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'Sometimes it’s not in our hands:' MU looks within — and to the past — to ensure player safety

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Rex Sharp is constantly preparing, and he has a good reason for it.

“I can never guarantee that something might not happen,” Missouri’s head athletic trainer said. “It scares me. It always has. I can never guarantee that. But I will tell you this: It won’t be for a lack of preparation.”

Sharp can’t guarantee that something won’t happen because in July of 2005, something did happen.

A redshirt freshman, Aaron O’Neal, collapsed during a voluntary offseason workout at Memorial Stadium. Two hours later, the linebacker from St. Louis was dead.

A lawsuit later alleged that medical employees on Missouri’s staff, including Sharp, failed to take proper precautions to account for the fact that O’Neal carried the sickle cell trait, a hereditary condition often linked to heat stroke and exercise-induced health issues. The official cause of death was ultimately ruled to be viral meningitis, a rare — and rarely fatal — inflammation of the tissues and infection of the fluid covering the brain.

Sharp, who has been in his role since the spring of 1996, was on the field that day and present for O’Neal’s final moments.

“No matter how well prepared you are, sometimes you just can’t make the difference,” Sharp says. “We do the best we can, but sometimes it’s not in our hands.”

Not that Sharp, or anyone else at Missouri, needed a reminder of that. But one came in August, when an ESPN investigation into University of Maryland coach D.J. Durkin and the school’s football program uncovered what it called a “toxic coaching culture” in the months and weeks leading up to the death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair during an offseason workout last spring. McNair died two weeks after he collapsed from heat stroke during a series of 110-yard sprints, during which he’d displayed signs of extreme exhaustion and struggled to stand upright.

Maryland athletes quoted in the report stated a culture of “fear and intimidation” in the program, a culture heavily powered by strength coach Rick Court.

In the days following the report, several members of Maryland’s coaching staff, including Durkin, were placed on administrative leave. Eventually, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents seized control of the investigation into McNair’s death and the environment in the football program. The school has since parted ways with Court and several others. Durkin remains suspended.

Could what happened to Aaron O’Neal and Jordan McNair happen — again — at MU?

In the wake of the events at Maryland, the Missourian spoke with people in and around Missouri’s athletic department to gain insight into the culture of the school’s football program and the measures being taken to ensure player safety. The interviews and conversations reveal an athletic department actively self-evaluating its safeguards in the weeks since McNair’s death and the findings at the University of Maryland.

Hovering over that self-evaluation is a renewed awareness of the death of O’Neal and what happened at Missouri 13 years ago.

Sharp and other administrators know from that tragic day in the summer of 2005 that nothing is ever certain. But there is confidence that the athletic department is doing the right things to prevent another such event from occurring here at MU.

“We’ve always been ahead of the curve and continue to be. I’m proud of that,” Sharp says. “I’m confident in the training we do and the relationships we have with the people who are responsible for these kids’ health.”

But still, no one makes any guarantees.

The legacy of Aaron O’Neal

The rumors out of Maryland inevitably made their way into Missouri’s locker room.

The Tigers’ coaching staff held no formal discussions with the football team about the situation at Maryland, several team members said. But a number of Missouri players are familiar with players at Maryland, and the stories they heard spread through the team quickly. As players digested the details, many found themselves considering their own environment at Missouri.

For linebacker Jamal Brooks, the stories hit home harder than they did for most. The sophomore from Bessemer, Alabama, has the distinction of wearing No. 25 on his uniform — the same No. 25 that once belonged to O’Neal. Since O’Neal’s death, Missouri has reserved his number to be bestowed on a young linebacker who displays strong leadership ability as a way to honor him. From 2009-2012, it was worn by Zaviar Gooden, then Donavin Newsom from 2013-2016.

Last fall, it was given to Brooks.

O’Neal’s memory is still honored around the Missouri Athletics Training Complex, too, including a sign that Brooks taps each day before practice. Brooks is aware of what was passed down to him when he was given the number, and it’s a responsibility he carries proudly.

“It’s a legacy that I have to uphold,” Brooks says. “I’m not wearing that number just for me and my family. I’m wearing it for another family as well. It’s a constant reminder for me that I have to go above and beyond not just for myself, but for others, too.”

The number Brooks inherited from O’Neal and the memories that come with it also serve as reminders for Brooks about the dangers he faces every time he steps on the field. Brooks has several friends from Alabama who play at Maryland, and his conversations with them over the past few weeks have made him even more conscious of those possibilities.

The talks, though, have also reinforced Brooks’ faith in the staff overseeing his well-being as a student-athlete at Missouri. They’ve forced him to think deeper about the way the medical staff operates day-to-day; and while he says he’s sure the medical team at Maryland “was monitoring them, I feel like everyone here is zoned in.”

“They’re monitoring us 24/7,” Brooks said. “And if there’s anything that is wrong, we know we have those outlets (administrators, coaches, team psychologists) to turn to. If we’re not feeling whatever is going on, we know we can let somebody know and get it right.”

Practice precautions

The tent sits just a few yards off the practice field at the MATC. Inside the tent are a number of ice baths, several tables covered with gels, drinks and whatever else a player can take in to spark the recovery process, along with a well-equipped staff ready to tend to any bumps, nicks or bruises. When players finish practice each day, they step off the field and into a medical fortress.

In addition to everything else going on as they leave practice, players are handed iPads with a set of questions on them.

“Are you sore today?”

“What kind of mood are you in?”

“How many hours of sleep did you get last night?”

“Are you stressed?”

The questions are simple, but they help to build crucial information profiles. The technology allows the medical staff to digitally monitor players’ health on a daily basis, something it was unable to do before the advent of such technology. With it, Missouri’s medical team tries to stay in front of any potential risks.

“We know our training staff really looks out for us” center Trystan Colon-Castillo said. “They’re making sure we’re safe and in the best position to go out and play every day.”

Concern at the top

Jim Sterk, Missouri’s athletic director, watched from afar as a fellow AD in charge of a Power Five school came under fire for the actions of those leading his football program, and used the opportunity to look inward for potential issues in his own. The process involved a combination of informal conversations and a series of more official meetings. They were all centered on what the department and its medical team could do better moving forward.

Discussions among administrators and the athletic department’s integrated health care team included potential improvements in communication and the system in place for athletes to report issues and violations. Even before McNair’s death in June, the department had been consulting experts and reviewing its current policies and procedures in search of any holes or gaps in those operations, Sterk said. It continues to do so now.

“We don’t take the attitude that it can never happen here,” Sterk said. “We want to make sure that we’re doing all that we can to prevent something like that from happening. That’s our approach. We’re looking for hot spots or things that need to change in the way we go about things.”

The Washington Post reported in August that in May, 2017, then-Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson called for an overhaul of the athletic department’s medical care system to bring it into closer alignment with the NCAA’s recommended “Independent Medical Care” model. Adopted in 2016, the guidelines recommend that institutions “establish an administrative structure that provides independent medical care,” with the goal of granting greater autonomy to team physicians and medical care providers in their care for student-athletes. The NCAA recommendations are also intended to separate coaches and competitive interests from the medical treatment process.

The guidelines concerning “independent” medical care, however, are just that. They aren’t mandates. And Maryland president Wallace Loh struck down Anderson’s proposal, according to the Washington Post, citing concerns over allowing another institution to dictate medical personnel decisions. Loh’s decision is now among the litany of legal issues revolving around the school’s athletic program.

Officials in Missouri’s athletic department say the school adheres to the NCAA’s “best practices” guidelines, though it operates under what administrators, including Sterk, call an “integrated system.” Missouri’s medical care team is comprised of doctors from the MU Health system, and a combination of trainers and specialists from both MU Health and the athletic department — thus, perhaps not fully independent. But the organizational structure fits in with the core goals of these particular NCAA guidelines. While the athletic department is involved in medical care treatments and decisions, there is full independent autonomy among team physicians, and people such as head football coach Barry Odom are not a part of the line of reporting.

“We have doctors that our football coach has no reporting line with. (Director of Athletic Performance) Rohrk Cutchlow is the same way,” Sterk said. “The doctors report to an administrator as opposed to a coach. Obviously, they’ve got to work with them, but we keep those separate lines of reporting.”

Aaron Gray is a sports medicine physician in the MU Health system, and serves on the athletic department’s integrated health team that includes a group of trainers, doctors, and psychologists. The team manages athletes with both physical and mental health issues.

Though Gray is involved in athlete care, he is not directly involved with Missouri’s football team.

But in his time in sports medicine, Gray has come to understand that in the midst of competition and under pressure to perform, athletes often are reluctant to take themselves off the field. In many cases, then, the medical trainers on site are a line of defense to protect players from themselves. That’s why finding the “hot spots” in Missouri’s sports medicine policies Sterk mentioned is so high on his list of importance.

“Ultimately, our professions and our duty is to the safety of the player,” Gray says, “so it’s important for sports medicine staffs to be aware. It takes a team approach to communicate well and make sure these things don’t happen.”

In those critical moments, the medical staff, not the players, must be prepared. So Gray’s focus lies on the procedures — training, day-to-day operations, lines of reporting — to ensure that the medical staff is prepared and ready to act properly when called upon.

He knows that one hiccup in the process can be the difference.

Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.

  • Eli Lederman is a sports enterprise reporter for the Columbia Missourian and serves as the managing editor for Tiger Kickoff. Lederman is a native of Mamaroneck, NY. Previously, he has written for the Tulsa World and Cape Cod Times (MA).

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