University of Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel found it difficult to hold back tears on Wednesday afternoon at a press conference in Columbia. It was the first time he talked to the media since the Tuesday death of freshman linebacker Aaron O’Neal. He and Director of Athletic Media Relations Chad Moller sat side-by-side as the media asked questions surrounding the unexpected death.
O’Neal was participating in a voluntary, hour-long workout at Faurot Field before his death. According to reports, O’Neal, who played high school football at Parkway North in Creve Couer, began struggling 45 minutes into the workouts then passed out. He was helped off the field by a teammate and was later taken to University Hospital in Columbia, where he later died.
“This is just a devastating situation. I think we’re all in a state of shock,” Pinkel said. “They’re like your children.”
Pinkel began another sentence, but paused for several seconds before continuing, “I feel like I lost one of my children.”
Pinkel learned of O’Neal’s death while he and his wife were visiting friends in Las Vegas. Later that night, he boarded a plane to St. Louis and went to visit O’Neal’s family before returning to Columbia.
Boone County Medical Examiner Valerie Rao, who performed the initial autopsy on O’Neal, was expected at the press conference, but was not there. Rao told KOMU TV in Columbia that she made arrangements to attend, but was told not to by MU officials about thirty minutes before the press conference not to attend.
At the press conference, Moller said that conflicting schedules prevented Rao from attending. Moller later told the Kansas City Star that the university didn’t think that it would be a good time to have her there. Rao is expected to release the initial autopsy report on Thursday.
Questions arose about strength and conditioning coach Pat Ivey, who ran the voluntary workout. “I’m sure Pat’s going through a very difficult time,” Pinkel said, “he’s exceptional at what he does and he deeply cares about his players.”
Unfortunately for Pinkel, this is not the first time he has experienced a player’s death. In 1995, while the head coach at Toledo, a player trying to walk-on died at a summer workout. It was later determined that the player had a heart condition.
One debate that could arise is how stringently players are tested for pre-existing conditions and how hard players are worked during summer workouts.
“One life’s too many, but certainly I think you have to be realistic in how much you can test athletes,” Pinkel said. As far as workouts are concerned, Pinkel added, “We’re very comfortable with what we do, but we always analyze and look at everything we do.”
When asked why there seems to be more players dying on the playing field, Pinkel said,
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know. It happened one too many times, as far as I’m concerned”