Posted: Thursday July 21, 2005 1:15PM; Updated: Thursday July 21, 2005 4:06PM
Positioned a good deal closer to the action was Isaacson, who reacted with astonishment when she realized she'd be working alone and with unfettered access to the field outside the white lines. "I don't think that's ever happened, where I've been the only visual documentarian [at a football event]," she told me, "and I'm pretty sure it'll never happen again."
From her view, Isaacson could see O'Neal wasn't the only player to labor through the workout. The day's final drill, which called for players to execute a series of runs forward and backward before rolling to the turf, emptied the stomach of one player while exhausting a few others. Going into the session's last two drills, Isaacson says she noticed a change in O'Neal's pace. He couldn't run at full speed; jogging or walking seemed like a chore.
The lack of energy cost him a passing grade on the day's final drill -- an exercise he was forced to repeat. Thanks to a little coaxing from his teammates, who playfully squirted water bottles in his direction as he ran through the cones a second time, O'Neal made it through. Mercifully, the practice was over. That's when things got a little hazy.
I'll let Isaacson, who saw the whole thing unfold from the field, take it from here: "[O'Neal] was toward the back of the group," she says. "I was facing his back. I saw him start to slide down. The guy that he was kind of leaning against gently stepped away from him and let him fall to the ground and just let him lay there. I could tell [O'Neal] was in bad shape."
But no one in the bleachers could tell could tell what had happened -- including Baer, who interviewed Ivey after the practice had concluded. Nobody asked about O'Neal, says Baer, because no one realized he was in trouble. "In hindsight, maybe the training staff should have known better," Baer says. "Maybe he's struggled before. I don't know. No one's really talking about that."
Baer and Isaacson saw O'Neal lay on his side for less than a minute before arousing concern. As Isaacson moved in to document the situation, one of O'Neal's teammates, sophomore defensive lineman Lorenzo Williams, who had moved away from O'Neal to give him some air, began teasing him. "Dude, she's taking pictures of you," he yelled. "Get up! Get up!"
Isaacson grew uncomfortable. "I'm very behind the scenes," she says. "I don't like being a part of what I'm trying to document. So I just tried to separate myself from the situation, and I stopped taking photos for maybe 10-15 seconds." Isaacson looked back at O'Neal to find him doubled over at the 30-yard line, propping his 220-pound frame with two balled-up fists. She says he eventually mustered up enough strength to walk off the field and one of the trainers helped steady O'Neal with a hand at his back. According to Isaacson, Darren Meade, a junior walk-on wideout, swooped to his aide soon thereafter, throwing O'Neal's meaty arm over his shoulder and helping him off the field and into the locker room at the south end of Memorial Stadium.
Baer and Isaacson said It would be the last time any of the players or media would see O'Neal alive. The players had retreated to the weight room to lift, but stopped after several coaches ran in and shooed them into the locker room. Waiting inside was an ambulance. Williams told Graham Watson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he remembered seeing the ambulance and thinking, "I wonder why they're here?"
O'Neal was taken to nearby University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 4:05 p.m. Williams didn't find out about O'Neal's death until he heard it on the 6 p.m. news. "I pretty much blame myself for a lot of it, pushing him and all," said Williams a day later, adding that he's eaten and slept little since his friend's passing. "He's like a real close dude to me, so he was always telling me to stay on him, make sure he's doing good. ... I feel the worst about it. I'm supposed to be a leader, and I feel like I let my guy down."
A full medical examiner inquiry -- including toxicology testes and other laboratory analysis -- is forthcoming. But what happened during the two or so hours between when O'Neal ducked into the tunnel to presumably seek medical attention and the moment when he died is still a mystery. And an NCAA rule that prohibits universities from disclosing medical information on their students means it might remain one. The media relations department took it from there, and remains tight-lipped as always.
Not long after the Boone County medical examiner's office had completed its preliminary autopsy, Valerie Rao, an official with the office, was to appear at a news conference along with Pinkel and share the details of her report. Fearing those details too gruesome, Pinkel, who had visited O'Neal's family earlier in that same day, asked to face reports by himself and that Rao be saved for a later date. When reporters, hopeful for some insight into what caused O'Neal's death, inquired about Rao's absence, sports information director Chad Moller blamed it on a scheduling conflict.
Rao, meanwhile, told local media she was told point-blank not to appear. Rao, who is a forensics professor at the university, says, "I was embarrassed."
The Tribune ran five of Isaacson's photos (all of them timestamped) above the fold of its front page in the July 13 issue -- the largest one showing O'Neal running through the penultimate drill under Ivey's watchful eye.
A more detailed, 18-frame slide show appeared on the newspaper's Web site. It shows O'Neal from the moment he started stretching to the moment he was helped off the field. The most startling slide is No. 14, which shows a prone O'Neal on his side, right arm pinned beneath his chest, the right side of his face pressed against the ground and his left hand (a Livestrong bracelet visible on his left wrist) propping up the other side of his body.
The decision to include that photo in the gallery has sparked debate in Columbia and beyond. Tribune subscribers have condemned the paper's pics as distasteful -- even morbid. Others have questioned whether running the photos was a breach of privacy. Isaacson says O'Neal's father, Lonnie, called her the morning after her pictures ran to thank her for allowing him to see his son one last time. "I know you were at the practice," he said. "You took some beautiful pictures."
The images of a community in mourning are elegant. At the gates of Memorial Stadium, a makeshift shrine of flowers and sympathy cards -- even poems from teammates -- continues to grow. Back in O'Neal's hometown of St. Louis, family and friends remembered him for his warm soul and quiet perseverance. MU will hold a memorial service Thursday at Mizzou Arena.
That he went out the way -- while shocking -- wasn't out of character, according to one former high school classmate. "When I ran track, I remember even if he was tired, he'd keep going. He just had a determination," said 18-year-old Jennifer Kemp, who attended Parkway North along with O'Neal. Later that evening, hours after returning from the funeral on Monday, a number of O'Neal's teammates caucused back on campus and agreed to resume the voluntary workouts the next morning. About 30 players returned to the field at 7 a.m. Tuesday. The session was closed to reporters. Rao, will interview each of the 11 other players, the eight conditioning coaches and three trainers present at the fatal afternoon workout. The university, meanwhile, is also conducting an investigation.
The good news is, well, some good news will come out of this: the truth.