UCF documents don't answer questions about Plancher's death

Originally Published: November 24, 2008
By Mark Fainaru-Wada and Greg Amante | ESPN

A University of Central Florida assistant athletic trainer wrote that a wide receiver who collapsed and died during an offseason conditioning session "never once complained or said anything to indicate that he was feeling weak, sick, hurt, light-headed, etc.," according to a document released Monday by the school.

The assistant trainer, Robert Jackson, wrote in a statement as part of the university's investigation that Ereck Plancher fell down about 20 yards into a 100-yard sprint at the end of a series of conditioning drills, but Jackson said Plancher got up and finished, "although he appeared to be exhausted."

The document was one of two UCF released Monday in the wake of pressure from ESPN and the Orlando Sentinel, which repeatedly have asked the university to provide documents related to Plancher's death as part of Florida's public records laws.

UCF previously released more than 100 pages of documents, but virtually all of them consisted of e-mails between the university and media outlets that shed little light on the events surrounding Plancher's death. The school has refused to release additional material, citing exemptions to the open records laws.

On March 18 this spring, Plancher, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman wide receiver from Naples, Fla., collapsed and died at the end of a conditioning session. An "Outside the Lines" report three weeks ago raised questions about UCF's handling of the Plancher case before, during and after he collapsed.

Two players who participated in the workout before leaving the team, James Jamison and Jevaughn Reams, spoke on the record to "OTL," and others commented anonymously. Together, the players detailed an intense workout in which they said trainers and coaches were not attentive to Plancher's struggles. The players also contradicted the school's contention that the workout was "routine" and "not taxing."

As well, Cliff McCray, another former player who was on the team and living with Plancher at the time of the incident, recently described the training session in several exclusive phone interviews with "OTL." McCray's version corroborates that of the other players, and he said the account offered by coach George O'Leary and athletic director Keith Tribble "wasn't accurate."

"No one is going to say, 'Yes, I ran a kid to death,' but you can be honest about it," McCray said.

O'Leary, Tribble and others associated with the football program have repeatedly declined interview requests. A UCF spokesman said Monday, "During this difficult and emotional period, UCF has responded with respect for Ereck's family and a thorough review of the facts. From what we have learned to date, our review of the March 18 workout has shown that coaches and staff acted appropriately."

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.
Plancher's parents have notified the university of their intent to sue for wrongful death.

The UCF documents did not include any of Plancher's medical records, though his family had given permission for the school to release them to ESPN. Nor did UCF respond to requests for material related to player interviews, which apparently didn't begin until more than a month after Plancher's death.

Jamison, Reams and McCray said they were never questioned about what happened.

In Jackson's statement, the assistant trainer said that after Plancher completed the final sprint of the conditioning session, "I went over to his side as he was bending over and talked to him, although he didn't say much of anything, he nodded his head and complied with instructions. I told him to stand upright and to concentrate on breathing with short breaths in his nose and out of his mouth."

Jackson, who a school spokesman said has since left UCF for another job, further stated that when the team huddled in front of O'Leary at the end of practice, Plancher appeared attentive. Jackson wrote that O'Leary initially sent the players, including Plancher, back to the line for another sprint but ultimately called them back.

When O'Leary had finished speaking, "It was at this time of dismissal that I saw Plancher kind of fall down, but his teammates collected him and brought him back to a standing position with one player on each side," Jackson said in his statement. Jackson said he went to Plancher to monitor his vital signs. "He was responsive and breathing heavily, but not gasping." Jackson said he told Plancher to control his breathing and the player was able to do so.

Jackson wrote that he asked if Plancher was cramping, but the player, apparently struggling to speak, responded by shaking his head to indicate he was not cramping. The assistant trainer told Plancher, who was being held up by two teammates, that he intended to walk him outside for some water to cool down.

"He did not move or walk his feet, so four athletes picked him up from me and started to carry him out," Jackson wrote.

The assistant trainer said he directed the players to put Plancher down so he could monitor his progress, but the players then picked their teammate back up to carry him outside.

"Coach O'Leary called me over and asked what was wrong and I told him exhaustion and dehydration," Jackson wrote.

Tough questions

Did Ereck Plancher have to die? Earlier this month, "Outside the Lines" raised serious questions about the University of Central Florida's treatment of the redshirt freshman last March. Read and watch Mark Fainaru-Wada's investigation here.

"OTL": Plancher's death raises tough questions for UCF
Watch "Outside the Lines" report

The documents released Monday indicate that head trainer Mary Vander Heiden was not at the conditioning session when Plancher collapsed. She wrote in a catastrophic incident summary that an assistant coach came to the training room and asked her to bring a cart to the field house to assist Jackson in "bringing an athlete to the Athletic Training Room." Vander Heiden said she immediately drove to the field house, and when she assessed Plancher, his "respirations were slow and his carotid and radial pulses were weak. He had no verbal response."

In addition to issues surrounding the intensity of the workout, questions emerged because Plancher suffered from sickle-cell trait, an inherited condition that, if not monitored properly, can cause severe problems during high-intensity workouts. The trait has been cited in the deaths of 11 young athletes since 2000. A national athletic trainers' organization issued a warning nine months before Plancher died, offering recommendations for treating athletes with the condition.

Experts have indicated that athletes with sickle-cell trait should be able to flourish the same as athletes without, but the trainers' association advised precautions such as gradual increases in workouts, extended rest and immediate withdrawal from training sessions with the onset of symptoms.

Earlier, a UCF spokesman said coaches, trainers and Plancher himself were aware he carried the trait. O'Leary and athletic director Keith Tribble both have stated coaches and staff handled the situation properly. O'Leary and Tribble previously said there was nothing unusual about the workout, and the coach has described it as "not taxing."

However, in interviews with "Outside the Lines," several former teammates suggested UCF was not being truthful or forthright about the details surrounding Plancher's death. Among those players were Jamison, Reams and now McCray, the former offensive lineman and Plancher's roommate.

McCray's description of the day Plancher died mirrored the versions offered by Jamison and Reams. He detailed lifting weights for about an hour and 15 minutes before moving to the squad's indoor practice facility for a conditioning session. The team participated in about 15 minutes of agility drills by position, and McCray, an offensive lineman from Miami, said, "Usually after that, we're done."

However, McCray said O'Leary had the players complete an obstacle course in which the players ran 100 yards, sprinting through cones, jumping over bags and flipping onto a large mattress set up at the end of the indoor field. They then sprinted back 100 yards to the original starting position.

Documenting a death

In response to pressure from ESPN and the Orlando Sentinel for documents related to Ereck Plancher's death, the University of Central Florida on Monday released two statements from its training staff given during the school's internal investigation.

Read them here.

• Statements from UCF training staff. PDF

In the course of ESPN's six-month investigation into Plancher's death, "Outside the Lines" independently 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

"I was so tired." McCray said. "I was breathing hard. Everyone was breathing hard. A few people threw up."

McCray said O'Leary called for a second 200-yard sprint. McCray said O'Leary completed the session with two sets of gassers -- sideline-to-sideline sprints covering 107 yards.

"I was looking at Ereck. He was exhausted" said McCray.

When it was Plancher's turn to run on the second gasser, McCray said his roommate took a few steps and fell.

"Everyone saw him fall," McCray said.

Jamison described Plancher as practically walking and stumbling to finish the sprint. McCray said Plancher "finished dead last. Twenty to 30 seconds behind everyone."

McCray was struggling to catch his own breath, but said he knew Plancher was pushed to his limit.

"You couldn't ask him for more," McCray said. "Coach always asks for effort and enthusiasm, and that kid gave everything he had."

After the sprints, O'Leary brought the team to the middle of the field and told the players to take a knee. At that point, O'Leary singled out Plancher for his performance during the conditioning drills, said McCray, echoing statements made by Jamison, Reams and others. McCray said O'Leary cursed at Plancher and yelled, "You are better than this. You are a receiver. You should be able to run for days."

Afterward, the team broke into position groups for jumping jacks. McCray described Plancher as "lost," saying "he was walking all over the place." Jamison said Plancher was over with the offensive linemen and had to be guided back to his unit. McCray said that during the jumping jacks, Plancher was unable to jump and was so drained he was "just doing the motions."

Jackson, the assistant trainer, made no mention of the jumping jack cooldown period in his statement.

When the team finished, McCray said, the players gathered at midfield to chant, "One, Two, Three Knights Gold!" As they broke the huddle, McCray, like Jamison and Reams, said Plancher collapsed.

"He gave it everything he had 'til we were done, and that's when he fell," McCray said.

McCray said he heard coaches yelling, "Let him get up. Let him walk on his own." Still, McCray said several players tried to help Plancher up, but when they attempted to let him stand on his own, Plancher immediately fell a second time.

It was at this point, according to Reams and Jamison, that trainers stepped in and took control.

McCray said he was concerned about Plancher, but still didn't realize the full extent of his roommate's distress. McCray left Nicholson Fieldhouse and stopped on a bench just outside the facility to catch his own breath.

Moments later, McCray said he was forced to get up as teammates carried Plancher outside and laid him on the bench where McCray was sitting.

McCray recalled trainers asking Plancher a series of questions and instructing him to nod his head in response. But McCray said he wasn't sure Plancher could understand or hear the questions.

"All he could do was moan," McCray said. "He couldn't respond. That's when I got scared."

In his statement, Jackson wrote that Plancher responded to instructions to squeeze his hands and, later, to squeeze O'Leary's fingers.

According to Vander Heiden's statement, she instructed Jackson to get a defibrillator from the field house. McCray said he knew instantly, "That's not good." By this time, 911 had been called, and ambulances soon arrived. About an hour after Plancher collapsed, he was pronounced dead.

For McCray, Plancher's death was too much to handle. A standout at Miami Southridge High School, McCray had been highly recruited by several colleges but abruptly was forced to stop playing after his junior year in high school when he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart.

McCray said he ultimately enrolled at UCF and was urged to walk on to the team by his former high school teammate, UCF standout running back Kevin Smith. McCray said he underwent extensive testing and was cleared to play in the spring of 2007.

He saw limited action in 2007 and then was projected as a starter for this season. However, two days after Plancher died, McCray quit the team.

McCray said his roommate's death left him stunned and wondering how someone so young and seemingly so healthy could be gone so fast. McCray said he began thinking about his own health and the risks he was taking despite having clearance from doctors to play.

"I knew I was living my dream, but I was also taking a chance," McCray said "When that happened, I thought that could have been me.

"If Ereck Plancher was still alive, I'm playing football."

ESPN producer Lindsay Rovegno and reporter Paula Lavigne contributed to this report. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Greg Amante are members of ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Fainaru-Wada can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.

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