June 21, 2011
It's been more than three years since 19-year-old Ereck Plancher collapsed and died during a workout for Central Florida football players on March 18, 2008, and almost precisely as long that his coach, George O'Leary, has faced scrutiny for his immediate response that day. Within weeks, stories citing multiple teammates emerged describing the workouts as unusually "intense," and accusing O'Leary of singling out Plancher and cursing at him when the running back began to show signs of distress. By the end of that year, the head trainer had admitted he wasn't present when Plancher collapsed, a second player had collapsed of kidney failure during another workout and the Plancher family had decided to bring a wrongful death suit against the university.
Testimony in that suit finally began last week, with the case essentially hinging on sparring doctors advancing competing claims on the cause of death: Citing the an autopsy, the family insists Plancher died as a result of sickle cell trait, a genetic disorder cited in the death of multiple Division I football players over the last decade (and for which many schools test every player), while the university counters that the culprit was an unrelated congenital heart defect that — unlike sickle cell trait — it couldn't have known about. Either way, though, if the jury is inclined to believe Monday's testimony by one of Plancher's former teammates on O'Leary's alleged decision to angrily cast out water and trainers just before the fateful collapse, the distinction may not matter:
Anthony Davis said that UCF coach George O'Leary ordered all water and trainers out of the indoor fieldhouse during the practice on March 18, 2008. He also testified during the wrongful death trial in Orlando that the coach was yelling obscenities at Plancher as he told him to get up after falling during an obstacle course drill.
Davis said he had to help the 19-year-old Plancher during one of the drills and also helped carry him off the field after his collapse. He described the workout that included weightlifting, conditioning exercises, an obstacle course and sprints as "intense."
The 25-year-old described O'Leary as angry when he ordered water and trainers off the field.
"He said it in a mean voice," Davis said. "He was mad and upset. It felt like he was punishing us because we didn't do the obstacle course right."
The Orlando Sentinel account elaborates on Davis' testimony:
Davis said following the obstacle course, he could tell Plancher was in distress. "You could see his eyes almost as though they were rolling in the back of his head," Davis said.
[Davis] said the team then lined up to do gassers, which are sprints from the sideline to sideline that must be completed in 18 seconds. Davis said Plancher lined up with the sophomores and fell immediately. Davis said he did not think Plancher tripped or stub his toe, instead falling because he was tired. Davis said players on the sideline were moving to help him up, but the coaches ordered them to step back and cursed at Plancher to get up. Davis said Plancher slowly finished the drill last.
"It was scary, pretty much to me, in my opinion," Davis said. "Actually seeing him like that, not being able to help, hearing the language I heard, it made it seemed he was pretty much on his own and there was nothing anyone could do."
After the sprints, Davis said O'Leary called the team into a huddle to end practice, but then ordered one more sprint and jumping jacks. Plancher didn't have the strength to do the jumping jacks, he said while demonstrating his former teammate's inability to raise his arms, and collapsed soon after.
UCF lawyers were quick to point out contradictions between Davis' testimony and his sworn statement for the record in April 2008, which didn't mention water or trainers being ordered off the field. Davis responded that he wasn't specifically asked about either at the time, only to "tell his story," and that he felt intimidated by the presence of one of O'Leary's friends in the room during that interview. Beforehand, Davis said, O'Leary told players "these people don't care about you" and "keep it simple."
But Davis' description is far from the only one incriminating the basic response of coaches and trainers. Another player had already testified that no one intervened when Plancher began showing signs of distress. The witness that followed Davis on the stand, University of Connecticut kinesiology professor Douglas Casa, cited seven player depositions reporting that Plancher showed signs of distress or abnormally lagging behind teammates in the workout, called UCF's training staff at the time "woefully understaffed" — especially because it didn't include a full-time physician — and concluded that "most of the policy and procedures weren't followed with regard to sickle cell trait."
The university's counter: Casa is a witness for the defense and stands to make up to $50,000 for his work on the case over the last three years. The jury may buy that, and UCF's claim that trainers didn't know about Plancher's sickle cell trait before his death. Maybe jurors will find the differences between the 2008 and 2011 versions of Davis' story too unpersuasive to stick the university with legal consequences.
But regardless of the eventual verdict, I think it's a given after Monday that more than a few people around Orlando are going to start asking some pointed questions about O'Leary's paycheck, too, questions that have been long in coming since players first indicated the workout crossed the line immediately following Plancher's death. And then, after that, maybe the paychecks of some of the bosses who saw fit to keep the head coach around for three years, at least in part, to avoid admitting culpability for what appears to have been an avoidable student death. Even if the jury decides in their favor financially, O'Leary and Central Florida have already lost.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.