Commentary

Conditioned for death: Could UCF have prevented the Ereck Plancher tragedy?

Originally Published: November 2, 2008
By Mark Fainaru-Wada | ESPN

ORLANDO, Fla. -- At approximately 9 a.m. on Tuesday, March 18, members of the University of Central Florida football team begin an hour-long weightlifting session.

Sometime after 10, they enter Nicholson Fieldhouse, the program's $4.1 million indoor training facility, for an off-season conditioning session. It is the squad's first workout after spring break, with spring practice scheduled to start the following day. Most of the doors to Nicholson are closed.

What happens over the course of the next half-hour or so is now largely in dispute. Few people will talk about it openly, and fewer still will offer many details.

What is known for certain is that at 10:48 a.m., shortly after the conditioning session is completed, a member of the University of Central Florida's football staff calls 911.

"Ereck! Ereck!" the person yells, as UCF police dispatch answers the call.

The person hands the phone to another member of the UCF staff, who says urgently, "We have a kid in sheer exhaustion, possibly going into cardiac arrest. So we need somebody here ASAP."

At 10:52, UCF police Sgt. Elwood "Woody" Furnas arrives on the scene to find a player unconscious, stretched out on a bench in front of Nicholson and being tended to by a team trainer.

Ereck Plancher
Landov MediaEreck Plancher would have been a redshirt freshman for Central Florida this season. The circumstances surrounding his death in March are still at issue.
An automated external defibrillator is attached to the player, and Furnas joins the trainer in performing CPR.

There is no response.

At 10:56, Orange County Fire and Rescue arrives to take over treatment. The player has no pulse and is unresponsive.

At 11:06, the player is hoisted onto a stretcher as trainers, coaches and some teammates look on, stunned. The player is still unresponsive.

At 11:09, an ambulance, carrying the player, leaves the UCF football facility to begin the nine-mile drive to Florida Hospital East. Emergency personnel continue resuscitation efforts.

At 11:21, the ambulance pulls into the hospital parking lot.

At 11:51, Ereck Michael Plancher is pronounced dead.

The questions begin

Nearly eight months later, the death of Plancher, a seemingly healthy and fit 19-year-old redshirt freshman wide receiver, has raised questions about the school's handling of the situation before, during and after Plancher collapsed, and also led to a possible wrongful-death lawsuit.

A six-month "Outside the Lines" investigation indicates:

• Coaches and team trainers were aware Plancher suffered from an inherited condition, sickle-cell trait, that can restrict blood flow to vital parts of the body and cause serious problems during high-intensity workouts. But they didn't appear to employ precautions that had been recommended by a national athletic trainers' organization nine months before Plancher died. The group, citing nine sudden deaths among young athletes with the trait since 2000, warned of complications arising from overexertion -- particularly on the first day of training -- and suggested gradual increases in workouts, longer rest periods and immediate withdrawal with the onset of symptoms.

• Plancher struggled severely at the end of the March 18 workout, and eyewitnesses say coaches and trainers were slow to respond. Two players who participated in the workout say personnel did not step in when Plancher was clearly in distress during a sprint. They also say that when they tried to help their teammate get to his feet at the end of the session, they were told to let Plancher get up on his own. He got up, still with some help, took a step, then collapsed.

Documenting a death

In the course of ESPN's six-month investigation into the death of University of Central Florida wide receiver Ereck Plancher, "Outside the Lines" obtained a number of documents that detail the efforts to save him on the day he collapsed during a training session, as well as the university's health screen that showed Plancher carried sickle-cell trait, and the Plancher family's notice of intent to sue for wrongful death.

Read them here.

• The UCF Police Department's Incident Report. PDF
• The Orange County Fire Rescue Department Incident Report. PDF
• The Orange County Medical Examiner's statement. PDF
• Lab results showing that Plancher suffered from sickle-cell trait. PDF
• The Plancher family's notice of intent to sue. PDF

• After Plancher's death, UCF coach George O'Leary and athletic department officials significantly understated the difficulty of the conditioning session in their public statements.

• Some of Plancher's teammates were afraid to discuss details of the workout for fear of losing their scholarships. Ultimately, two former players who participated in the workout agreed to speak to "Outside the Lines" on the record, though reluctantly.

• The school did not begin interviewing players about the incident until more than a month after it happened; even then, some players with relevant information were never questioned.

"They never tell us really how he died," Plancher's Haitian-born father, Enock, says. "They only tell us he collapse and died. That's all they tell us."

"Outside the Lines" first contacted UCF in May to request interviews with O'Leary, athletic director Keith Tribble, team trainers and several players. In early June, a UCF spokesman said that O'Leary and Tribble were "on board," that schedules were being checked to pick a day for the interviews and that players would be asked if they wanted to speak. Soon thereafter, the school reversed course: O'Leary wouldn't talk, and the player requests would not even be forwarded. After the Planchers filed their intent to sue Aug. 1, the school said Tribble would not be made available.

Tribble issued a statement to "Outside the Lines" last week, stating, "From what we have learned to date, our review of the March 18 workout has shown that coaches and staff acted appropriately."

A life erased

There are no pictures on the walls in the Naples, Fla., home where Ereck Plancher grew up, only holes where frames once displayed the broad smile of a self-ordained "Mama's Boy." Football jerseys, socks, bed linens and other fabrics of Ereck's life are stored in boxes that have been shoved into the corner of a laundry room being remodeled. They're out of the way so Gisele Plancher can try to avoid the reality that her first-born is dead.

"That goes through my mind all day long. Every day, I have to go through that, every day," says Gisele, who was born and raised in Haiti. " … Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I don't want to live anymore."

In Ereck, the Planchers say they had the ideal child. Interviews with family, friends, teammates, pastors and coaches reflect a kid who was humble and admired by virtually anyone who came in contact with him. A big brother who not only didn't resent his baby sibling but who made sure that Edwin, nine years his junior, was regularly by his side. A God-fearing son who didn't swear, who said "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am," who was dedicated to his studies and who didn't feel the need to pierce his body or ink it up with tattoos.

[+] EnlargeGeorge O'Leary
Getty ImagesUCF head coach George O'Leary refused an "Outside the Lines" interview request to discuss the practice at which Plancher died.
Ereck was a member of the National Honor Society at Lely High School in Naples, had earned a 3.9 grade point average there and had no problem with prioritizing: Family, religion, school, friends, and then sports (particularly football).

"The kid was just a special, special person," says Chris Metzger, who coached Plancher at Lely. "There's just no other way to put it, man. If you have daughters, you wanted them to marry Ereck."

Plancher was a special athlete at Lely. He was a first-team all-area and all-conference running back in his junior and senior years. Recruited to play wide receiver at UCF, he graduated early and enrolled in Orlando to get a head start on school and on football.

The transition to playing for O'Leary, according to many of Plancher's friends and family members, did not go smoothly. They said he was put off by O'Leary's swearing and the feeling that the coach wasn't connected in any way with his players, and he found the training sessions difficult.

In talks with friends and his former coach, Metzger, Plancher said he thought about quitting. He also mentioned that at one point, he had collapsed.

"He told me, 'It was just such an intense workout, Coach, I don't know if this is for me,'" Metzger says. "I just urged him to hang in there, that it would be OK. He just collapsed. It scared him. He had exerted himself to the point of exhaustion."

Gisele, so doting a mother that she often called Ereck as many as six times a day, says she got the feeling something wasn't right for her son in Orlando. But he never said anything to her.

On the Sunday before he died, at the end of spring break, Ereck kept putting off his 240-mile drive back to Orlando. He was supposed to leave at noon, then said he was leaving at 2. He started playing with his brother, then took a nap. At 6 p.m., Gisele woke him and told him to get going. She called him several times while he was driving.

The last time Gisele spoke with Ereck was Monday evening.

She asked about his day ("I'm doing fine, Mommy."). She asked about practice ("No, we didn't start practice today. We start tomorrow."). She told him she loved him and then said, "Remember, I will stand by you for anything."

What made her say that?

"When I talk to him, he don't seem happy," Gisele says. "I don't know; I force him to tell me but he didn't tell me. He just say, 'I'm doing fine.'"

'It was like he was just out of it.'

The next morning, Tuesday, the UCF football team returned to its offseason conditioning sessions. The players lifted in the weight room for at least an hour, then moved to Nicholson Fieldhouse for conditioning.

It was 70 degrees outside at 10 a.m., with about 50 percent humidity and 9 mph winds blowing to the southeast. O'Leary, though, always had his team do agility drills in the indoor facility, according to a former player. The athletic department Web site describes Nicholson as "climate controlled by a series of industrial-size air conditioning fans located at both the north and south endzones." However, according to two former UCF players, the fans only seem to stir up the heat. One of the former players, who requested anonymity, says some members of the team nicknamed the building "The Oven."

Sickle-cell trait

Diagnosis of sickle-cell trait in athletes is a fairly recent medical development. But at the time Ereck Plancher died, there was information readily available to the University of Central Florida training staff about precautions to take during high-intensity workouts.

"Outside the Lines" reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada details the evolution of the awareness of the trait among athletic trainers and military doctors over the past four decades.

Fainaru-Wada: Hard lessons learned

The other player, running back James Jamison, was one of Ereck Plancher's close friends and often ran alongside him during conditioning drills. Jamison was still playing for UCF that day, as was Jevaughn Reams, a wide receiver who also later left the team.

Jamison and Reams are the first players to go on the record about what took place inside Nicholson that morning. Their stories -- aspects of which are corroborated by other players who requested anonymity -- undercut O'Leary's characterization of the workout as "not taxing," and also suggest coaches and trainers didn't respond to obvious signs Plancher was struggling.

Jamison, who offers the most vivid and specific details, says the conditioning session began as usual, with the players breaking into groups by position and participating in three different stations, spending five minutes at each. At the first station, players stood on a line, sprinted in the direction a coach pointed, then returned to the line and continued until the whistle. At the second station, they ran over some bags and weaved in and out of others. At the final station, they got on all fours, shuffled to the left, then to the right, then stood up and sprinted forward.

"We were just supposed to do that and be done," says Jamison, who has since transferred to Division II Texas A&M-Commerce. "We all went through them. [Plancher] went through them. He made it through them all. Everybody made it through, no problem; and we thought that was it.

"But then Coach O'Leary came in and he was like, 'Get me some cones and bags and set them up.'"

Jamison and Reams describe a drill with cones and bags that they had never performed before: a 100-yard obstacle course in which the players weaved through cones, ran over bags, weaved through more cones and finally did a flip onto a large mattress set up at the end. Then they sprinted back the 100 yards to the start.

The players broke into positions, and O'Leary had them perform the drill twice. Jamison says it was especially challenging.

"People who would normally be in front, never complaining about running, never getting tired, they were on the ground, cramping, throwing up and stuff," Jamison says. " … It was just something new. We weren't used to this, so everybody's body was just shutting down on them pretty much."

Jamison says his group went before Plancher's group, and he wasn't able to see how his friend performed during the obstacle course. Again, Jamison and others thought the conditioning session was done. But again, they were wrong.

O'Leary told the players to get on the line to run gassers -- sideline-to-sideline sprints, up and back, covering a total of 107 yards. Jamison was next to Plancher; and when they took off, he noticed Plancher wasn't running at normal speed. Jamison says he didn't think much of it because everybody was tired.

When they finished the first one, O'Leary called for a second gasser. This time, within steps of leaving the line, Plancher fell down. Jamison didn't stop, figuring his friend had slipped and would get up and keep running. But Plancher was slow to get up and so slow to finish that the rest of his group was done with the gasser, standing on the line and watching along with the rest of the team as Plancher struggled to complete the sprint.

[+] EnlargeKeith Tribble
Landov MediaUniversity of Central Florida athletic director Keith Tribble told a press conference shortly after Plancher's death that the workout had lasted 10 minutes.
"It was like he was just out of it," Jamison says. "It was like he was just running as slow as can be, like he was walking. … He was just staring. About every step he took, it was like he was about to fall over. It was literally like everybody was just looking at him, like he was pushing his body past his limit."

Finally, they were done. No trainers approached Plancher, according to Jamison and Reams. The team huddled around O'Leary as was customary at the end of workouts. Plancher was in the back of the huddle, down on one knee, struggling to his catch his breath.

According to Jamison and Reams, as well as other players who requested anonymity, O'Leary said to Plancher, "That's a bunch of bulls--- out of you, son. You're better than that."

Jamison says he was struck that O'Leary singled out Plancher, given that everyone was tired. But Reams says he didn't think much of it, suggesting it's "what coaches do."

O'Leary later denied a similar account to the Orlando Sentinel, saying he didn't swear at Plancher. He acknowledged, though, that he said Plancher was "better than that."

After O'Leary finished talking, the players broke into positions to do jumping jacks, again as was customary. Jamison says Plancher was standing by the offensive linemen, dazed, seemingly still trying to catch his breath. Somebody grabbed him and moved him over with the wide receivers.

"He couldn't even do the jumping jacks, really," Jamison says. "It was like he tried to do one and was just like … " To demonstrate, Jamison raises his arms halfway up and flails.

When the jumping jacks were completed, the players huddled and then began to jog off the field. But almost immediately, Plancher collapsed. Jamison says he and another teammate yelled to the trainers, but no one responded.

"We were trying to pick him up and it was like his legs couldn't even stand," Jamison says. "They was like Jell-O."

Jamison says O'Leary told the players to let Plancher try to get up on his own. Reams agrees with this, though he doesn't specifically name O'Leary, saying only that "coaches and trainers" told the players to have Plancher try to get up by himself.

Jamison says he and the other teammate kept hold of Plancher's arms as he rose, but according to both Jamison and Reams, Plancher went down again.

"He tried to stand up and just wobbled and fell back down," Jamison says.

This time, Jamison and Reams say trainers rushed to Plancher. Jamison and three other players carried their 180-pound teammate out of Nicholson and laid him on a bench directly outside. It's unclear who decided to move Plancher or why the decision was made.

"We couldn't even carry him. We had to take four of us to carry him outside and lay him on the bench," Jamison says. "It was like his body was really that heavy."

Jamison says O'Leary then ordered the players back into Nicholson while trainers began working on Plancher and called 911. But Jamison says he sneaked out to watch, and saw the trainers and the police and the defibrillator and the ambulance.

"They were trying to revive him and there was nothing," Jamison says.

Asked how long the conditioning session lasted, Jamison estimates about 30-35 minutes.

The sickle-cell warnings

When Ereck Plancher first arrived at UCF in January 2007, he, like every other football player, underwent a physical. One of the tests the school conducted revealed that he possessed sickle-cell trait -- an inherited condition that did not preclude him from participating fully in football but at the time had been linked to nine sudden deaths in young athletes since 2000. (That number is now 11).

According to lab results obtained by "Outside the Lines," a Jan. 8 blood test on Plancher by UCF showed positive for sickle-cell trait. A second test, on June 22, again identified him as positive for the trait. A school spokesman later said coaches and trainers were aware of the test results and that Plancher was informed about them, as well.

Sickle-cell trait had become a topic of growing concern among some athletic trainers, who feared that without proper education and simple precautions, there would be more deaths. One in 12 African-Americans possesses the trait, according to the Centers for Disease Control, so football teams could sometimes have several athletes with the condition.

Studies show that an athlete with sickle-cell trait can run into problems during high-intensity workouts when red blood cells change from oval to sickle-shaped. Those elongated cells can become logjammed in small blood vessels, preventing parts of the body from receiving the oxygen they need.

The NATA statement

In June of 2007, a task force organized by the National Athletic Trainers' Association issued a report and held a press conference about the dangers of sickle-cell trait and high-intensity workouts. The report was made public nine months before Ereck Plancher collapsed and died at the University of Central Florida. Read NATA's consensus statement here.

On June 7, 2007 -- two weeks before Plancher was screened for the trait a second time -- the condition was the focus of a warning by the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA), an organization consisting of 30,000 certified athletic trainers and other support personnel. Many of the nation's college athletic trainers are members of NATA, including the UCF staff, according to a school spokesman.

At NATA's annual convention in Anaheim, Calif., a task force issued a report and held a press conference highlighting potential dangers for athletes who carry the trait, and recommending precautions to prevent the onset of sickle-cell collapse. The committee's consensus statement and accompanying press release were posted on the NATA Web site.

A UCF spokesman said he believed the school's trainers were in attendance at the convention. It's unknown whether any UCF personnel attended the press conference or read the report.

Of particular note to the task force was that a number of the fatal cases had occurred during the first day of conditioning -- such as the one Plancher participated in nine months later -- when players are pushed to their limits, running sprints and/or doing timed testing drills.

"Sickling can begin in only 2-3 minutes of sprinting -- or in any other all-out exertion -- and sickling can quickly increase to grave levels if the stricken athlete struggles on or is urged on by the coach," read the consensus statement.

The task force suggested "simple precautions" could prevent sickling collapse, including gradual progression in workouts, additional time for rest and recovery and immediate withdrawal from training if the athlete shows symptoms, such as an inability to "catch breath" and fatigue.

"Athletes with sickle cell trait should be excluded from participation in performance tests such as mile runs, serial sprints, etc., as several deaths have occurred from participation in this setting," wrote the NATA task force.

UCF declined to offer details about steps coaches or trainers took when they learned Plancher had the trait. The school's main spokesman said, "Our trainers are aware of the guidelines regarding student-athletes and, as such, the health of our student-athletes is our top priority."

On the Web site for the Collegiate Sports Medicine Foundation, an organization that supports college athletic programs, UCF's head football athletic trainer, Mary Vander Heiden, is listed as the primary contact on a page devoted to treating athletes with sickle-cell trait.

'It was not a taxing workout.'

A few hours after Plancher was pronounced dead, Tribble, the athletic director, went before the media, read from a statement and answered a few questions.

"Today is a sad day for our university, our athletic program, our fans, and the UCF community," Tribble said.

About what happened, Tribble said, "We are still in the fact-gathering process, but I can tell you what we know at this minute. Following the completion of today's offseason conditioning program, Ereck apparently took to one knee as the team departed our fieldhouse. The UCF training staff was on-site and attended to him immediately, including administering CPR."

Tribble also said the team had participated in a "basic conditioning" drill that lasted 10 minutes, and that the day's workout also had included a "weights component."

[+] EnlargeNicholson Field House
ESPNSome players call the inside of UCF's Nicholson Fieldhouse, where Plancher collapsed during conditioning drills, "The Oven."
That afternoon, Nehemie Marcelin and three of Plancher's other close friends rushed to campus seeking answers. Marcelin and the others were high school pals of Plancher's back in Naples, but they had moved to the Orlando area after their friend helped them find a junior college near UCF. Upon arriving at campus, they went directly to O'Leary's office, where a secretary escorted them in to meet the coach.

Inside, Marcelin says O'Leary, joined by three assistant coaches, spent about 20 minutes with the young men, talking about what a good person their friend had been. According to Marcelin, the coach described how Plancher collapsed during practice, how medical personnel tried to help, how an ambulance was called.

O'Leary "also told us that the workout was very light," Marcelin wrote in a text message that followed an earlier in-person interview with "Outside the Lines."

Two days after Plancher died, in his first public comments about the incident, O'Leary described the conditioning session by saying, "It was not a taxing workout." He also said, "It was probably one of the shortest agility things we've had."

On March 25, executive associate athletic director David Chambers told the Orlando Sentinel that the workout actually lasted 20 minutes, with the players participating in three station-based drills. Chambers said that Tribble had misspoken -- the 10-minute time frame was the "cool down period."

"It wasn't an atypical drill or conditioning session," Chambers said.

As well, O'Leary indicated he'd seen no signs of Plancher struggling, only that he saw him fall during one of the gassers. On April 2, as UCF prepared to respond to a looming Orlando Sentinel story, a school spokesman wrote in an internal e-mail that O'Leary had described Plancher "tripping" during the last gasser. Another e-mail from a UCF spokesman says, "Ereck slipped during a drill."

On April 11, the Sentinel published a story quoting four anonymous players disputing UCF's description of the workout and saying Plancher was in distress during the session. The Sentinel said the players sought anonymity because they "fear retribution from football coaches."

This guy did nothing wrong. He just died for no reason.

--Former UCF player James Jamison

Jamison tells "Outside the Lines" that he and other players were furious about the way O'Leary and Tribble described the workout.

"I thought it was an insult to the family, because they deserve to know the truth, and everybody honestly deserves to know the truth. I mean, he dropped dead from running," Jamison says. "I felt a lot of anger, like 'Just tell the truth, just be honest. The least you could do is be honest with his family.'

"I've always been raised if you get in trouble, tell the truth. The truth is better than lies because you got to keep telling another lie, then another lie, then another lie, especially when it comes to somebody's life. And this guy did nothing wrong. He just died for no reason."

Asked why he thinks O'Leary and others minimized the extent of the workout when there would be nothing wrong with a coach holding a tough session, Jamison says, "The fact that they ran a player to death."

Shortly after Plancher's death, O'Leary told his players to avoid talking to the media about the incident, according to Jamison, Reams, other former players and one current player who requested anonymity. UCF employs a document titled "Catastrophic Incident Guideline," which lays out actions to be taken in the wake of an athlete's death or severe injury. Regarding responsibilities of various personnel, it calls on the head coach to "encourage other student-athletes to not discuss the incident."

The document is not clear about whether the message is for players not to talk with the media or with anyone at all. Several players say O'Leary told them not to speak to reporters about the incident, and many came to believe they could lose their scholarships if they spoke out.

Reams says he wasn't led to believe he could lose his scholarship if he spoke about the incident; but according to Jamison, a lot of players believed the message was clear that they would be breaking team rules if they spoke without first receiving permission from team personnel. Both a current player and one of his parents told "Outside the Lines" that players were fearful of losing their scholarships if they talked.

In a March 26 e-mail to a Sentinel reporter from Joe Hornstein, UCF associate athletic director in charge of communications and marketing, the athletic department spokesman wrote, "On multiple occasions, our players were strongly encouraged to speak to the coach and position coaches on anything dealing with the incident of March 18."

However, based on interviews with Jamison and others, as well as an Orlando Sentinel report, it doesn't appear the university sought information from the players about the workout until more than a month after Plancher died.

Jamison, who quit the team April 22, says he was never contacted by anyone connected with the school to discuss Plancher's death.

In his statement to "Outside the Lines," Tribble wrote, "In the past, coaches and staff have spoken repeatedly and openly about the workout. Anyone else with information has been encouraged to do the same. Unfortunately, pending litigation now limits what the university can say about this tragedy."

A mother's loss

More than 3,000 people attended Ereck Plancher's funeral, including George O'Leary and most of the UCF football team. Jamison says he couldn't bring himself to go. It was all just too much to bear.

"Ereck Plancher did everything right," O'Leary said during the service. "In today's society, it's easy to get up and complain and whine about things. That wasn't Ereck. He came to practice every day trying to get better."

For the Planchers, those first few weeks after Ereck died were a blur, an overwhelming stream of services and sympathies and tributes. Now, though, the immediacy of it has passed, and Gisele and Enock Plancher are trying to make sense of their loss.

On July 17, the Orange County Medical Examiner released its final autopsy report. It stated that Ereck's death was linked to sickle-cell trait, which "predisposed him to sickling of the red blood cells during periods of physical stress." Two weeks later, the Planchers informed the school of their intent to sue, alleging Ereck "experienced exhaustion, dizziness, shortness of breath, and other signs of extreme fatigue that were ignored by trainers and/or coaches of the University of Central Florida." The Planchers say they hope to prevent other families from confronting the same pain they have endured.

Despite the pictures taken down from the walls and the memories packed away into boxes, Gisele still appears lost, the result, she says, of too little sleep mixed with too many tears and too much doubt and anger.

She shows a visitor a Mother's Day card Ereck gave her 10 months before he died.

It reads: "I would like to personally thank you for raising me from a boy to a young man. Even with two jobs you were always there for me mommy. And for that I would die for you or give you anything mommy, because I love and respect you so much. Thank you for everything, and I hope you know, I am where I'm at because of you. I will do everything I can to make you happy. Maybe one day I can repay you, for what you've done for me. I love you yesterday, today and forever mommy."

Says Enock, sitting in his living room next to Gisele: "I always tell her, 'You are too close to Ereck. If he die before you, you will be crazy.'"

"Yeah, he always told me that," Gisele says.

"They were too close," says Enock.

ESPN producers Lindsay Rovegno and Greg Amante contributed to this report. Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter for ESPN's enterprise unit. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.

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