2 UCF coaches say they didn't know Ereck Plancher had trait that caused his death

Sentinel Staff Writer

UCF football officials supervising Ereck Plancher the day he died did not know he tested positive for sickle cell trait, according to depositions and statements made in court.

Attorneys representing Plancher's family in a wrongful-death lawsuit contend no one at his final workout — including the sole athletic trainer present — was aware of Plancher's potentially lethal condition. Sickle cell trait was cited by the medical examiner as a contributing factor in Plancher's death.

The sworn statements of two assistant coaches contradict the school's long-held stance that all staff members were aware of the football player's medical history and monitored him closely during every workout.

Plancher, a 19-year-old freshman wide receiver from Naples, died March 18, 2008, after an off-season conditioning workout on the UCF campus supervised by coach George O'Leary and his staff.

"Coaching staff and trainers acted appropriately at all times in connection with the workout," UCF spokesman Grant Heston said Tuesday. "While it remains university policy not to discuss specifics about the ongoing lawsuit, let me say that all public comment is based on the best information we have available at the time."

An autopsy found that the stress of the workout triggered Plancher's sickle cell trait. The sickling episode led to misshapen blood cells and exertional rhabdomyolysis, a rapid degeneration of muscle and tissue that caused Plancher's heart to stop.

In separate July 31 depositions, then-UCF offensive coordinator Tim Salem and UCF wide-receivers coach David Kelly — the two coaches who most directly supervised Plancher — both said they had no prior knowledge of Plancher's condition or the risks he faced during high-stress workouts.

In the suit, Enock and Giselle Plancher, Ereck's parents, allege UCF coaches and athletic trainers were negligent when they did not recognize their son was suffering from problems related to sickle cell trait and failed to treat him properly.

In a hearing Friday, school attorneys argued that two medical releases should clear the university of all liability.

The Planchers' attorneys countered that the waivers were voided because UCF failed to observe the UCF Athletics Association policy on sickle cell trait and did not respond properly in the fatal workout because its staff was unaware he had the trait. They also contend Ereck Plancher was not notified of his positive test or the risks he faced, a claim UCF disputes.

Jeffrey D. Murphy, who represents the Plancher family, said in court Friday that athletic trainer Robert Jackson stated in a deposition last week that he was not aware Plancher had sickle cell trait. Jackson was the only athletic trainer present when Plancher collapsed.

"There were coaches and trainers there," Murphy said. "There was not one athletic trainer there who — through the depositions taken so far — who knew Ereck had sickle cell trait, which is what killed him."

He added that the university didn't follow NCAA and National Athletic Trainers' Association guidelines for treating an athlete with sickle cell trait when Plancher started having problems.

The athletic trainers' association recommends administering high-flow oxygen, cooling the athlete and telling doctors to "expect explosive rhabdomyolysis and grave metabolic complications."

"[Jackson] admitted that he never even knew Ereck had sickle cell trait, so there was no reason for him to engage in any of the things you engage in to treat somebody with sickle cell trait," Murphy said.

UCF's attorneys were not allowed to respond to Murphy's statements but they did say head athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden was aware Plancher had sickle cell trait and responded within minutes of his collapse.

The depositions Murphy cited contradict repeated statements by UCF officials during the past year.

UCF Athletic Director Keith Tribble released a statement July 18, 2008, the day after Plancher's autopsy report became public, defending the school's response the day Plancher collapsed.

"Our staff advised Ereck of his sickle cell trait and monitored his physical condition at every practice and workout," Tribble said.

Heston, on the same day, said, "As with all of our student-athletes, our medical staff and trainers monitor their workouts, practices and games."

Kelly was asked four times in his deposition whether he knew Plancher had sickle cell trait; he answered no each time.

In his deposition, Salem said he was surprised to read UCF's statements that the football staff knew Plancher had the trait.

Murphy: "Do you remember how you found out that he had sickle cell trait?"

Salem: "I think it was through the news. Well, I want to say it was the newspaper. I remember reading the release that UCF had that all the coaches knew, you know, Ereck Plancher had sickle cell. I'm like, [expletive], I didn't know."

Murphy: "Did you ever talk to any of the other coaches about whether they had known?"

Salem: "Yeah, because as soon as I read that newspaper, I called one of our other coaches immediately and said did you know that so-and-so had sickle cell, because I sure as [expletive] didn't."

Circuit Judge Maura T. Smith will continue hearing arguments in the case Sept. 18.

Iliana Limón can be reached at ilimon@orlandosentinel.com.

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