Autopsy reveals UCF's Plancher had gene trait tied to 10 similar deaths
A 19-year-old University of Central Florida football player who collapsed and died after a conditioning workout in March carried an inherited gene that has been tied to the deaths of 10 young athletes since 2000, according to autopsy results released Thursday.
Ereck Plancher, a redshirt freshman wide receiver from Naples, Fla., died March 18 following a 20-minute training session on the Orlando campus. The university was aware Plancher carried the sickle cell trait -- a condition that less than a year ago prompted the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) to issue a warning and recommendations for dealing with athletes who possess the trait.
UCF had screened Plancher for the sickle cell trait twice in 2007, and both results indicated he had it, according to medical records obtained by ESPN and explained by a person familiar with his death. UCF spokesman Grant Heston confirmed the school's football coaches and trainers were aware of Plancher's condition, which did not preclude him from playing or practicing.
The school's football trainers are members of NATA and it was believed some were in attendance at the NATA annual meeting in June 2007 when the organization issued its warning and held a news conference to discuss sickle cell trait, Heston said. The spokesman declined to say what, if any, steps had been taken in Plancher's case after it was determined he carried the trait, but he added, "Our trainers are aware of the guidelines regarding student-athletes and, as such, the health of our student-athletes is our top priority."
Plancher "had sickle cell trait, which predisposed him to sickling of the red blood cells during periods of physical stress," read a statement Thursday from the Orange County Medical Examiner's office, which conducted the autopsy. The full report was not released, but the statement said no drugs were found in Plancher's system.
Head coach George O'Leary and athletic department officials declined to comment. Plancher's parents could not be reached for comment, and it was unclear whether they or their son were aware he had the trait.
In June of last year -- 10 months before Plancher's death at UCF and around the time he was screened a second time for the trait -- a NATA task force released a consensus statement during the group's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., warning about potentially fatal consequences for athletes with the sickle cell trait. Dating back to 2000, NATA concluded that nine athletes between the ages of 12 and 19 had collapsed during workouts and died in incidents related to the trait.
The NATA task force was created to raise awareness among athletic trainers about the trait and its potential impact on athletes. The organization also held a news conference at the convention and sent correspondence about the findings to all members, according to a NATA spokesperson.
"Knowledge of sickle cell trait status can be a gateway to education and simple precautions that may prevent sickling collapse and enable athletes with sickle cell trait to thrive in sport," the NATA consensus statement read.
Screens for sickle cell were conducted on Plancher by the Cognoscenti Health Institute on behalf of UCF on Jan. 8, 2007, and June 22, 2007, the records obtained by ESPN reflect. They list him as "POSITIVE" in the "OUT OF RANGE" category and "NEGATIVE" in the "REFERENCE RANGE" category. The source with knowledge of the case said those results indicate Plancher had the sickle cell trait, and additional medical experts contacted by ESPN interpreted the results similarly.
"The University of Central Florida has received the initial statement from the Medical Examiner concerning the tragic death of Ereck Plancher," Heston said Thursday. "Our prayers remain with Ereck's loved ones as they continue to cope with his loss. The health of our student-athletes is our top priority. We will review the complete report as soon as it is available and respond appropriately at that time."
NATA said evidence suggested that sickling collapses often occurred during the first workouts of a season or offseason and that they were frequently associated with a series of sprints, such as "gassers" at the end of practice. For athletes with the trait, NATA recommended, among other things, paced progression in workouts and more time for rest and recovery.
"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.
Scott Anderson, head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma and a co-chair of the task force, said the Sooners hold athletes with sickle cell trait out of "Day One" conditioning exercises. Also, Anderson said that once a player is identified as possessing the trait, that information is relayed to the player, coaches, team trainers and strength coaches, and the player is educated about potential symptoms to look for while training.
The sickle cell gene is inherited, and it is most common among people whose family originated from areas where malaria is widespread, according to NATA. One in 12 African-Americans have the trait, compared to anywhere from 1 in 2,000 to 1 in 10,000 Caucasian Americans. Plancher's family is from Haiti.
The sickle cell trait is distinguished from the disease sickle cell anemia in that only one sickle cell gene is present instead of two.
In 2001, 18-year-old Florida State freshman linebacker Devaughn Darling collapsed and died during an offseason workout. The death was later attributed to sickle cell trait. Darling's twin brother, Devard, an NFL wide receiver who recently signed with the Chiefs as a free agent, also was at Florida State when his brother died. He spoke at the NATA news conference last year announcing the task force findings.
The day Plancher died, he and teammates participated in an offseason workout session that consisted of one hour of weightlifting followed by about 20 minutes of conditioning drills. The workout took place the day before UCF was scheduled to begin its official spring practice session.
O'Leary later described the session as "not a taxing workout" and "one of the shortest agility things we've had." An associate athletic director told reporters, "It wasn't an atypical drill or conditioning session."
However, the Orlando Sentinel reported April 11, based on information from four unnamed UCF players, that the workout was considerably more intense than described by O'Leary or other athletic department officials. The players said several of their teammates vomited during the workout and that Plancher, in particular, showed signs of struggling.
"[Ereck] was running, and I could tell something wasn't right," the Sentinel quoted one of the players as saying. "His eyes got real dark, and he was squinting like he was blinded by the sun. He was making this moaning noise, trying to breathe real hard."
The players told the newspaper that coaches yelled at Plancher to get up after he fell to the ground of the climate-controlled indoor training facility during the final sprint. The Sentinel also reported that, after the workout, as the players huddled around O'Leary, the coach cursed at Plancher about his effort.
O'Leary told the paper he hadn't cursed in the huddle but did acknowledge saying of Plancher at the time, "He's better than that."
Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter for ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.