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Austin Box, Oklahoma Linebacker, May Have Been Supplied With Pills Before Death

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AUSTIN BOX PHOTO
AP

NORMAN, Okla. — On the day before he died, Austin Box and his dad flew back to Oklahoma City from St. Louis after catching a couple of Cardinals games, ate lunch near the airport and shot the breeze. Routine father-son stuff, Craig Box remembers, then Austin had to leave to renew his driver's license and take his girlfriend to the airport. They hugged goodbye.

The next morning, Craig Box was in court when he started getting calls from his wife: Austin was in trouble, Gail Box said. All she knew was that he was breathing. They raced to the hospital in El Reno, a short drive west of Oklahoma City, where Austin had stayed the night with a friend.

They prayed at his bedside, telling their boy to fight, even though they weren't sure he could hear them. Austin never woke up. He died May 19 at the age of 22.

Weeks later, an autopsy found the painkillers oxymorphone, morphine, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam in his system and cited "mixed drug toxicity" as a probable cause of death. Investigators couldn't find any legal prescriptions on file for the drugs.

The death shook Oklahoma. Austin Box was not just another casualty in a state struggling with meth labs and other drug problems. He was a heavily recruited athlete, a star since grade school, a once-in-a-generation standout in Enid, population 48,000, who made everyone proud by playing linebacker at the University of Oklahoma.

How could Box fall prey to painkiller addiction with a caring, attentive family, not to mention the host of coaches and trainers at one of the nation's elite college football programs?

The answer, it seems, is that he was good at hiding a problem. And neither his parents nor anyone at Oklahoma could suggest a safety net that might have caught it.

Oklahoma has a psychological resources department specifically for athletes that offers counseling on substance abuse and other topics. The school performs its own drug tests, besides separate tests performed by the Big 12 and by the NCAA during postseason play.

The school will not discuss the results of Box's tests, citing confidentiality rules.

"I think we do have major steps and a lot of steps, and we do feel, `Hey, we did all we could do,'" Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "That being said, I wish we could have done more, had we known to do more. So, at the end, in the way this ended, there's always something you wish you'd have done more."

Box, a 6-foot-1, 228-pound senior, was found at a house in El Reno, about 30 miles west of Oklahoma City. Police say they were called to the home by John Cobble III, the son of Box's high school coach. Cobble was performing CPR and told police "he believed he had overdosed."

The Boxes were told at the hospital that their son had apparently taken two pills that didn't go together.

Searching for answers, Gail Box went to her medicine cabinet the day after Box died to see if an old bottle of painkillers she had from a rotator cuff surgery had been emptied. She said she found no pills missing.

Craig Box, who had just spent the three-day vacation with his son, was still in shock and the pill discussion hadn't sunk in.

"I don't think I understood the seriousness of it at first," he said. "It didn't register with me."

The parents told The Associated Press of "stark" text messages on their son's cell phone that suggest at least two people know who was supplying Box with some of the pain pills in the hours leading up to his death.

The Boxes have turned the information over to El Reno police, who will not discuss their investigation.

"It's evident what the discussion is," said Craig Box, an attorney who would not identify who sent the messages but said it wasn't anyone tied to the team. "All I can say is that learning of one person's involvement has been very devastating to our family. It was somebody close to Austin."

Box was a three-sport standout from Enid whose athletic abilities sparkled under Friday night lights and propelled his high school to the title game in 2006.

He was likable, too, and his parents said he always seemed to look out for everybody else. On the grade-school basketball squad, he dished out rebounds to the other players on his team who didn't have any points. In junior high, he befriended popular jocks and outsiders alike, made people laugh. He liked to say his two sisters were his best friends.

His former prep football coach, Tom Cobble, describes Box as a Paul Bunyan-type figure, a magnetic personality who people were instantly drawn to. In 42 years of coaching the game, he lists Box as arguably the high school's greatest player.

Box, however, frequently got hurt.

His sophomore year of high school, he missed several games with back problems and three more as a senior with a dislocated elbow. Cobble said he had no idea Box was struggling with painkillers and saw nothing to suggest a problem when he was playing for him in Enid.

The trend continued at Oklahoma, where Box redshirted his freshman season.

He aggravated the back injury, had two orthoscopic knee surgeries, dislocated his elbow a second time and ruptured a disc in his back that laid him up for three days in traction. His defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, said at Box's funeral that he "lost count" of all the injuries to his standout player.

In all, Box missed 12 games for the Sooners, including the first five a year ago. Yet he was still heading into his senior season this fall fighting for a starter's role on a team now ranked No. 1.

Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione expressed concern about commenting on a case being actively investigated by police, but made clear the school had procedures intended to protect its athletes – including those who are injured.

"Our university implements and provides best practices for preventive, diagnostic and rehabilitative care," he said. "An element of those best practices includes direct education, instruction, and communication with the student athlete regarding their specific care and treatment. It is then imperative that those in the care of our physicians follow their instructions carefully, just as it is for any patient in any medical circumstance."

Stoops noted that Box was a senior familiar with warnings about substance abuse.

"A guy that's been through our program for four years has heard a lot of speakers and heard a lot of warnings and a lot of this, that and the other," Stoops said. "You can't stop your children from doing something. If they're going to do it, they're going to do it."

Kenny Mossman, an Oklahoma spokesman, said all athletes are tested for categories of drugs – a process that would have detected the substances found in Box's toxicology report – during their competitive season and then a minimum of 20 percent are tested out of season.

There are currently no plans to change the school's drug-testing policy in the wake of the death, Mossman said.

Ben Habern, the starting center who missed the first part of the 2009 season with a back problem similar to Box's injury, said it was "eye-opening" to find out his teammate was battling through the injury with medicine. From the outside, Box appeared to be a fighter who just wanted to get back on the field.

"He was a selfless player. He put the team before himself day after day," said Tom Wort, Box's replacement at starting middle linebacker. "He had an injury, and the next thing he wanted to do was get back on the field to help the team. He never wanted an injury to slow him down and when it did, it killed him. So, he did everything he could do to get back on the field."

As for the dangers of painkillers?

"You get injured, you want to get back as fast as you can," Wort said. "He was in rehab every day, working with the trainers, trying to get healthy."

Former University of Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, who suffered injuries to his knee, shoulder and hand, knows firsthand about competing with the crutch of painkillers. He said he realized he was an addict when he started to get sick after team trainers and doctors cut him off.

So Ainge took another avenue to get the drugs.

"When you're a big-time athlete in a college town, it's not hard to get whatever you want," said Ainge, who knew "a lot" of guys struggling with painkiller abuse in college. "People are willing to give you stuff because you're a big-time quarterback or big-time player. People want to say they partied with Erik Ainge, the quarterback."

Box's parents, who never missed a game their son played and were the first ones he'd walk over to after each game to say he loved them, are asking themselves if they could have done more.

"The cause of death is so maddening because we missed something or didn't do something," Craig Box said. "I think he thought that to come to us would have been a burden. I regret that."

His wife is haunted daily by the guilt, wishing she could have picked up on some sign that her boy was in trouble.

"Abuse of prescription drugs is becoming more prevalent; it's something we don't think about," she said. "There needs to be a greater awareness of parents about prescription drugs and how kids can get a hold of them."

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AP Sports Writer Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.