Austin Box often played hurt.
Always tried to motivate his teammates.
And one practice had the entire defense keeled over in laughter — at the expense of defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
Box, Oklahoma's starting middle linebacker who just received his college degree in criminology and sociology last weekend, died Thursday. He was found unconscious by friend J.T. Cobble, who told authorities he feared Box had overdosed on “pain pills.”
Cherokee Ballard, spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office, said Friday the office had begun an autopsy on Box, but official cause of death won't be determined for days.
Funeral services have been set for 11 a.m. Friday at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Box's hometown of Enid. The burial will take place at Enid's Memorial Park Cemetery.
‘A great guy to be around'
Gerald McCoy was driving home after working out with other former Sooners now in the NFL when the news reached him.
“I got a text from one of my friends that said, ‘Did you hear about Austin Box?'” said McCoy, a teammate of Box's from 2007-09, and now a defensive tackle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I typed his name on Google, and it said they found him unresponsive at his house and flew him to a hospital. First thing I did was immediately start praying, because unresponsive was already not good. Once I started praying, I simply said, ‘God, just let him wake up, let him respond, let his heart beat, something.'
“When they finally said what they said, it was like shock. I watched the guy when he got recruited, I played with him. We weren't necessarily the closest of friends, but he was my brother because we were teammates.
“He was a great guy to be around, a lot of fun.”
Atlanta Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton, on the team with Box in 2007, took pride in watching another native Oklahoman tear it up in practice.
“What I remember is he came in as a freshman, and he could run like the wind. He was running with the defensive backs. He was really strong, too,” Lofton said. “I remember thinking, ‘This guy can't be a freshman.' It made me proud. I'm from Kingfisher, and he was from Enid. We had that Oklahoma pride.
“Austin was just a hilarious, hilarious guy. Always made you laugh, a fun guy to be around.”
Box had his teammates laughing hysterically one afternoon during practice.
“One day, Coach V (Venables) was real hot, Box had messed up. Coach V was trying to push his buttons, get Box angry, looking to see if he had that mean streak,” recalled former OU linebacker Keenan Clayton, now with the Philadelphia Eagles. “While Coach V demonstrated how to shed an offensive lineman, Box shed Coach V to the ground. It surprised everybody. It went silent. Then everybody cried laughing. It was one of the most hysterical things to come out of practice. The highlight of practice for a few months. We never let Coach V live that one down.
“Box was a great kid. He kept the energy alive in the meeting rooms, on the field, off the field; he never complained to Coach V about playing time. He wanted his teammates to do good.
“It's really hard to see him go.”
‘Someone you could go to war with'
Box's football career was defined by injuries. But also overcoming them.
Heading into his redshirt freshman season in 2008, Box was the presumptive starter at outside linebacker. But days before the Sooners' opener, he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, opening the way for Travis Lewis to take his job.
The same season, Box re-emerged in the starting lineup at middle linebacker after starter Ryan Reynolds was lost for the season to injury. But in the regular-season finale at Oklahoma State, Box suffered a sprained knee that knocked him out of the lineup again.
In 2009, Box dealt with elbow and knee injuries that ultimately kept him out of two games. And in 2010, a preseason disc issue in his back forced him to sit the first five games of the year.
But once again, Box fought his way back onto the field, even though the injury was first believed to be career-ending.
By Game 10, he had regained his status as a starter and proved to be crucial to OU's five-game winning streak to close the season.
At Oklahoma State, he made a diving interception in the fourth quarter that helped seal OU's 47-41 Bedlam victory. Then in the Fiesta Bowl, he set the tone by stuffing running back Robbie Frey behind the line on fourth-and-1 on Connecticut's second possession.
“My memory of Box is that he gave it his all,” said the Carolina Panthers' Nic Harris, who was Box's Sooner teammate from 2007-08. “He put it on the line. You knew he was going to do whatever it took. You knew he was someone you could trust.
“Someone you could go to war with.”