WHEELER'S parents want answers in son's death

Wednesday, August 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) _ Rashidi Wheeler's family wants answers.

They want to know how such a strong young man could collapse on a practice field and die. And they want to know how to keep it from happening again.

``We feel this could have been prevented,'' George Wheeler said Tuesday after several hundred people crowded into church on Northwestern University's campus for a memorial service.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke at the service, said he was asked by the parents of the 22-year-old Northwestern football player to be their spokesman during any investigation into the death of their son.

Wheeler died Friday after having an asthma attack during a conditioning drill. Bronchial asthma was the preliminary cause of death; a final report could take more than two months.

``There are many eyewitnesses to the last hour of his life who have raised questions about the way this was handled,'' Jackson said. ``There are real questions that at the appropriate time they want pursued.''

Neither Jackson nor the family specified who they want to conduct the investigation.

``The university remains cooperative and open and fair and honest,'' Jackson said. ``And I hope there will be no lines drawn that will alter that.''

Northwestern has already said it plans a full evaluation of Wheeler's death as well as the team's conditioning policies.

Wheeler died two days after Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer died of heatstroke after an intense practice in stifling heat. A week earlier, University of Florida freshman Eraste Autin died of heatstroke after collapsing.

But talk of the circumstances surrounding Wheeler's death was brief compared with the stories people told about his life. The service was filled with stories about his humor, his character and the love he had for family and friends. There were even jokes about his dancing ability and poetry.

``I've lost one of my heroes,'' said Randy Walker, the team's head coach. ``There's a hole in our lives _ a void that will be there forever.''

Jackson contrasted Wheeler's life to so many who are lost to drugs and violence, saying that Wheeler ``in a short time made big decisions and chose the high road.''

The service at Alice Millar Chapel illustrated the tragedy of a man who died long before anyone could possibly expect. There was his No. 30 jersey on display at the front of the church, a reminder of an athlete in the prime of his life. There were his teammates, who despite some beards and goatees, could not disguise the fact that they are not far removed from high school.

``He made sure everyone got home safe from dancing, hanging out,'' said Kevin Bentley, the linebacker who will wear his close friend's No. 30 jersey this season.

``We weren't able to bring him home safe this time.''