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Looking for answers

Tigers left with questions after player's death

Posted: Thursday July 21, 2005 1:15PM; Updated: Thursday July 21, 2005 4:06PM
Aaron O'Neal
Aaron O'Neal participates in the Tigers voluntary workout shortly before his death on July 12.
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It's been awhile since the University of Missouri, my beloved alma mater, has had good news to report. And even after positive headlines about the Tigers, bad news never looms too far behind.

Last football season, the prospect of a Heisman-winning quarterback in Brad Smith was thwarted by a sub-.500 season.

Embattled men's basketball coach Quin Snyder, feted like royalty (a savior!) upon his arrival in Columbia, has tainted the program with a recruiting scandal. The palatial new arena that was to be his kingdom's crown jewel was named for an heiress (not his) who allegedly cheated her way though school, and the arena out of a proper marquee.

The worst news came last week when a promising young football player in the prime of his life inexplicably died. Aaron O'Neal, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman linebacker on the Mizzou team, died July 12 when he collapsed following a voluntary conditioning workout on the school's campus. The cause of death has not been determined, though a preliminary autopsy report completed last Wednesday ruled out infection, trauma and foul play. Until the full toxicology report ordered by the Boone County medical examiner's office is completed, we can only wonder how the 6-foot-3, 220-pound teddy bear known simply as "A.O." to those closest to him died so quickly.

O'Neal was among 12 players attending an hour-long workout at Faurot Field. The session, which was the second of the day, was being conducted by Pat Ivey, the team's strength and conditioning coach. Ivey enlisted seven assistants to help with the workout, while Rex Sharp, MU's director of sports medicine and a pair of trainers, watched from the bleachers.  Also joining Sharp in the stands were select media members -- no small concession for a historically reticent athletics department with a healthy contempt for the Fourth Estate. Journalists weren't allowed to attend offseason sessions in years past, but last week's practice was availed to two writers (one from the Columbia Daily Tribune and one from a Web site), a campus radio reporter and a Tribune still photographer, whose telling, 18-frame Web-only photo essay became the subject of a spirited ethical debate. The following account of that afternoon's events was compiled from interviews with the Tribune reporter, Rus Baer, and photographer, Jenna Isaacson as well as local news accounts.

 Under NCAA rules, no coach is allowed to attend these offseason workouts. Head coach Gary Pinkel was in Las Vegas at a conference at the time.

Heat wasn't an issue. With Hurricane Dennis working its way inland, the temperature in Columbia was cooling. The conditions seemed ideal for an outdoor practice. Or as Baer, the Trib beat writer, told me, "It didn't look like a practice where someone would die." The players had come off a week's respite. (To jibe with NCAA rules, Tigers players practice in groups for eight weeks, with a week off in at the end.)

Things got under way at around 1:30 p.m., and proceeded as normal. The players stretched, ran and jumped while the coaches barked. Water was readily available. Baer watched the practice from a front-row seat in the bleachers and says he saw nothing out of the ordinary until the 45-minute mark, when he noticed O'Neal lagging behind his teammates. O'Neal's behavior invited the typical response from his coaches (or trainers, as was the case on this day) -- an out-and-out reaming. As someone who's covered football practices -- high school, college and pro -- I can't say the lack of sympathy comes as much of a surprise. It ain't heartless. It's football. Had I been there, I would have chalked it up to nothing more than a player battling through a bad practice.