WHEELER'S mother talks about lawsuit against Northwestern

Friday, August 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ The mother of Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler said Friday she hopes the NCAA and universities around the country will learn from the death of her son.

Linda Will, who filed a lawsuit against Northwestern, head football coach Randy Walker and other athletic department personnel Thursday, said asthmatics can be competitive athletes but that college sports programs must be better prepared to respond to potential emergencies.

Will's lawsuit seeks substantial damages for her son's death, but she said Friday she also has other goals.

``I hope that there will be a lot of education, that people will understand that asthma is not a death sentence,'' Will said. ``It doesn't mean that you can't compete and participate in sports.''

She said she believes a lawsuit is the only way to guarantee change. Of her son, she said: ``He managed his asthma. He had a problem that day and that problem was not addressed.''

Wheeler, 22, a senior safety, collapsed and died during a preseason conditioning drill on Aug. 3. Bronchial asthma was listed as the cause of death.

Wheeler's family has made a number of allegations: That there was no ambulance or oxygen on the scene that day to respond to Wheeler's attack, and that an on-field phone wasn't working; that there were too few experienced trainers on hand; and that staff initially believed Wheeler was suffering from heat-stroke or hyperventilation and provided him a bag to breathe into.

Also, the lawsuit alleges that the voluntary summer workout was actually mandatory for players and that Northwestern violated NCAA rules by not having an adequate emergency plan.

Will said that Wheeler attempted to communicate the gravity of his situation that day, but that staff waited up to 40 minutes to call for an ambulance.

``When it's clearly stated that, 'I can't breathe, I'm dying,' what's it take to make a red flag go up?'' she said. ``Let's get some help, let's take this seriously.''

Northwestern, which has promised a thorough investigation of the incident, said it was ``disappointed'' that the lawsuit was filed.

``But it does not alter the university's sympathy for Rashidi's family for their loss,'' Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage said. ``It is our hope that by working with the NCAA, medical experts and other appropriate groups, we can help ensure that tragic incidents such as this do not occur.''

Will said that reports Wheeler had had about 30 asthma attacks in his time at Northwestern are ``grossly exaggerated.'' Still, she believes trainers knew of his condition and should have more quickly diagnosed the problem the day he died.

Toxicology tests on Wheeler's body showed he had the banned stimulant ephedrine in his system when he collapsed, but the Cook County coroner said it had nothing to do with his death. Responding to reports of the supplement use, the federal Food and Drug Administration has launched an investigation into the death.

Will's attorney, James Montgomery, said that issue is irrelevant, as are questions about whether Wheeler was properly treating himself before his death.

``He brought credit to the university's football team and when he had a university sponsored practice on the field on August 3rd they had on obligation to take care of him, they had an obligation to get medical care to him,'' Montgomery said.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, although Montgomery said they would be substantial, based in part on Wheeler's potential earnings from a possible pro career. He said at least three NFL teams had been scouting Wheeler, and that ``it appeared he was well on his way'' to the pros.

Wheeler started last season, but was listed in the team's press guide _ printed before his death _ as a backup at strong safety this year.