Asthma attack kills football player

Posted: Sunday, August 05, 2001

EVANSTON, Ill. -- The breathing problems that forced Rashidi Wheeler out of a conditioning drill didn't seem to be any different from the 30 other asthma attacks he'd had while playing football the past three years.

But the Northwestern safety was never able to catch his breath Friday afternoon and later died. Bronchial asthma was the preliminary cause of death, the Cook County coroner's office ruled Saturday.

''I didn't want to wake up this morning,'' said Northwestern coach Randy Walker, still fighting back tears and trying to control his emotions Saturday afternoon.

''I've not been here. I guess I've lived a very fortunate life to not undergo a tragedy of this scope. It's new ground for me. I think all of us are asking, 'What's the deal?' ... There's no apparent answer at this point.''

Athletic director Rick Taylor said the school will re-evaluate its conditioning policies and the entire incident ''to find out if there is any possible way we could have done something better.''

The evaluation will be done by people outside the athletic department, Taylor said.

''Anytime you go through something like this, we would be terribly remiss if we did not re-evaluate everything that happened,'' Taylor said.

Wheeler's death came two days after Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer died of heatstroke following an intense practice in stifling heat. A week earlier, University of Florida freshman Eraste Autin died after collapsing of heatstroke.

But Wheeler's death wasn't caused by the heat. The 22-year-old player was a chronic asthmatic -- head athletic trainer Tory Aggeler said he'd seen Wheeler have more than 30 asthma attacks in his three years at Northwestern -- and had dealt with the condition since at least high school.

It didn't keep him from playing sports, though. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound strong safety started all 12 games last season as Northwestern won a share of the Big Ten title. His 88 tackles were third on the Wildcats, and he had a fumble recovery and three pass breakups.

''I don't think there is anything unusual for a person with asthma to compete in the upper class of athletics,'' Taylor said, adding there are about 10 asthmatics on the football team.

Wheeler and 60 other Northwestern players were running a series of ''quick jogs'' to test their recovery ability Friday as part of preseason conditioning drills. Though NCAA rules prevent coaches from attending the workouts, Aggeler and his training staff were there.

Wheeler had already completed 10 sprints of 100 yards, eight of 80 yards, six of 60 yards, and had four 40-yarders to compete when he collapsed, Aggeler said. The sprints, which have specific recovery times in between, are common for summer football practices, Walker said.

In fact, Walker himself did the same drill when he played college football.

''I don't think it was a workout that was extraordinarily difficult,'' Walker said. ''It probably was the easiest day of summer workouts. There was no other running or any other conditioning.''

But with only the four 40-yard sprints to go, Wheeler had trouble breathing and dropped down on his hands and knees. He was conscious and alert, even telling Aggeler he wanted to continue the drill.

''I think that was more a verbal statement than a true desire to do so,'' Aggeler said.

Though Wheeler had an inhaler with him, he couldn't catch his breath. He eventually stopped breathing, and didn't respond to CPR from the coaching staff or paramedics. He died about an hour later at Evanston Hospital.

Walker met with his team Friday night, and counselors were brought in to help the players. They will continue to be available.

''I don't know what words I can give you as far as how we feel,'' Walker said, fighting back tears. ''But I know most of us are in a tremendous amount of grief.''

Wheeler's family was en route to Chicago from the Los Angeles area Saturday. Memorial plans are still being finalized.

Outside the Northwestern football stadium, university and U.S. flags were flying at half-staff. Someone had placed a small bouquet of flowers, tied with a purple ribbon, in an entrance gate outside the stadium.

''He was a little taste of heaven on earth,'' said Anthony Will, Wheeler's uncle, who drove to Evanston from Detroit on Friday night.

''I just can't explain what a loss it is,'' Will said. ''We as a society need people like Rashidi. I don't know if anybody had a greater capacity to show love.''

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