a “medical emergency,” and did not release any information on what led to his death, or his cause of death, citing privacy concerns. Autopsy reports were never released, but Jackson’s father said he died of “natural causes,” in an interview with The Spectrum.
NCAA releases the “Interassociation Consensus Statement on Cardiovascular Care of College Student-Athletes,” guidelines for proper care for athletes who suffer cardiac arrest, and preventive measures.
Kent State University
Date of death: June 13, 2017
Heintz, a freshman, died from exertional heatstroke following conditioning drills during a preseason workout. It was the 6-foot-4, 275-pound offensive lineman’s second day of practice.
The university fired strength and conditioning coach Ross Bowsher, who oversaw the workout that led to Heintz’s death, after a university investigation found he did not have the professional certification required. The university investigation found the workout was conducted in “accordance with national protocols for student-athlete health and safety.”
University of Maryland
Date of death: June 13, 2018
During the first late-spring conditioning workout May 29, McNair showed signs of exhaustion as he tried to finish 10, 110-yard sprints. After the seventh repetition, the 6-foot-4, 325-pound offensive lineman complained of dizziness and cramping. He finished the final three sprints. Head athletic trainer Wes Robinson, reportedly yelled to “drag his ass across the field.”
According to an internal investigation, staff tried to cool McNair’s body temperature by covering him with cold, wet towels. Staff did not immerse him in a cold-water bath, the surefire way to prevent heatstroke death. It took more than an hour and a half after McNair first started showing symptoms before he arrived at the hospital. By the time he reached the hospital, his body temperature had reached 106 degrees. He died two weeks later.
After ESPN released a report in August 2018 detailing a culture of abuse on the team, the university suspended head coach DJ Durkin and head strength and conditioning coach Rick Court. University President Wallace Loh then went on to say the school accepted "legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes" that led to McNair’s death.
After the internal investigation was released that October, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents reinstated Durkin. However, Loh fired Durkin the following day. Durkin received $5.4 million in severance pay and Court received $315,000. Durkin has since been hired as an assistant coach at Ole Miss.
In January 2021, McNair’s family reached a settlement with the university for $3.5 million.
University of Maine
Date of death: July 24, 2018
Fifteen minutes into an offseason workout, Minor told the strength and conditioning coach he felt like he was going to pass out. He collapsed soon after, and efforts to resuscitate him by team staff and emergency responders were unsuccessful.
School officials described the practice as a “supervised light workout,” which included sled drills with short breaks in between. The medical examiner ruled his death a sudden cardiac arrest. He had no known preexisting medical conditions and passed two physicals before starting practice.
NCAA releases “Preventing Catastrophic Injury and Death In Collegiate Athletics,” guidelines for institutions on preventing fatal illnesses such as heatstroke, sickle cell trait and sudden cardiac arrest. The NCAA recommends that strength and conditioning coaches report to medical professionals, instead of head coaches. Twenty-two Division I football players died from exertion-related illnesses suffered during practices in the 18 years prior to the release of this document.