CHICAGO -- Rashidi Wheeler lay on his side, struggling to catch his breath, telling his Northwestern teammates he was dying.
They didn't think he was serious at first, having heard that figure of speech before. Besides, Wheeler was an asthmatic who'd had more than 30 attacks in his three years playing football at Northwestern, and often lay on his side to recover from strenuous workouts.
But as the minutes passed and Wheeler still couldn't breathe, his teammates realized this was something serious.
''Who would have ever thought?'' Wildcats linebacker Pat Durr said. ''The kid was only 22 and he was one of the best athletes on the team.''
Wheeler's Aug. 3 death following a windsprint drill has rocked the Northwestern players and coaches, who thought their toughest task this season would be defending their share of the Big Ten title. It's also raised a series of hard questions from his family and the university.
Linda Will, who talked to a number of her son's teammates, has said from the start that he didn't have to die. She has enlisted the help of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and lawyer Johnnie Cochran Jr., who contend the university wasn't prepared to deal with such an emergency.
The university is investigating the entire incident, including reports that Wheeler took a nutritional supplement containing ephedrine, a substance banned by the NCAA and has been linked to strokes and heart attacks.
''A team is studying every aspect of the tragedy ... with the aim of preventing something like this from happening again,'' Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor said. ''We're looking into everything.''
Jackson and Jim Montgomery, Cochran's Chicago-based law partner, say Northwestern may have been violating NCAA rules on voluntary practices. Under the rules, athletes have to initiate the workouts, and they can't be rewarded or punished for their participation. Coaches aren't allowed at the workouts, though training staff and strength and conditioning coaches can be there.
''This is not an isolated event, and I think that this event will be an impetus to trying to change the NCAA rules,'' Montgomery said.
The NCAA will not say whether it's investigating a school and wouldn't comment on the Wheeler case.
Northwestern won't say anything more until the investigation is complete, spokesman Chuck Loebbaka said.
But descriptions from the university and players of that Friday afternoon paint a picture of a typical summer conditioning drill that dissolved into confusion and then disbelief.
The Wildcats were doing a series of 28 sprints, ranging from 40 yards to 100 yards, with short breaks in between. Wheeler had completed the first 24 sprints when he fell to his knees.
Linebacker Kevin Bentley, one of Wheeler's closest friends, and head athletic trainer Tory Aggeler helped Wheeler to a bench. Several other players suffered exhaustion during the drill -- reports range from four to more than 10 -- so Aggeler left to check on them.
Will, Wheeler's mother, claims there was a 30- to 40-minute delay from when her son collapsed to when paramedics were called. But Durr said the paramedics weren't called right away because this didn't seem any different than the dozens of attacks Wheeler had before. Aggeler has said Wheeler had more than 30 asthma attacks while he was at Northwestern.
Even when Wheeler said he was dying, ''It was, 'Yeah, whatever, Rashidi, you're fine,''' Durr said. ''When he kept saying it and saying it, it got kind of scary.''
Someone ran and got Wheeler's inhaler, which was about 10 yards away in his clothes. Teammates had to spray it into Wheeler's mouth, Durr said.
Realizing that Wheeler was in real trouble, they called for Aggeler to come back. Durr said Aggeler did everything he could to save Wheeler, but he was outnumbered. Will has said there were only six trainers on the field that day.
Someone went to a phone near the field to call paramedics, but the phone didn't work and a player's cellular phone was used, Durr said.
Paramedics were on the scene 2-3 minutes after they were called, and they worked on Wheeler for 12 minutes before taking him to Evanston Hospital, said Alan Berkowsky, division chief of the Evanston Fire Department. Wheeler arrived at the hospital at 5:28 p.m., and was pronounced dead at 5:45 p.m.
''There was a lot of silence, a lot of prayer,'' said Durr, who went to the hospital with his teammates. ''It's like losing a brother to a lot of people here.''
The Cook County medical examiner said Wheeler died of bronchial asthma. But there have been reports that Wheeler and some other Wildcats might have used Ultimate Orange, a nutritional supplement that contains herbal ephedrine.
Toxicology tests due in a couple of weeks will show if Wheeler used ephedrine, said the medical examiner, Dr. Edmund Donoghue.
But even if Wheeler did use ephedrine, Jackson said, there still wasn't adequate medical staff or equipment, such as oxygen, on the field.
While the different investigations play out, the Northwestern players are trying to move on. After two weeks of grieving, they'll return to the field Friday for the start of training camp.
''This situation is going to take time,'' Durr said. ''Rashidi is gone physically, but he's still here in spirit.''
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