On the evening of August 3, I arrived back in Washington from vacation, turned on the car radio as I departed the airport parking lot and was stunned by the lead story on the midnight news. The Northwestern University starting safety had died earlier that day during a conditioning drill. It was like a punch to the stomach.
My wife and I, both Northwestern alums who attended most games when the team was the doormat of the Big Ten during our years as students in the 1970's, traveled to Pasadena in 1995 to watch the improbable: Northwestern in the Rose Bowl and to San Antonio last December, where the Wildcats competed in the Alamo Bowl. We were proud of the team and prouder still that we had rooted for them during the lean years, making the trip to three bowls in the past five years that much sweeter.
To witness the transformation of a Big Ten football program many called laughable to one where the New York Times yesterday rated Northwestern as #16 in the nation has been exhilirating. But the death of starting safety Rashidi Wheeler during an intense conditioning drill has also unmasked what many football fans never know -- what goes into a winning team.
The Los Angeles Times has taken the lead on reporting the story. Alan Abrahamson, also a Northwestern alum, has been investigating the death of Wheeler, an asthmatic, from the beginning. His report today is a cautionary tale of the use of supplements, banned by the NCAA, intense conditioning drills and the drive to gain a competitive edge in the world of big-time collegiate sports. Rashidi Wheeler's mother has filed a lawsuit against Northwestern, saying the school was not prepared for the medical emergency that took her son's life.
The official cause of Wheeler's death from the coroner's report is listed as bronchial asthma, but it confirmed the presence of ephedrine in his blood. At issue is whether the substance (contained in over-the-counter nutritional supplements such as Ultimate Orange and Ultimate Punch) contributed to the death. There are conflicting views. The Los Angeles Times reports that ten Northwestern players collapsed during the conditioning drill the day Wheeler died. Unlike the heatstroke death of offensive lineman Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings two days earlier, heat was apparently not a factor in Wheeler's death at Northwestern.
We'll talk with Track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, an asthmatic, who nearly died of the disease. But she wants to speak out, believing that athletes can still perform at their best as long as they manage their asthma. Also joining us tonight, the L.A. Times' Alan Abrahamson.
This is one of the stories, especially broadcast after Monday Night Football, where lives can be saved. Those athletes taking supplements to enhance performance might think twice after watching tonight's report. If so, Wheeler's death will not have been in vain.
Richard Harris is a Senior Producer for Nightline.