Viral meningitis is being blamed for the death of MU football player Aaron O’Neal, according to an autopsy released by the Boone County Medical Examiner on Tuesday. In a packed office, Dr. Valerie Rao, who conducted the autopsy, said the exact virus has yet to be detected, but all indications point to viral meningitis being the cause of O’Neal’s unexpected death at the age of 19 last month..
“Viruses are airborne, they could be mosquito-borne and these are the things that we’re looking at right now. Some of the tissue has been sent to the C.D.C. (Center for Disease Control in Atlanta) but we don’t anticipate results anytime soon,” Rao said.
There are two types of meningitis: viral and bacterial. Viral meningitis is considered the less fatal of the two. In fact, Rao called the death, “highly, highly unusual”. In 25 years of performing autopsies, Rao said she has witnessed just one other death from viral meningitis. She originally believed that O’Neal’s death was cardiovascular-related.
The affliction causes the swelling of tissue and infects the fluid that protects the brain. In addition, O’Neal’s brain also became swollen and moved into the spinal column, which cut off respiratory and cardiovascular functions.
O’Neal’s family filed a lawsuit in Boone County on Thursday. It names 14 defendants, including head coach Gary Pinkel, Athletic Director Mike Alden and some trainers.
O’Neal struggled near the end of a workout on July 12. According to the autopsy, he was wobbling back and forth during stretching exercises and complained of blurry vision. Near the end of the workout, he collapsed and had to be helped off the field by a teammate.
In the locker room, O’Neal continued to have problems and was taken across the street from Faurot Field to the Tom Taylor Building, which houses the football offices. By the time he arrived there, O’Neal was already in full cardiac arrest. 911 was called and he was eventually taken to the hospital, where he died about 90 minutes after the workout ended.
When asked if the care he received from MU athletic trainers contributed to his death, Rao said she wasn’t qualified to answer that question.
“All the clinical interpretation and therapeutic implications of the findings and circumstances leading to his death belong in the arena of neurology and sports medicine,” she said.
Pinkel also refused to speculate on the level of care given to O’Neal, saying, “Well, I’m not going to get involved with the blame game. I’m not going to do that at all.” Because of NCAA rules, neither Pinkel nor his staff was allowed to be at the workout.
“I have a lot of respect and care (for O’Neal’s family),” Pinkel said. “Mr. O’Neal is a good man and he’s got to do what he’s got to do.”
While viral meningitis isn’t contagious, the virus which causes it can be. However, Rao indicated that the incubation period of viral meningitis is much shorter than the time that has passed since O’Neal’s death. In other words, other players would have had symptoms by now had they gotten it from O’Neal.
“Even with them saying that, it’s still brings concern to us,” said sophomore wide receiver Will Franklin. He added that many players are going to get tested for meningitis now. “It don’t hurt to know if something’s wrong with you.”
“It does make you think,” said senior wide receiver Sean Coffey. “Who wants to die now?”