NU has a tape of Wheeler’s last hour

Matt Donnelly and Matt Donnelly

As Northwestern braces itself for a review of the hazy circumstances surrounding the death of Rashidi Wheeler on Aug. 3, members of the NU training staff confirmed Wednesday that they have a videotape of the practice during which Wheeler collapsed.

Larry Lilja, NU’s director of strength and conditioning, said the tape, made by the coaching staff to monitor the team’s conditioning tests, is now in possession of the university’s lawyers, who are reviewing the incident. The field hockey field where the test was held is equipped with a 25-foot tower to film exercises.

Former NU defensive end Conrad Emmerich said the coaches videotape the practices regularly during the season. Emmerich, who was a senior last season, said the conditioning test during which Wheeler collapsed is always filmed, even if it is not held during an official practice.

NU officials said last week that the review will look at the team’s use of banned supplements. Anonymous players told the Chicago Tribune that Wheeler took Ultimate Orange – an over-the-counter dietary supplement containing the NCAA-banned substance ma huang – in the hours before his death.

A preliminary report from the Cook County Coroner’s Office said Wheeler died from complications resulting from bronchial asthma. A toxicology report will not be completed for several weeks.

NU Director of Athletics Rick Taylor referred questions about the tape Wednesday to Chuck Loebbaka, director of media relations for the university. Loebbaka declined to comment on specific details of the investigation.

Wheeler’s mother, Linda Will, has raised questions about the sufficiency of the staff and medical equipment present to treat her son on the field. She announced after Wheeler’s Aug. 13 funeral that she had hired notable attorney Johnnie Cochran to follow up on the university’s review.

“My son did not have to die,” Will said after her son’s Aug. 10 memorial service at Alice Millar Chapel. Since then, The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. has said he will speak for the family during their mourning.

Both Will and NU have said their main concern is the last hour of Wheeler’s life. The tapes could clear up some of the more disputed points about the practice, including what time Wheeler collapsed, when the training staff began attending to him and how many other players were down at the time Wheeler collapsed.

Players said the practice, which NU trainer Tory Aggeler first described as a “fast-paced jog,” was the team’s most intense conditioning test, the culmination of a summer’s training.

The time it took for emergency staff to arrive is also unclear. The testing, which began at 4 p.m., divided players into four groups based on position and weight class. Players ran successive sprints at distances ranging from 100 yards to 40 yards with limited breaks in between. The drill was designed to challenge each player’s recovery time.

Wheeler ran in the second group with fellow defensive backs, receivers and running backs. He collapsed after running 10 100-yard sprints, eight 80-yard sprints and six 60-yard sprints. Wheeler’s teammates on the field didn’t know the exact time he fell, but estimates have placed it from 4:25 p.m. to 4:45 p.m.

Emergency phones on the field were disabled due to flooding the day before. After some confusion, players called 911 on a cell phone retrieved from a car. The Evanston fire department received the call at 5:07 p.m. and an ambulance arrived at 5:11 p.m. Wheeler arrived at Evanston Hospital at 5:28 p.m. and was pronounced dead at 5:45 p.m.

Will has raised concern about how many other players were down at the time of Wheeler’s collapse. Estimates in the last week have ranged from four to 12 players.

“It’s a very subjective number because it’s not uncommon for guys to lie down, especially after that test,” said NU senior tackle Lance Clelland, who said he lay down after completing the drill.

Senior guard Jeff Roehl said Wheeler, an asthmatic, often would take longer than his teammates to recover from the drills.

Taylor has since told coach Randy Walker to stop administering the conditioning test, a move in step with the university’s review.

And although many of Will’s initial comments focused on the staff, members of the team present at Wheeler’s collapse said the trainers’ response to the emergency was sufficient and even exemplary.

“I feel more safe with our training staff than ever before,” Clelland said. “I have the utmost belief and confidence in Tory (Aggeler).”

Roehl said he sat next to Wheeler after finishing his run and watched Aggeler and other trainers work on him.

“He was doing everything he could do to save Rashidi,” Roehl said. Roehl said Aggeler ordered someone to call for help as soon as Wheeler stopped breathing and waited with him until ambulances arrived.

Roehl said Aggeler was ready to drive Wheeler himself when ambulances didn’t arrive soon enough.

The team, which begins practice in Kenosha, Wis., on Friday, hopes to move on from the tragedy soon and look ahead to the football season. But that doesn’t mean Wheeler’s death won’t have a lasting impact.

“Things will never be the same,” Roehl said.

The Daily’s Adam Rittenberg and Glenn Kasses contributed to this report.