The Unclosed Story of Rashidi Wheeler
A Northwestern safety died tragically on the practice field four years ago. His mother is still fighting for answers
It was on a field overlooking Lake Michigan that Linda Will's life fell apart. On this turf, ordinarily used by the Northwestern field hockey team, her son Rashidi Wheeler collapsed during a football conditioning drill on Aug. 3, 2001. Will can't stop thinking about the death of her son, a 22-year-old starting safety who was to be a returning senior. Less than a month after she lost Rashidi, Will and her ex-husband, George Wheeler Jr., as coadministrators of the Rashidi Wheeler estate, filed a lawsuit against Northwestern, charging that the university and several of its employees, including trainers and coaches, negligently caused the wrongful death of her son. The lawsuit alleged that the university failed to have adequate emergency equipment, an emergency plan or enough trainers on hand. The suit also claimed that the staff did not recognize Wheeler's asthmatic condition and thus mishandled his treatment at the time of his collapse.
Last spring the university offered to settle the suit for $16 million, but Will, as coadministrator of Wheeler's estate, did not want the money. Instead she fought to take the case to trial so that, in her mind, the coaching and training staffs would be found responsible for Rashidi's death. However, in August a Cook County judge ordered the settlement despite Will's protests; as of last week the court was in the process of deciding how to allocate the money. Will, though, still has plans to appeal the decision. "This is America," she says. "If the laws of the land say every American should have their day in court, then I want mine. How dare they insult my son by telling me, 'This is what you'll get.'"
What she would get, if the settlement stands, is money with which she could fund the Rashidi Wheeler Foundation that she has planned. The money could pay for a new house and the college education of her 17-year-old son, Hershel Will, and Rashidi's two other half brothers, Matthew and Daniel Wheeler. But none of that will be worth it to Will if it comes without a trial.
The sum would be the highest reported settlement in Cook County history for the wrongful death of a single male younger than 30. But Will wants answers before money. She wants to know why a "voluntary" drill was being videotaped, its results being recorded and reported back to football coach Randy Walker (who was not at the conditioning session) and his staff. She wants to know why the training staff did not know that the emergency telephone was broken and why they made Wheeler, a chronic asthmatic, breathe into a paper bag (a common technique used in cases of hyperventilation, not asthma). She wants to know why, on that fateful day, practice continued while her son struggled for his life on the sideline. She wants to know why a university doctor, shortly after Wheeler's death, burned the records of Wheeler's last physical. A university spokesman says the doctor admitted to acting alone, but Will believes school officials knew the doctor burned the records long before he admitted it. "I have a 30-year-old son who wants to know the truth. I have a 17-year-old who does too," she says. "We want to know what happened to Rashidi."
She also wants accountability. She wants the firing of Walker, a man she once called Little Hitler. She wants assurances that this won't happen again, to anybody else's child. She wants a memorial built to honor her son. "I think it's time for someone to stand up and say we're not going to let this happen to our children," she says.
Will continues in a vein that sounds at first like rhetoric, calling for people on all levels to be held responsible and demanding again to know why she has never received explanations for why it took so long for her son to receive proper treatment, and for what she claims was a lack of proper medical equipment. As her voice wavers in indignation, however, the words that come out sound increasingly heartfelt.
In a statement released on Sept. 12 of this year, Northwestern said it "continues to believe strongly that Mr. Wheeler's death was caused by supplements containing ephedra that he took on the day of his death." In the same statement the university said that the settlement was proposed so that both parties could "avoid the expense and potential acrimony of protracted litigation of the matter," though some see other motivations.
"The parents kind of understand how [college] sports work, but they really don't understand what's going on behind the scenes," says Kunle Patrick, a former Northwestern receiver who was a junior the year Wheeler died. "Conditioning, when it's freakin' hot as hell out, that's part of football life. Playing when you're hurt. All part of football. [A trial] would be an eye-opener."
The details of the practice and of Wheeler's death, if presented to a jury, might be enough to make any parent think twice about sending his or her kid to a Division I-A football program, and make some 18-year-olds think twice about playing for Northwestern. Conditioning coaches would have to testify as to why players worked so hard to complete voluntary drills. They would talk about a sport in which -- at any school -- collapses occur.
But Will believes the school's aversion to a trial goes deeper. To her, Northwestern's $16 million offer is hush money, and she thinks the school made the offer only so that some darker truth, hidden in the bowels of an ever-struggling athletic program, will remain hidden. She won't believe Northwestern would give her 16 million reasons to go away if the university truly had nothing to hide.
To former Northwestern defensive tackle Matt Anderson, Wheeler's collapse didn't make sense. The Wildcats had all gone through the same summer conditioning sessions in 2001. "I just ran during that workout, and 60 other people did the same thing, and we're all fine," says Anderson. Then a sophomore, Anderson had arrived late to the conditioning session after commuting from his internship in downtown Chicago, and he panicked when he didn't see his team. Anderson says it was too hot on the team's regular practice field next to the football stadium, two miles inland, so the session had been moved to the lakeside field. Director of strength and conditioning Larry Lilja, head trainer Tory Aggeler and coordinator of football operations Justin Chabot were at the session. With some relief from the heat, Wheeler and several of his teammates ran a conditioning drill: Ten 100-yard dashes. Eight 80s. Six 60s. Four 40s. According to players, coaches told them that whoever successfully completed the drill would be excused from performing it during training camp, where the practices were far more intense.
The lawsuit against Northwestern alleged that players would have lost their status as starters if they failed to complete the drill. Although the practice was voluntary and therefore legal, the team incurred a secondary violation from the NCAA for recording and reporting results to the coaching staff. "It was not uncommon for guys to be lying on the ground, exhausted -- this was a difficult drill," Anderson says. "A lot of guys were struggling, a lot of guys were hurting, and Rashidi was one of them."
Media reports indicate that three other players also collapsed that day. But unlike the others, Wheeler didn't get back up. As the drill continued, a teammate helped the fallen Wheeler to the sideline. A trainer rushed to his aid and, mistaking Wheeler's short breath for hyperventilation, handed the downed safety a paper bag. Wheeler's breathing slowed, and he soon became unresponsive. Players who had finished the drill began to crowd around Wheeler, bewildered. Those who had not finished continued running. "It started to get serious when [Aggeler], who was working like crazy to get him to respond, started doing CPR," Anderson says.
Aggeler had tried an emergency phone near the field only to find that it was broken. A member of the team finally got through to 911 by cellphone, after several failed attempts due to reception problems, and an ambulance arrived at 5:11 p.m., about 10 minutes after Wheeler's collapse. As Wheeler was fighting for his life, tight end Eric Worley had jumped into his car and driven out to Sheridan Road to guide the ambulance back to the somewhat secluded practice field. Worley had no idea his friend was dying. "I just thought it was more of a standard-issue collapse," Worley says. "I didn't think it was going to be life-threatening. The longer it went on -- the paramedics were out doing CPR and using the defibrillator -- the longer he was down, the more concerned all of us were."
Anderson was back in his apartment an hour later when a teammate called from the hospital to tell him that Wheeler had died of exercise-induced bronchial asthma. Anderson sunk onto his bed, trying to comprehend what had happened. He called his parents so they wouldn't panic when they saw on the news that a Northwestern football player had died at practice. He decided he wanted to go home to Belvidere, Ill., 70 miles from Evanston, to be with his family, and drove to the stadium to gather some belongings from his locker. There he found several teammates who, like him, were confused and devastated. Some had been there for hours in silence, not knowing what to do. "I walked by [Wheeler's] locker and saw his blue jeans and his cellphone and his T-shirt," Anderson says, "and then it really hit me that he's not coming back. He's never going to wear those jeans again, he's never going to use that cellphone again."
At about that same time, Linda Will was at home in Ontario, Calif., expecting to hear from Rashidi. He had said he would call to tell her if he'd passed the difficult drill. "I was hungry. I wanted him to call me and I couldn't eat until he called," Will says. One of Will's sons did call, but not the one she expected. It was George Wheeler III, her oldest. He was calling from San Diego to tell her that Rashidi had had an asthma attack. Not long after, she heard from her ex-husband, who told her that Rashidi had died. In a state of shock, Will tried Rashidi's cellphone, which was answered by his teammate Kevin Bentley. Will recalls Bentley handing the phone to Walker, who told her they had done everything they could to save Wheeler.
The lawsuit was filed 20 days later. With the specter of Wheeler's death hanging over the team, the Wildcats, who had won a share of the Big Ten title a year earlier, faltered. They started 4-1, then lost their final six games. "When you lose someone that close to you, you don't know what to do from that point on," says Patrick. "With all the anger and sadness going on, it was like we were lost. We were reminded [of Wheeler] every single day when we had to be interviewed, so it was hard to really put it away even though we tried to. Later on in the season we tried to play for him. We couldn't get him out of our minds."
Some players noticed Walker's workouts getting easier. Water was more readily available. Breaks happened more frequently. There were those on the team who thought Walker would be fired, and some who hoped he would be. A hard-nosed, old-school coach in the mold of Woody Hayes, Walker rarely entertained excuses and rubbed some players the wrong way. Wheeler's death fueled those players' dislike for their coach. Anderson and Worley, however, never doubted that Walker would weather the monsoon of accusations being made by both Will and the local media. And he did. Northwestern did not fire Walker, and the school has said in statements that all involved staff members acted "valiantly" on that day. That itself irks Will, and she says she won't back down.
Though Will and her lawyer have said that Hershel supports his mother's fight for a trial, the court has appointed lawyer George Collins to make legal decisions in the best interest of Wheeler's three minor half brothers, regardless of their parents' or their own wishes. Both Rashidi's father, George Wheeler Jr., and Collins support the settlement.
"It's an exceptional amount of money," says Thomas Demetrio, George Wheeler Jr.'s lawyer. "Sound common sense has to kick in somewhere along the line."
Unhappy with counsel that wanted to settle, Will has fired several lawyers, including the late Johnnie Cochran. Her current representatives are A. Denison Weaver and Benjamin Obi Nwoye, and at a hearing on Sept. 6 she tried to fire them, too. Will wanted to speak in court, but Judge Kathy Flanagan had instructed that as long as Will had lawyers, she could speak only through them. Will responded by temporarily dismissing Weaver and Nwoye, but Flanagan called it a "ruse." When Will continued to try to speak, Flanagan threatened to jail her for disrupting proceedings. "She says she recognizes that I exist, yet they're treating me as nonexistent," Will said in Chicago a few hours after that hearing. She did not attend the proceedings on Sept. 12 at which the settlement was approved by the court. Two weeks ago she was back in Chicago for a hearing to determine how the $16 million settlement Will still refuses to accept should be disbursed among Rashidi's heirs.
It is another blow in a fight that has been floundering for months. Most likely, a jury will never hear about the medical records that disappeared after Wheeler's death. It will not see the video of Wheeler falling to his hands and knees, then being treated while the conditioning drill continued.
"It's devastating. We've been fighting so long we haven't had time to grieve," Will says. "I'm not trying to destroy the university. I respect the university."
She says she has felt like a lawyer lately, constantly shuffling through paperwork and bouncing between Chicago and Ontario for hearings and depositions. When Judge Flanagan divides up the settlement, the latest chapter will close, and maybe then Will will have time to grieve. But four years after the tragic death of her son, she won't let anybody forget why she's doing this.
Issue date: November 14, 2005