By Iliana Limón | Orlando Sentinel
8:59 PM EDT, June 23, 2011
UCF coach George O'Leary defended his actions during football player Ereck Plancher's final workout, testifying Thursday that he never ordered athletic trainers and water be removed from the building.
O'Leary and his staff supervised Plancher's final workout. Plancher, a 19-year-old wide receiver, collapsed and died shortly after offseason conditioning drills on the UCF campus March 18, 2008.
Orange County associate medical examiner Joshua Stephany previously testified complications from sickle cell trait caused Plancher's death. Stephany told jurors when the body is put through extreme stress, the trait causes red blood cells to become sticky and quickly damage key organs.
Former UCF football players Anthony Davis and Cody Minnich, who participated in the workout on March 18, 2008, testified O'Leary ordered the athletic trainers and water be removed from the building. They stated no one intervened or provided Plancher with water when he showed signs of distress during the workout.
O'Leary was aggressively questioned by Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid for more than three hours during the ninth day of the Plancher wrongful death trial. O'Leary's appearance drew a large crowd, filling every seat in the Orange County court room.
Yerrid asked O'Leary whether it would be a "reckless disregard" a player's welfare if athletic trainers were ordered to leave. O'Leary responded, "That is not a `yes' or `no' answer because I was there March 18 and no one was ordered out of the fieldhouse -- trainer or water."
Yerrid also asked whether it would be a reckless act to withhold water from an athlete. O'Leary responded, "It wouldn't be a very responsible act."
O'Leary testified head football athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden told him Plancher had sickle cell trait. The coach stated he was informed when all players tested positive for the trait and was aware he should watch for signs of distress among those athletes, but he relied on the athletic trainers to counsel athletes about the condition and handle any medical emergencies.
Before O'Leary took the stand, the Plancher attorneys played video highlights of Vander Heiden's depositions for the jury. When she was asked whether she informed Plancher he had sickle cell trait, she responded, "I can't say with certainty that yes I did or no I didn't."
Vander Heiden stated there was no written record she told Plancher he had the trait.
When O'Leary was asked if he thought it was critically important Plancher be informed he had the trait, the coach said, "yes, it was."
O'Leary said he was not a sickle cell trait expert, but he did understand it had been tied to athlete deaths.
Plancher family attorneys contend the football player was never informed he tested positive for the condition that the medical examiner stated caused his death.
UCFAA attorneys argue Plancher was told he had the trait and the medical examiner failed to do a thorough autopsy, missing an undiagnosed heart condition that caused the player's death.
Vander Heiden and O'Leary both testified they thought Robert Jackson, the sole certified athletic trainer present during Plancher's final workout, knew Plancher had sickle cell trait. Vander Heiden said she was "shocked" Jackson stated he was not aware of Plancher's condition.
O'Leary and Vander Heiden, who was not at the workout but helped provide emergency care afterward, defended their treatment of Plancher.
The coach said it is important to remove a player with sickle cell trait from a workout if he has a problem, but O'Leary added he never saw signs Plancher was in distress during the conditioning drills.
O'Leary reiterated his previous statements that he viewed the drills as a "non-taxing workout." Former players have testified it was among the toughest offseason workouts they had ever done and a lot of athletes were throwing up during the agility drills.
While the two former players said Plancher was berated for collapsing during sprints near the end of the workout, O'Leary said he Plancher tripped and stumbled but completed the drill.
O'Leary recalled telling Plancher after the sprints, "You're better than that." When Yerrid asked O'Leary if he thought sickle cell trait athletes should be addressed with concern and empathy so they feel comfortable removing themselves from workouts, O'Leary responded, "I did not know he was suffering from any ailment when I addressed him." He later added, "If you're asking me how I felt after everything went down that day, awful. I felt awful. I lost a member of the family that day."
Yerrid began his questioning of O'Leary by asking the coach to introduce himself and list his employment status. They reviewed the terms of his 2007 football contract.
O'Leary said he is "CEO of the football program" and he would contact UCF President John Hitt, who is chairman of the UCF Athletics Association, if he needed something outside the program.
He said UCFAA Athletic Director Keith Tribble is his immediate supervisor.
O'Leary said he manages the football program's budget, but Tribble and the UCFAA board of directors make the final decisions.
Yerrid asked O'Leary whether college football players are paid beyond their scholarship, he said no.
When O'Leary was asked whether he was different from the players and was compensated for the team's performance in games, the coach said he was paid to do his job.
Yerrid reviewed O'Leary's contract, citing all compensation and incentives he receives for his work.
UCFAA attorney Kevin Taylor objected, asking the judge to keep the review of the contract to a minimum because it was being used for inflammatory purposes. "We all have jobs that are performance based," Taylor said. The judge overruled the objection.
O'Leary said while his contract states he receives compensation for UCF football camps, but the coach said he "does not take a dime of that money." O'Leary said he gives the money to his assistant coaches.
When he was asked whether winning was important for him because it translated to more financial compensation, O'Leary said "I'm in this game for more than money." He later added, "that's how your retain your job."
O'Leary said his contract is no different than any other college football coach.
He was asked about incentives for higher attendance at football games. O'Leary agreed he would receive financial compensation for higher attendance at games.
Yerrid then showed the jury a section of O'Leary's contract that outlined grounds for termination. O'Leary agreed the list did not include penalties for wins and losses.
Yerrid then highlighted a section that indicated if O'Leary either was terminated or left without cause, there would be a $5 million payout owed to the party that did not initiate the departure.
"It's protection for both sides," O'Leary said.
O'Leary was asked if he told Plancher he had sickle cell trait. The coach responded, "I never told him. Mary did."
Yerrid asked O'Leary not to speak on behalf of other people. He then asked O'Leary whether he thought it was important for Plancher to be told about the trait.
O'Leary said "it was important to the student athlete, not just me. The people who work for me who have a responsibility to counsel and educate them."
Yerrid asked O'Leary if it's important that the athletes have a sense of trust in their coaches.
O'Leary responded, "Yes, I always talk to the team about family and what's expected of the family. And what they can expect from the family as far as trust and loyalty."
The coach said the first time he noticed Plancher was having any problems was when assistant athletic trainer Robert Jackson began treating Plancher after the conditioning workout was completed.
O'Leary said he told Athletic Director Keith Tribble it was a "non-taxing workout." He recalled describing the workout and saying the team did three agility sessions that spanned 10 minutes and 22 seconds. He said he provided that time to Tribble because it was the only part of the workout he timed.
He said he did not consider what some former UCF players referred to as an obstacle course a true obstacle course. He said it was elongated agility drills. He said he envisioned obstacle courses would involve climbing and jumping over structures, which is not what the team did.
Yerrid asked O'Leary if it was correct that he ever played college football, and O'Leary responded that he played one year.
Taylor objected and called for a mistrial, arguing without revealing details in front of the jury that Yerrid violated pretrial orders. Before O'Leary began his testimony, Yerrid was instructed not to reference O'Leary resigning from Notre Dame for lying about his education and athletic background. Evans sustained Taylor's objection and denied the mistrial request, saying the question was not relevant but it was not a violation of the pretrial orders.
O'Leary was then asked about the team's physicians. The coach described the doctors as being paid members of the staff. When Yerrid asked O'Leary whether it would surprise him the UCF football team physicians were unpaid. O'Leary said it would surprise him, but it wasn't his area of expertise and it was handled by the medical training staff.
Yerrid asked O'Leary whether it was imperative Jackson knew Plancher had sickle cell trait during his final workout.
O'Leary responded, "I would say yes, he should." The coach added that the trainers respond to the problems any athletes may have as a medical emergency.
The coach said many times during the deposition he thought Jackson, the sole certified athletic trainer at Plancher's workout, knew Plancher had the trait. Yerrid asked O'Leary if he would find it unacceptable Jackson did not know Plancher had sickle cell trait.
"It would be something that I would want to question and exactly what took place on that field," O'Leary said. "I would expect all trainers to understand what the medical files read and what takes place."
After a brief break to review his notes and address Taylor's objections, Yerrid asked O'Leary if he knew what to look for when Plancher was related to sickle cell trait.
O'Leary said he knew what to watch for when a player with sickle cell trait was doing conditioning drills.He said there were 82 players on the field during Plancher's last workout on March 18, 2008. O'Leary said he consider the fieldhouse, a full size football field with extra space on the sidelines, a very large venue.
He said there were 16 coaches and graduate assistants observing the workout and he was under the impression three of them knew Plancher had sickle cell trait. O'Leary said he thought head strength and conditioning coach Ed Ellis and Jackson were aware of the condition.
When Yerrid asked if O'Leary if he read anyone else's testimony to develop an understanding of who was aware Plancher had the trait. O'Leary said he did not read anyone's testimony besides his own.
O'Leary said he was watching the whole team, but he relied on the other coaches to help him monitor all players.
Two former UCF players previously testified Plancher fell and was under distress during an 18-second sprint near the end of the workout.
O'Leary said Plancher wasn't 40 yards behind, he said Plancher was "five to seven yards behind right near the offensive line finishing."
Yerrid asked if that was unusual. O'Leary responded, "It wouldn't have been normal, but, again, I attributed it to the stumble. Cleat caught in the ground that I saw earlier."
Yerrid asked O'Leary whether the four volunteer football team physicians knew Plancher had sickle cell trait. O'Leary said he did not know if they were aware of it. He added that the "doctors aren't with the football team unless a trainer or the football coach was with them to let them know."
O'Leary stated Jackson was in a position to observe the players and respond to their needs during the workout.
The coach added that there were five student trainers at the workout. When Yerrid asked if he was suggesting they were responsible for Plancher's care, O'Leary responded they were "another set of eyes in there."
The jury was excused while the attorneys debated Yerrid's objection that UCFAA never stated in its pretrial declarations that four or five student trainers were present during Plancher's final workout. Yerrid called it "trial by ambush."
The judge initially agreed to tell O'Leary not to reference the student trainers and asked the Plancher attorneys to write instructions to the jury to ignore references to the student trainers.
Taylor and UCFAA attorney Dan Shapiro argued that decision was unfair. They said UCFAA did disclose the names of student trainers and the Plancher family attorneys chose not to depose them. Shapiro added that opposing counsel chose to ignore those trainers because they would bolster UCF's argument no one was ordered out of the fieldhouse on the day Plancher died. Two former UCF players have testified O'Leary ordered the athletic trainers to leave the fieldhouse. Shapiro said he would supply UCFAA's witness list, which included the names of student trainers.
Plancher family attorney J.D. Dowell said Shapiro told him one of the student trainers "had no information relevant to this case."
After briefly leaving the courtroom, Evans decided not to give the jury any instructions about the student trainers but would allow Yerrid to aggressively question O'Leary about the topic.
Yerrid asked for permission to ask O'Leary about his policy when he learns an athlete has sickle cell trait. O'Leary stated during his deposition he informs parents about the condition, but Evans previously ruled there could be no reference Planchers' parents were not informed he had sickle cell trait .
Evans ruled Yerrid could ask about the policy. Taylor was allowed to advise O'Leary about the topic before the trial resumed.
The judge once again warned the attorneys that they were not using their time wisely and were in danger running out time to fully present their arguments.
When the jury returned, O'Leary agreed when Yerrid said it didn't matter if a person was observing practice if they did not know what how to spot sickle cell trait symptoms.
O'Leary was asked whether the team was properly acclimated before they did the offseason workout. The coach responded there was a 12-week conditioning program, then the athletes had a nine day break for spring break. He said the players were given conditioning drills to do during the break.
O'Leary said he had no proof, but he was sure Plancher did the drills during his break because "he did everything right."
The coach agreed with Yerrid when he said the drills weren't as strenuous as the workouts the team did on campus.
O'Leary was asked if he was unusual for Plancher to finish sprints during his final workout behind offensive linemen. The coach said, "Yes, but I attributed it to the stumbling."
Yerrid asked O'Leary whether it was better to be cautious with a sickle cell trait athlete. The coach responded, "Yes, basically but that is not unusual in the fieldhouse to stumble. Many athletes do that. Nothing to say, `Whoa, watch out for him.'"
Yerrid asked if it was possible others in closer proximity might not have observed it the same way. O'Leary said, "What I observed was from 35 yards away. I can't say about what anyone else testified."
O'Leary was then asked whether it would be a significant event if a player stayed down for more than five seconds after stumbling during a sideline-to-sideline sprint.
The coach responded, "Yes, but that never occurred."
Yerrid asked O'Leary whether Plancher would be alive today if he was removed from the workout.
UCFAA attorneys objected and the judge agreed, telling Yerrid to move on.
O'Leary testified he saw Plancher stumble, but it wasn't a "stress or disorder to me." He said a lot of players stumble on the football field and it wasn't a cause for concerned.
Yerrid said, "Coach O'Leary, young athletes don't die a lot on the football field."
O'Leary said, "No, they don't."
UCFAA attorneys objected. The judge agreed and asked the jury to disregard the question.
Yerrid asked O'Leary how many times team completed the obstacle course near the end of the workout. He said he initially thought the team had done it once, but he said he spoke with his staff and learned the team did it twice.
O'Leary answered a few more questions about the workout, but Yerrid asked him not to go through the entire workout in detail. Yerrid assured him the UCFAA attorneys would ask him about it later.
The coach said he was talking with his staff when he saw players helping carry Plancher out of the fieldhouse.
O'Leary said he asked Jackson what was happening and Jackson responded, "dehydration." The coach said Plancher looked like many dehydrated players he had seen in the past.
The coach said he asked Plancher whether he had breakfast that morning. O'Leary said Plancher had a water bottle in his mouth and later was being treated by Jackson on a bench outside, so Plancher never responded.
Yerrid asked O'Leary what Plancher looked like while players assisted him on the bench. "I looked down," O'Leary said. "I saw open eyes."
Yerrid asked if Plancher's "appearance looked good."
O'Leary responded, "I looked at it as an athlete when an athlete was struggling."
Yerrid asked if Plancher could sit without assistance on the bench outside and the coach said he couldn't recall "if he was leaning on someone over there."
Yerrid asked if Jackson had water and was "administering hydration inside the fieldhouse. O'Leary responded, "yes."
Yerrid asked if Jackson would be in the best position to answer where he gave Plancher water and O'Leary said "yes."
The attorney then asked O'Leary about Manny Messengeur, a former car salesman and booster who was hired to serve as O'Leary's special assistant. O'Leary said they are friends and Messengeur oversees letterman activities.
Yerrid asked whether O'Leary instructed players what to say during sworn statements they gave the school's attorney shortly after Plancher's death. O'Leary responded, "No, I did not."
Davis, one of the former players who testified this week, told jurors O'Leary discouraged players from speaking in detail and told them they could not trust anyone besides their teammates and coaches. Davis said he did not provide as many details about the workout during his sworn statement for UCF attorneys because Messengeur was in the room and he was worried everything he said would relayed to O'Leary.
The coach said Messengeur was in the room when players gave their sworn statements because he was responsible for rounding up the players for the interviews and he knew them.
Yerrid and Taylor agreed they could likely finish their questioning of O'Leary before 5 p.m. Yerrid agreed to limit his questions to 10 minutes, then ended his questioning at about 4:30 p.m. to give the other side enough time to finish by 5 p.m. Taylor said UCFAA had no questions and would call O'Leary later. Yerrid protested and said he had more questions if the time was available.
The judge sent the jury out of the room. He then told the attorneys he would not allow further questioning of O'Leary Thursday, but Yerrid said he reserved the right to call him again at any time and UCFAA reserved the right to call him during their presentation as well.
Evans told Taylor everyone in the courtroom knew what he was doing and was not forthcoming with information. He said it was part of the "lack of professionalism in the case."
Before O'Leary took the stand, the jury watched video highlights of Vander Heiden's depositions.
Vander Heiden described the school's sickle cell trait policy and informing O'Leary and strength and conditioning coach Ed Ellis Plancher had the trait.
She was interviewing students near her office when an assistant coach told her Jackson had asked her for help treating Plancher. Vander Heiden said she wasn't under the impression it was a medical emergency and she was going to assist transporting an athlete to the training room for further care.
Vander Heiden said she ran to get a transport vehicle and drove it across the sidewalk to the front of the fieldhouse. When she arrived, she noted Plancher appeared to be "lethargic" and had a weak pulse.
She said she did not automatically assume they were sickle cell related symptoms because she was treating the immediate signs of distress. Vander Heiden said it would be unusual for any athlete who finished a workout with a weak pulse, prompting her to instruct Jackson to call 911. She said when Plancher lost his pulse, she began CPR.
When Jackson dropped and broke the first automated external defibrillator used to diagnose cardiac arrhythmias, she instructed him to grab the other one from inside the fieldhouse. She grabbed the second monitor and followed its instructions not to shock Plancher's heart.
When campus police and paramedics arrived, they took over Plancher's emergency care. Vander Heiden said she told the paramedics Plancher had tested positive for sickle cell trait. She said she told them about the trait because it was her responsibility to provide Plancher's medical history when they took over care.
Vander Heiden said she is not authorized by the state of Florida to administer intravenous fluids and she chose not give Plancher high-flow oxygen because he was breathing when she arrived.
She agreed with Yerrid that the National Athletic Trainers' Association consensus report on sickle cell trait recommends that intravenous fluids and high-flow oxygen be administered when an athlete with the trait appears to be in distress. Vander Heiden said it is UCFAA policy to follow NATA guidelines.
The jury also watched video highlights of UCF assistant coach Tim Salem's deposition. Salem testified he learned Plancher had sickle cell trait while reading the newspaper following the player's death.
Salem was UCF's offensive coordinator and helped supervise Plancher's final workout.
Salem said he didn't know Plancher had sickle cell trait. When Plancher family attorney Jeff Murphy asked Salem how he learned Plancher had the trait, Salem responded, "I think it was through the news. Well, I want to say it was the newspaper. I remember reading the release that UCF had that all the coaches knew, you know, Ereck Plancher had sickle cell. [Expletive], I didn't know."
Murphy then asked Salem whether he ever talked with any other coaches to see if they knew Plancher had sickle cell trait.
Salem said, "Yeah, because as soon as I read that newspaper, I called one of our other coaches immediately and said did you know that so-and-so had sickle cell, because I sure as hell didn't."
He said he spoke with wide receivers coach David Kelly, Plancher's position coach who testified Wednesday he didn't know before the player's death tested positive for the trait.
The attorneys once again began Thursday morning by arguing objections before the judge, with UCFAA highlighting sections of the depositions they did not believe followed court rules and should not be heard by the jury.
Evans stayed for two hours after the jury left Wednesday night to rule on objections to Vander Heiden's deposition. The judge said he was infuriated the attorneys spent at least 30 minutes reviewing objections to Salem's deposition. Evans admonished the attorneys for the protracted delays.
"Words can't describe how sick of it I am," Evans said. " It's got to stop. And here's the deal. From now on, I don't care if you stay through the night and you don't get any sleep. I want these things to be worked out before we come to trial."
Evans told the attorneys they were equally responsible for the delays. He said the court reporters' records were "so replete with both sides wasting time" that the attorneys should not both stating they didn't have enough time to finish their presentations during any potential appeals.
He said both sides agreed to a three-week trial and promised the jurors they would stick to that timeline.
At the end of Thursday's proceedings, Evans said the Planchers' attorneys has nine hours and 40 minutes remaining for questioning of witnesses, objections and closing arguments. He said UCFAA has 19 hours and five minutes remaining. Evans said he would be willing to work late and during the weekend if the attorneys made a compelling case that they would not receive due process and be able to complete their case in time.
However, the Plancher family attorneys said they expect to rest their case Friday. The UCFAA attorney said they would likely be able to rest their case Thursday. Evans said he did not anticipate the need to work on Saturday to complete the trial on time.
Check back for live updates throughout the Plancher trial. firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-650-6353. Read Iliana Limón's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/knightsnotepad.
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