Commentary

Questions linger for Grambling State

Updated: November 30, 2009, 7:06 PM ET
By Mark Fainaru-Wada | ESPN

MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- The grieving mother insists on the basement for the television interview. It's dark, it's messy, it's inconvenient and, well, it's just not pretty. But the interview has to be down here. It can't be up in the well-adorned living room, where she and her husband could rest comfortably on their pleasant couch, enveloped by the warmth of family photos. Nor can it be outside in the quaint backyard, with a lovely and unseasonably warm, late-October afternoon as a backdrop.

No, it simply must be here, because the grieving mother won't talk anyplace else.

"This is the happy time, in the basement," she says.

When he was back in town, this is where Henry White would rest his 6-foot-6 frame, amidst all his "junk" -- the clothes, the trophies, the bags, the shoes, all the "stuff" that collects around a young man who plays a lot of basketball and focuses on little else.

"He never cleaned up," says the mother. "He never cleaned up 'til he packed all that stuff and went away to college."

In that happy place, White had talked about making it as a ballplayer. His goal was to reach the Division I level, and, after two years of junior college ball, he finally had made it. The 21-year-old White had headed to Grambling State, and he had told his mom and family how much the Tigers really wanted him there.

At the cemetery

Natalie Wood
ESPNHenry White's mother, Natalie Wood, visits the cemetery.

Two and a half miles east of his parents' Milwaukee home, just off Green Bay Ave., back in Section 4 of Glen Oaks Cemetery, Henry White now rests. There's no tombstone yet, and there's dirt where soon grass will be. The grave is fresh, barely more than a month old.

Standing beside the site where his stepson is buried, Tony Johnson speaks freely and readily, the pain still fresh but catharsis found in the talking. He is at once animated and reflective, seizing on his faith to persevere.

"One thing that I appreciate that the funeral home did for me -- that they don't do for anybody -- here at the graveyard," Johnson says, "they opened his casket just enough so I could take a ball, just a little basketball that you get at a Bucks game or any of the professional games, and I prayed and gave it to him and said, 'God is your captain of your team, you're on God's team and now you can play all the time that you want.'"

White's mother, Natalie Wood, can only stand here for so long, remembering her only son. Finally, she has to walk off, quietly and repeatedly thanking Jesus, requesting strength.

"You don't think that your kids will ever leave before you," Wood says.

The details of death

Back in the basement, grief has been replaced by anger. Wood and Johnson are learning more and more about Aug. 14, the day Henry collapsed while running on the Grambling State campus. He and six of his teammates were forced to complete a 4½-mile, timed, discipline run in 95-degee Louisiana heat. Another player also collapsed and was hospitalized after the run. Three months later, that player is still suffering the effects of heat exhaustion and still hasn't been cleared to practice. But he's alive.

Twelve days after the run, on Aug. 26, White died as a result of complications from heat exhaustion, his liver and kidneys ravaged to the point of total failure. It's not the heat, though, that has Wood and Johnson growing increasingly agitated. They're hearing what a two-month "Outside the Lines" investigation has revealed, and they've come to believe the run that killed their son never should have happened.

There were myriad problems on Grambling State's end:

•  The run apparently was an NCAA violation, coming three days before classes started at Grambling State. NCAA Bylaw 17.3.2.1 states that supervised conditioning or fitness activities for basketball "shall not begin prior to the beginning of the institution's academic year," which the NCAA defines as the first day of classes.

Henry White
Courtesy of Natalie Wood White spent a season at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa, followed by a season at another junior college, Hill College, in Texas.

•  White did not have personal medical insurance and had not been signed on to Grambling State's policy, a violation of school protocol, according to athletic director J. Lin Dawson. A June 22 memo written by athletic trainer Jessica Robinson indicates all athletes "MUST have … insurance on file before they can work out, practice, and compete in any competition." And a school checklist reveals White was uninsured. White's medical bills have reached more than $275,000, certain to become part of an expected wrongful death lawsuit filed by his mother.

•  Robinson, the trainer, had not cleared the team to work out, nor was she aware of the run, also a breach of school policy, according to Dawson. In an e-mail written as part of a university investigation into the Aug. 14 incident, Robinson wrote that she told Dawson that day, "I did not know they were running and Men's Basketball was not cleared to condition, practice, workout, lift weights or anything."

•  White's registration hadn't been fully processed at the time of the run. A document obtained by "Outside the Lines" shows his registration wasn't stamped completed until Aug. 20 -- as he lay in a hospital bed in Shreveport, La., one week after the run.

"No. Wow. No way," says Wood, hearing the litany of issues surrounding the run. "Oh man, see, then they had everything, it was screwed up down there then. You're telling me my baby shouldn't have been out there practicing."

Asked whether White should have been running that day, Dawson, the athletic director, says, "He should not have been running in an organized manner that was conducted by members of our department."

The run occurred because seven players, including White, showed up later than required by then-head coach Rick Duckett and his staff. The players were told to report Aug. 9, so that they could take advantage of early registration for athletes and have everything in place by the time classes started Aug. 17.

Duckett told ESPN that he and his three assistant coaches, including recently hired Robert Washington Jr., met Aug. 11 or 12 and discussed conducting a disciplinary run on Friday the 14th, assuming the players had finished registration.

The players were to complete "The Tiger Mix," a 4½-mile run around the outskirts of campus. The full team convened to lift weights at 1:30 p.m. in the basement of the Assembly Center, and the run began somewhere around 2:30. Duckett wasn't present the day of the run because he was undergoing minor surgery, and one of his assistants, Steve Portland, monitored the players from a golf cart.

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature was 95 degrees about the time of the run. The players had 40 minutes to complete the route -- 9-minute miles on average -- and they had no access to water.

Upon finishing, White and his teammates walked into the Assembly Center. It was there that White and another player, Jacobee Lee, ultimately collapsed. According to three people with direct knowledge of the run, at least 20 minutes elapsed between the time White went down and the time paramedics were called to the scene.

White was rushed to a nearby hospital and then transferred the next day to LSU Hospital in Shreveport, his kidneys already failing. Lee was treated and released the day after the run, but he has not received medical clearance to rejoin the team.

Unable to afford plane fare from Milwaukee to Shreveport, White's mother, Wood, drove the 950 miles with three of Henry's friends, arriving a few days after the run. There, Wood encountered Duckett and Portland daily, even as White's condition deteriorated.

Wood said she received no financial assistance from Grambling State, and Duckett said his boss, Dawson, never suggested they should help provide accommodations or offset travel costs. It wasn't until eight days after the run that Dawson first visited White and his mother at the LSU hospital.

In the aftermath, Dawson wrote an e-mail to then-Grambling State president Dr. Horace Judson that White was "still very sick." And, clearly contemplating the implications of the run and the mounting medical bills for the uninsured White, he added, "Do you think we need to consult legal counsel? The charges for Henry will continue to mount, and I am not sure where this is headed."

One month after White's death, the school announced Duckett was resigning. In fact, he had been fired, along with Portland and another assistant, Phillip Stitt. Duckett defended himself and the other coaches, stating he didn't believe the run was a violation of NCAA rules nor did he believe White would have been precluded from running because of the insurance issue.

As for the heat, Duckett said, "My son who's on the team has made that run in that heat before, and so I think that the run and the distance is within boundaries, for my own son and for other peoples' son who's been entrusted to our care."

Portland declined to comment. Washington, meanwhile, was retained as interim head coach.

"Coach Washington was retained, number one, because he didn't have a part in the decisions to run those players on a discipline run," says Dawson.

At the conclusion of his report of the incident, Washington wrote, "Due to it being the second full day employment for me I didn't know when the decision was made to run the team."

But Duckett said Washington had been on campus for at least a week and was at the meeting when the disciplinary run was discussed. Informed of Duckett's statements, Dawson and Washington declined comment.

Asked whether the series of problems surrounding the run should raise questions about institutional control at Grambling State, Dawson said, "Well, you know, I have three kids … and we've laid down rules and regulations for 23 years. … I think that if you asked me that question, do I have control over things in my household? Yes. Do things happen contrary to rules and procedures? Yes, they do."

Back in the basement.

The basketball path was not easy for Henry White. He always had the size -- he was 21 inches long at birth -- but he was no prodigy. He blossomed at Washington High in Milwaukee, then spent a year at a prep school in Ohio. From there came one season at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa, followed by a season at another JC, Hill College in Texas, before he finally reached his goal of making it to the Division I level.

Natalie Wood
ESPNTony Johnson, right, says that for his stepson, going to Grambling State was a big accomplishment.

"He was really happy because he told all his cousins and nephews and nieces, 'Hey, I'm going to Grambling,'" Johnson says. "And for them, they didn't perceive Grambling as a big college, but to him, telling them, it was big to him. So he knew he was on his way to something bigger and better in life."

Wood is nodding, reflecting not only on Henry but on some of his cousins who held tight to parallel dreams.

"All of them went through this, this little, I suppose, process to get to this point," she says. "But then some of them fell off the wagon because things in life happen. But he stuck to it and he was the one that made it to Division I, and that was what made him so happy. You know and everybody was looking at him like, 'Yeah, you hang on.' And he said, 'Yeah, I'm going to do this for the family.'"

White never played a minute for Grambling State, never even took part in a Division I practice. He spent all of four days on campus. His only connection to a Grambling State uniform is the memorial patch bearing his initials on this year's jerseys.

Mark Fainaru-Wada is an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.