NAPLES—They shrug their shoulders and sigh, settling on the words "confused" and "frustrated" to describe their emotions.
Friends and family members of UCF football player Ereck Plancher waited four long months for an autopsy report to explain their confounding loss.
"I'm frustrated and I'm mad," said Shireena Holland, one of Plancher's friends at First Assembly Ministries in Naples. "I thought it was going to be an answer, but it wasn't. It didn't ease the pain. It didn't bring closure. It didn't change the fact that Ereck's gone."
Plancher, a 19-year-old freshman wide receiver, collapsed during a March 18 offseason workout supervised by UCF Coach George O'Leary and his staff. He was taken to a nearby hospital and died about an hour later.
A complete autopsy report obtained by the Orlando Sentinel on Friday revealed the stress of the workout triggered the sickle-cell trait Plancher carried, quickly breaking down his body and causing his death. Plancher collapsed and died as a result of "dysrhythmia brought on by exertional rhabdomyolysis with sickle-cell trait" -- meaning his heart stopped because of the "sickling" of his cells in the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, adrenal glands and thymus during the workout.
The sickle-cell trait has been cited as a contributor to the sudden deaths of 10 athletes between ages 12-19 since 2000, including Plancher and Florida State linebacker Devaughn Darling in 2001.
Plancher's friends struggled to accept the concept that his body could possibly fail during a football workout.
He was a star in East Naples, the best and brightest his community had to offer.
He was the one who handled every workout with ease, encouraging others along the way.
"Ereck never had any problems in high school, not one," said Chris Metzger, Plancher's football coach at Lely High who has since taken another job in North Carolina. "He never lost a sprint in four years and that's not because he was the fastest kid. He just had the biggest heart and worked the hardest. That's why all of this is a complete surprise."
Kevin Mendez, Plancher's youth pastor at First Assembly Church, remembers Plancher as a model athlete in peak physical condition.
"It's a shock," Mendez said, "because he was the go-to guy in high school. He never had any episodes or any problems before."
The sickle-cell trait Plancher carried typically doesn't show any symptoms and people often don't know they carry it.
UCF spokesman Grant Heston said the school learned Plancher had the trait during a team physical exam in January 2007. Heston said Plancher was told he carried the trait and informed of precautions he should take. UCF Athletic Director Keith Tribble said the school's training staff "monitored his physical condition at every practice and workout."
Plancher's parents are visiting relatives in Haiti and had not been informed of the autopsy results Friday, a relative at the family's home said. It is unclear whether they were aware Ereck had the sickle-cell trait. Enock Plancher, Ereck's father, said in previous interviews with the Sentinel that his son was in good health and never had any medical problems.
The autopsy stated the toxicology analysis and internal examination of all Plancher's systems showed no defects or irregularities.
UCF's disclosure Thursday that it was aware Plancher carried the sickle-cell trait stunned several of his friends and family members because they said Plancher never discussed the condition with them.
"He would have, too, but he never mentioned it," said Nixon Joseph, Plancher's friend who played football with him at Lely. "We talked or texted every day. We told each other everything, and he never said anything about sickle-cell [trait]."
Wood Faugue, Plancher's cousin and former high-school classmate, and Metzger, the high-school coach, said they talked with Plancher regularly. Faugue said they discussed everything going on in Plancher's life, including what Plancher described as his trouble keeping up with the UCF workouts in the months before his death.
"He never mentioned [sickle-cell trait]," Metzger said. "He talked about not liking it at UCF and wanting to quit, but we encouraged him to stick it out. He was a good kid and kept pushing himself."
UCF officials have repeatedly defended the school's care of Plancher and its response when he collapsed during the March 18 workout.
"Let me also say clearly that the UCF medical and training staffs are talented professionals who provide exceptional care to our student-athletes," Tribble said in a statement issued by the university Friday. "As soon as Ereck was in distress, our staff immediately attended to him."
Plancher's friends said they know the search for answers may drag on for months, leaving them to hang onto their strong religious faith.
"It might sound like a cliché, but we really do believe everything said at Ereck's funeral," Mendez said. "We believe he is in heaven and he was called for a reason."
Joseph and Ely Ducatel, who also was one of Plancher's high-school friends, said they are driven to live up to Plancher's positive legacy. They said they plan to spend time with Plancher's parents and his younger brother, Edwin, before going back to college in the fall.
"We're looking out for his family because that's what Ereck would have done for us," Joseph said. "It's the best thing we can do while we wait for answers."
Read Iliana Limón's blog or e-mail her at ilimón@orlandosentinel.com.