On Aug. 3, 2001, Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler died during a preseason conditioning test. He was 22 years old and asthmatic. He started all 12 games during the 2000 season and finished third on the team with 88 tackles en route to a Big Ten title. His teammates, everyone from the kicker to the quarterback, liked him. It was hard not to.
Wheeler’s parents—his mother, Linda Will, and his father, George Wheeler—sued the University on behalf of their son’s estate, and after an exhausting four-year lawsuit, a Cook County judge ordered Northwestern to pay the family $16 million for Wheeler’s death.
The late Randy Walker was head coach of the football team at the time. When he died of a sudden heart attack in June 2006 at age 52, he was lauded for introducing the ‘Cats to the spread offense, leading them to a Big Ten title in 2000 and taking them to three bowl games. His legacy lay with his on-the-field accomplishments, not with Wheeler’s death.
One of the only people still on staff from the time Wheeler died is current head coach Pat Fitzgerald. He returned to his alma mater in July 2001 as a coach for defensive backs, the position Wheeler played. Assistant Athletic Director for Communications Paul Kennedy says Fitzgerald only met Wheeler once before he died and was not present at the practice in August. Fitzgerald declined to comment for this story.
During Fitzgerald’s coaching tenure at Northwestern, the football program began giving out a Rashidi Wheeler Award to team members who played with Wheeler’s characteristic enthusiasm at its annual banquet. Eventually the football program phased out the banquet, and along with it, the award.
Now, Wheeler’s name appears nowhere on campus. No one has worn his number, 30, since his death, but it has not been officially retired. Nearly 15 years after his death, with no memorial in his name, few people on campus know who Wheeler is.
Despite his on-field prowess on Saturdays, Wheeler was known for cutting corners in practice, says Marvin Brown (Speech '02), a former Northwestern safety and one of Wheeler’s teammates. At the time, his fellow defensive backs thought he was just being lazy. They later realized his asthma unnerved him every time he stepped on the field.
“During times in practice, he wouldn’t go his hardest, and he didn’t want to push himself to the limit of having an asthma attack,” Brown says.
Brown says Wheeler’s asthma was likely the reason he saw Wheeler take two different supplements containing ephedrine, a substance then commonly used as a stimulent in dietary suplements and to treat asthma. The NCAA banned ephedrine in 1997, but didn’t start testing for it until 2002. The state of Illinois and the FDA later followed suit in 2003 and 2004 respectively, due to a high risk of stroke and heart attack.
Most NU football players usually took only one supplement, according to Brown. Dr. Mark Gardner, then the University’s director of health services, noted Wheeler’s asthma and his ephedrine use in his medical exam on July 12, 2001, less than a month before Wheeler died.
“He always felt like, ‘I don’t know how much I have in my tank,’” Brown says. “That’s probably why he took two supplements [the day he died], because he didn’t know if he had enough to do it. He didn’t know if he had enough strength to get it done. He felt like he needed that extra push.”
A lot had to go wrong for Wheeler to die that day.
Because of rain the night before, the players had to move from a grass surface to the shorter turf hockey field by the lake, which was like “running on concrete,” Brown says. This, combined with the intense Chicago summertime heat, made Walker’s already difficult conditioning test (ten 100-yard sprints, eight 80s, six 60s and four 40s) borderline brutal.
Official team activities had not yet started, but players were expected to be in Evanston in early August, according to Brown. It was known among players that the strength coaches were more lax on stopwatch times for the summer conditioning test than they were when they administered the test in the fall for those who hadn’t stayed on campus. This incentivized players to “voluntarily” stay rather than go home for the summer. Brown estimates 70 to 80 players showed up to the hockey field to take the test on the day Wheeler died. The staff present at the practice recorded all of it on video.
Just four months earlier, in April 2001, the NCAA tightened its definition of a voluntary team activity. Players had to initiate the workout, no information about the practice could be reported back to coaches and there could not be any threat of punishment for those who didn’t attend, nor incentives for those who did.
Wheeler fell a few times during the test, and again after his test was over, but so did a lot of players. No one was surprised when he collapsed. Wheeler always had trouble finishing drills.
It was a few minutes before trainers noticed him. It was another few minutes before anyone realized he was having an asthma attack. Wheeler’s heart stopped on the field, and head trainer Tony Aggeler administered CPR to resuscitate him as they waited for an ambulance. The training staff did not have a defibrillator on site to help start his heart.
“When he collapsed, I’ll never forget this, I just remember looking at him, and somebody grabbed his arm and picked him up,” Brown says. “His vein was like, popping out of his arm. It was, you know, abnormal, the size of his vein that was popping out of his arm.”
“He’s saying he’s dying,” another teammate at the time, Sean Wieber (Weinberg '02) told the Chicago Tribune six years later. “He couldn’t breathe… he bites his tongue. He starts bleeding.” Trainers continued timing other players finishing their tests as Wheeler struggled to breathe, all while on camera.
Wheeler’s mother told the Los Angeles Times in 2003 that the most appalling thing about the video of the practice was that the drill continued while her son suffered: "To them, it was business as usual and I'm enraged; I trusted them with my child.”
The poor cell phone reception by Lake Michigan didn’t help, either. The phone on the field wasn’t working, so the 911 call had to be made from a cell phone, ESPN reported later that month. Paramedics arrived at the field and took Wheeler to Evanston Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival around 6 p.m. Coroners ruled that his death was caused by exercise-induced bronchial asthma. Wheeler became the third college player to die during “voluntary” team workouts in 2001 alone.
Northwestern football tried to move on and honor its fallen teammate. The players dedicated the 2001 season to Wheeler, Brown says, and they wore "R.A.W," his initials, on their uniforms the entire year. Wheeler's locker stayed untouched that season, according to Wieber. The 'Cats, ranked No. 16 in The Associated Press preseason poll, their highest ranking since 1963, finished the season 4-7, after losing their last six games in a row.
Wieber says Wheeler’s death had an impact, but several factors contributed to Northwestern’s disappointing season.
“You just don’t lose a friend and a teammate and not have it have some sort of mental impression on a weekly basis,” Wieber tells North by Northwestern. “But I don’t think the two have a direct correlation, meaning had Rashidi not passed, I don’t think we go 11-0 and play in the national championship.”
But Brown tells North by Northwestern Wheeler left behind a bigger hole than many even realized.
“When adversity hits, your true character comes out,” Brown says. “So when we lost a game or two, our true character was revealed, and our true character was that we didn’t trust each other anymore. We didn’t trust the system. We didn’t trust our coaches. All that came out.”
Wieber says in the ensuing weeks Wheeler’s mother, along with the University, coordinated a memorial service for Wheeler at Alice Millar Chapel. He also says that Northwestern provided counseling for his teammates and other students who may have been emotionally affected by Wheeler’s death.
“I don’t think there’s a playbook for what one does or what a response should be when someone loses a student at their university,” Wieber says.
But in the years following her son’s death, Will was tireless in her pursuit of justice. She argued that Northwestern coaches and staff, not the drugs he took, were to blame. Linda Will could not be reached for comment.
Will didn’t care about the money; it was never about the money, says Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander, who covered this story as it unfolded. She wanted apologies, from Northwestern claiming responsibility for the role it played in what happened to Wheeler. She wanted action, namely the firing of Walker, as well as that of then-University president Henry Bienen, Telander says. She wanted recognition for her son in the form of a memorial dedicated on Northwestern’s campus.
Will was so singularly focused on fighting for Wheeler’s memory, Telander says, that it was easy for Northwestern to cast her as obsessed, deranged and even dangerous.
When she glared at witnesses during their depositions and stormed out during the trial, NU lawyers wanted her barred from the courtroom. According to the Tribune, when she called Walker a “murderer,” the University sent undercover plainclothes police officers into depositions, a decision Cook County Judge Kathy Flanagan called “a wild, wild overreaction.”
The school argued Wheeler’s ephedrine use caused an irregular heartbeat and resulted in cardiac arrest, disputing the coroner’s official report. At the time, University spokesperson Alan Cubbage called ephedrine “unregulated and dangerous” in a statement.
Surely someone could have known the rigor of the drill combined with Wheeler’s asthma would have tragic results. That someone was health director Dr. Mark Gardner, Northwestern said, who admitted to burning Wheeler’s medical records soon after Wheeler’s death, including the medical exam Gardner himself administered three weeks earlier. Gardner then took what would become a permanent leave of absence.
The University reportedly tried several times in the year after Wheeler’s death to recover those records, but to no avail. After Gardner left his post, Cubbage said the University could not get in contact with him until April 2002.
The Tribune slammed Northwestern with allegations of a cover-up as soon as the University released this information to the public in June 2003 – 14 months after the initial contact. In a statement, Cubbage said the former health director acted independently from the University.
“Northwestern has such a great reputation, and this [situation] had the potential to taint it,” Brown says.
Gardner was named as an individual defendant in the Wheelers’ suit against Northwestern, but he virtually disappeared from news reports after 2003. Cubbage says the University does not have any information regarding Gardner, and declined to comment further for this story. Gardner could not be reached for comment.
None of this was good enough reason for Will to believe anyone but the University was at fault. She refused to settle, holding out and switching legal teams for years, until the suit included the stipulations that Northwestern construct a memorial for Wheeler on campus and formally apologize to her family.
On Aug. 16, 2005, just over four years to the day Wheeler died, Judge Flanagan ordered Will to take the proposed settlement, in which Northwestern would award her family $16 million, the largest wrongful-death settlement in Cook County for a single male under 30 at that time, according to the Los Angeles Times. Flanagan reasoned the suit had gone on long enough, and the pay-out alone was fair compensation for what happened. Will appealed Flanagan’s decision, but in December 2007 the Illinois appellate court ruled to uphold the judge’s original order, saying Will was holding out for her own personal interests rather than the best interests of Wheeler’s estate.
“I remember talking to her,” Telander says. “She kept saying, ‘I don’t care about the money, I don’t want the money.’ Is money enough to compensate for a wrongful death? There’s nothing else you can do.”
Wieber, now a lawyer based in Chicago, pushed a law titled the R.A.W. Initiative (inspired by Wheeler’s initials) through the Illinois State Legislature in 2007. The only semblance of public commemoration of Wheeler’s life, the unfunded mandate requires AEDs to be present at outdoor sports facilities, and that defibrillator-trained staff be present during all activities at sporting events and practices.
Because the training staff did not have a defibrillator on site when Wheeler died, Wieber pursued the opportunity to honor his teammate by championing the law.
“I had thought there were a lot of things that weren’t there that I could’ve changed,” Wieber says. “That’s something tangible, and that could be the difference for another set of parents or another athlete.”
“Rashidi is smiling from Heaven today!” Will said in a statement after then Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the bill into law. “[Wieber’s] actions, and the signing of House Bill 1279, ensures that his friend’s tragic loss of life is not in vain and ensures that other students and their families will have the opportunity to pursue their dreams in a far safer environment.”
Though there was no state funding behind the R.A.W. Initiative mandate, Kennedy says an AED now travels to every Northwestern game and practice.
Despite all the media attention the case received at the time, despite the years during which Will and her family rehashed in court the tragedy of losing their son, despite the R.A.W. Initiative’s momentum in Illinois, the nightmare Will fought to prevent happened anyway. Wheeler’s story faded away, relegated to a single phrase in the story of Walker’s tenure, at most, and completely omitted, at least.
This summer will mark exactly 15 years since Wheeler died during a team activity, and Northwestern officials have yet to publicly memorialize him or apologize for his death. Every day thousands of Northwestern students walk the same sidewalks Wheeler did, sit in the same classrooms he did and go back to the same dorms in which he lived. Every day they walk past the fields where he died. But with no tangible reminder on campus – a memorial, a game played in his honor or an annual 5K race – how would they know?