Owen Thomas

OWEN THOMAS, 21, defensive lineman with Penn, died on 4/26/10 after hanging himself.  A third generation college player, he started playing football at age 9.  His mother, Rev. Kathy Brearley, said, “He loved to hit people.  He loved to go into practice and hit really hard.  He loved to intimidate.  It’s kind of sad.  We all love football.  We all love watching. We all love those great hits.”  Thomas played 3 seasons at Parkland HS and often played every play of every game.  He was bright enough to be admitted to the Wharton School and played 3 years at Penn, earning second team all-Ivy League honors in 2009 and helping lead the Quakers to the Ivy title.  All told, he played for a dozen years.  Though he never had a diagnosis of a concussion on or off the field or even complained of a headache, Thomas was diagnosed with CTE.  His parents acknowledged he was the type of player who might’ve ignored symptoms to stay on the field.  (There are 1.4 million HS football players and 3 million more in youth leagues.)—Same NY Times article as above.

Mike Borich

MIKE BORICH, 42, receiver with Western Illinois, 1988, died of a drug overdose on 2/9/09, a combination of alcohol, cocaine and OxyContin.  He was later confirmed to have CTE.  His father, Joe, said his son had about 9 or 10 concussions.  He played high school football in the Salt Lake City area, played 4 years of college football, but did not play after that.  He coached at several colleges, was offensive coordinator of the year at BYU in 2001, and coached for the Chicago Bears, when he started trying to blunt his depression with alcohol.  For the last couple years of his life, his friends and family no longer knew him.  He took drugs and painkillers, had cognitive problems, became forgetful and belligerent and subject to extreme emotional swings.  He was fired in 2004 when he blew up at a receptionist.—“Injuries to brain a risk at any level”, SouthBendTribune.com 10/28/09, Linda Robertson, McClatchy Newspapers.  “MIKE JOE BORICH”, Deseret News 2/11/09, obituary

Will McKamey

WILL McKAMEY, 19, running back with Navy, died on 3/25/14, three days after collapsing at a spring football practice.  He had undergone surgery to reduce swelling and bleeding on his brain.  As a high school senior in Knoxville, TN, where his father Randy coached him, McKamey had suffered a major head injury that ended his high school career.  Doctors at that time said he’d suffered from a ruptured blood vessel and surgery wasn’t required.  McKamey said  he was assured by his doctor that “…I would not have any long-term damage, because the swelling and bleeding was going down.  Told me if everything goes smoothly, I’ll be able to play again in college.”  He was seen by 4 neurosurgeons during his recovery and didn’t have football contact for 9 months.  McKamey was 5’9” and 170 pounds.—“Navy running back Will McKamey dies at age 19”, The Washington Post 3/25/14, Rick Maese.

Ted Agu

TED AGU, 21, defensive lineman with Cal, died on 2/7/14 after collapsing after a team training run.  He was given CPR and transferred to Alta Bates Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.  Team physician Dr. Casey Batten said, “I’ve been with Ted since he got here and he’s never had any problems during any workout or practice.”  CBSSports.com reported that Agu had sickle-cell trait, a condition that is the leading cause of death among NCAA Division I football players since 2000.  He was a walk-on who earned a scholarship.—“Ted Agu collapses, dies at 21”, AP & ESPN.com 2/7/14, Kyle Bonagura.  [My Comment: Dr. Batten was a featured speaker at an advanced concussion training I attended on 5/9/13 in Moraga, CA, sponsored by the California Concussion Coalition of the Sports Legacy Institute.]  4/24/14 Update: Ted Agu died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or excessive thickening of the heart muscle, according to the Alameda County coroner’s office.  It is not known whether Agu knew of the ailment.  This heart condition also killed basketball players Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis.  Cal’s athletic department has established the Ted Agu Memorial Scholarship Fund. “Agu died of heart ailment, coroner finds”, SF Chronicle 4/24/14, Henry K. Lee.

Update: The Family of Ted Agu sued the University of California on 8/5/14 and said his death could’ve been prevented if trainers had remembered that Agu had sickle cell trait, recognized his symptoms and immediately stopped his workout as protocol required.  The family’s lawyers said Agu should never have joined this “extraordinary workout” on 2/7/14, which required athletes to run up and down a hill 10 times while attached to each other with a rope.  Attorney Steven Yerrid also said Agu’s head trainer, Robert Jackson, was the supervising trainer at the University of Central Florida in 2008 when wide receiver Ereck Plancher, 19, who also had sickle cell trait, collapsed and died after a training session (Yerrid also handled that case).  A coroner’s report says Agu had a history of “sickle cell anemia,” rather than the less serious trait, which can be a precursor to the disease, but nonetheless concludes that he died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.  The family’s lawyers dispute this conclusion and said that Agu had been tested for sickle cell trait, as required by the NCAA, whose rules advise caution but do not prohibit players from playing college sports.  Agu hoped to become a doctor and had earned the nickname “Premed Ted.”—“Family sues over athlete’s death”, SF Chronicle 8/6/14, Nanette Asimov.


Ereck Plancher

ERECK PLANCHER, 18, wide receiver at the University of Central Florida (UCF), died on 3/18/08 after an off-season team conditioning workout including especially challenging drills the team had not done before, according to participating players.  Plancher had sickle-cell trait, which was revealed by a physical at UCF in January 2007 and confirmed by a second test in June 2007.  Coaches and trainers were aware of these test results and Plancher was informed about them, as well.  One in 12 African-Americans has sickle-cell trait, according to the CDC.  There have been at least 11 sudden deaths of young athletes related to sickle-cell trait since 2000.  During high-intensity workouts red blood cells can change from oval to sickle-shaped, and these elongated blood cells can become logjammed in small blood vessels, preventing parts of the body from receiving the oxygen they need.  Sickling can begin in only 2-3 minutes of sprinting or any all-out exertion, and can increase to grave levels if the stricken athlete is pushed to continue beyond that point.  According to the National Athletics Trainers’ Association (NATA), a number of fatal cases had occurred during the first day of conditioning, as was the case with Plancher.  NATA also recommends that athletes with sickle-cell trait be excluded from serial sprints, which were a substantial part of the drills Plancher participated in.  The workout, which followed an hour-long weightlifting session, took place in Nicholson Fieldhouse, which was referred to by some players as “The Oven.”  Though Plancher was down on one knee, struggling to catch his breath and “out of it” according to teammates James Jamison and Jevaughn Reams, no trainers came to his assistance.  According to these players and others, head coach George O’Leary said to Plancher, “That’s a bunch of bullshit out of you, son…”—“Conditioned for death: Could UCF have prevented the Ereck Plancher tragedy?”, ESPN Outside The Lines 11/2/08, Mark Fainaru-Wada.

Aaron O’Neal

AARON O’NEAL, 19, linebacker with Missouri, died on 7/12/05 of exercise-induced trauma brought on by his sickle cell trait in an offseason conditioning session.  The hereditary trait found in an estimated 8 to 10% of African-Americans can limit blood flow during intense exercises, causing muscle breakdown that is sometimes fatal.  (Sickle cell trait can also affect people whose ancestors come from Central and South America.)  He began to struggle 45 minutes into an hour-long workout, then complained of blurry vision and sunk to his hands and knees.  He was told to repeat the agility drills he could not complete.  “I’m trying.  I’m not weak.  I just can’t go on.”  In violation of the athletic department’s Emergency Action Plan, O’Neal was not given medical treatment, put on a campus landscaping truck and sent to the football offices rather than a hospital one-quarter mile away.  After communications confusion among training and medical staff personnel, 911 was finally called, but O’Neal died at University Hospital about 90 minutes after the workout ended.  In March 2009 Missouri agreed to pay O’Neal’s parents $2 million to settle a 3 ½ year-old lawsuit before trial.—“Documents show Missouri missteps in O’Neal death”, USAtoday.com 4/14/09, from AP.

Paul Najarian

PAUL NAJARIAN, 52, linebacker with Cal in the late 1970s and early 80s, died on 6/23/14 after a long bout with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  He played 12 games in 1979.  ALS attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.  Symptoms are similar to CTE.  Prior to the discovery of CTE in 2002 as a phenomenon in ex-American football players, many CTE cases were diagnosed as ALS.  [My Comment: This is not to imply that this was the case with Najarian.]—Obituary, SF Chronicle 6/25/14, Steve Kroner.  “CTE, a Degenerative Brain Disease, Found in 34 Pro Football Players”, ABC News 12/3/12.

Jason Bitsko

JASON BITSKO, 21, a center with Kent State, was found dead in the bedroom of his apartment on 8/20/14, apparently from an undisclosed medical issue.  The Portage County coroner says an autopsy has been completed, but a cause of death will not determined for several weeks.  Jason’s parents, Randy and Pam Bitsko, say that donations can be made to the Jason Bitsko Memorial Fund, Coalition For Christian Outreach, 5912 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206.—“Sports Wire”, Chicago Sun-Times, 8/21/14.  “Coroner: KSU football player’s death appears to be natural”, fox19.com 8/31/14.

12/23/14 Update: The Portage County Coroner ruled that Bitsko died of an enlarged heart.—“Kent State Football player Jason Bitsko died of natural causes, says coroner”, Cleveland.com 12/23/14, Amanda Harnocz, Northeast Ohio Media Group.


College Football Money

70 college football coaches make between $1 million and $9 million per year.—“NCAA suit is about class”, SF Chronicle OPEN FORUM 6/14, William F. Devine.


College coaching salaries in the 2 major sports (football and basketball) increased 512% from 1985 to 2010.  Universities have spent $5.1 billion to improve 104 major college football stadiums since the late 1990s.  From testimony by Stanford economist Roger Noll at the Ed O’Bannon trial, a case alleging the NCAA violates antitrust law by prohibiting players to profit from their own images.—“Big time college athletes not amateurs”, SF Chronicle 6/15/14, Al Saracevic.


The SEC (Southeastern Conference) made $314 million during the 2012-13 fiscal year, up from $148 million in 2008.  This year (2014), bowl games and tournament payouts alone will reap a combined $311 million for the 5 power conferences—the Big Ten, the SEC, the Pac-12, the Big 12, and the ACC—according to Forbes.  “Football was a full time job,” according to former Cal player Russell White.  It often takes up to 60 hours of the average player’s week.  Former Cal coach Jeff Tedford was making $2.44 million annually and was owed a $5.5 million buyout after he was fired.  During his tenure he stripped scholarships from average players who weren’t performing in the classroom, and gave them to average students who would perform well on the field.  “He was basically looking for blood,” said his running back Joe Igber.—“DON’T HATE THE PLAYER”, SF Weekly 7/16-22, 2014, Rachel Swan.