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George O’Leary tells his side of UCF back’s fatal ’08 collapse

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Based on the initial, unflattering accounts, it's never been hard to cue up the minor chords and maybe cast a shadow or two on Central Florida coach George O'Leary when it comes to Ereck Plancher, the 19-year-old UCF running back who fatally collapsed at the end of a workout run by O'Leary on March 18, 2008. But it wasn't until Monday, when former teammate Anthony Davis took the stand to testify in a wrongful death suit brought by the Plancher family against the university, that the coach emerged as a straight-up villain. According to Davis and another former player, Cody Minnich, O'Leary angrily ordered trainers and water out of the facility before Plancher's collapse, and verbally berated Plancher when he showed signs of distress — possibly with the knowledge that he carried a disorder, sickle cell trait, that made him susceptible extreme reactions under stress.

Today, O'Leary took his turn on the stand to counter the accusations, insisting that rumors of his callousness had been greatly exaggerated:

[Plancher family attorney Steve] Yerrid asked O'Leary whether it would have been reckless to order athletic trainers away from a sickle cell trait athlete on March 18, 2008. O'Leary responded it was not a yes or no answer. He said he was at the workout on March 18, 2008 — the day Plancher died — and no athletic trainers were ordered to leave the fieldhouse and no water was removed from the facility during the workout.
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O'Leary was asked if he singled out and berated Plancher. The coach said no. Yerrid asked if O'Leary told Plancher he should be ashamed of himself, and the coach said "no, I did not."

Yerrid later asked if O'Leary singled Plancher out in the huddle. O'Leary eventually was allowed to finish his question after some interruptions. The coach said, "What I said was 'Where's Ereck Plancher?' He raised his hand."

O'Leary said once he located Plancher, he told the player, "You're better than that. I expect all our wide receivers and DBs [defensive backs] to be able to run."

O'Leary said he hadn't noticed Plancher in distress during the workout, and, observing from 35 yards away, dismissed Plancher's fall at the start of a run as an accidental stumble. (He also attributed the fact that Plancher finished several yards behind his teammates, including the offensive linemen, to the stumble.) Asked if athletes carrying sickle cell trait — a disorder that's been cited in the deaths of multiple Division I football players over the last decade, and which Plancher carried according to an autopsy and expert testimony — should be "addressed with concern and empathy" so they feel comfortable expressing distress, O'Leary pled ignorance: "I did not know he was suffering from any ailment when I addressed him."{YSP:MORE}

The latter point is a key one for the university, which has argued that Plancher died of a congenital heart defect, not sickle cell, and that trainers and coaches had no reason to respond differently because they didn't know he carried the trait. The family counters that the university did know, but failed to inform Ereck about possible risks and failed to follow proper protocol for a sickle cell athlete in distress. Head trainer Mary Vander Heiden, testifying via video deposition just ahead of O'Leary, said she couldn't say for sure whether she had informed Plancher he had tested positive for the trait and didn't have any evidence in writing that she did, but also said she was "shocked" to hear a fellow trainer who was on the field when Plancher collapse — the only certified trainer on hand at that point — testify in his own deposition that he didn't know Plancher had sickle cell. When paramedics arrived, she said, she informed them Plancher had tested positive for the trait.

An assistant coach, Tim Salem, also testified via video that he only learned Plancher had sickle cell through the newspaper, and had called other coaches about it. ("…[A]s soon as I read that newspaper, I called one of our other coaches immediately and said did you know that so-and-so had sickle cell, because I sure as hell didn't.") In addition to all of the other questions, then, jurors will have to ask themselves this: At what point in the chain does the coaches' not knowing a player had tested positive for a potentially lethal condition become as incriminating to the program as if they did know?

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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