NORMAN — Pausing frequently between words, tears in his eyes, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables met with the media Thursday night to reflect on the career of senior middle linebacker Austin Box, who died Thursday.
“He was living the dream,” Venables said. “We all have dreams. We all have goals. For a lot of us, it never happens. We don't get to live those dreams. He was living his dream being an Oklahoma Sooner. He grew up his whole life doing exactly what he was doing everyday.”
Box, from Enid, was found unconscious by a friend Thursday morning at an El Reno home.
“We're numb, heartbroken,” Venables said. “Austin was a great teammate. He was a joy to coach. Everybody on our team loved him. He will be greatly missed.
“Our focus and concern is to be with the Box family at this time, give them the support that they need. (And) to our players, the support and nurturing they'll need as well. You can't plan for this. There's no blueprint for it. I just know a young man was tragically taken from us today.”
OU players are dispersed around the country. After final exams ended last week, players were given three weeks off before they return in early June for summer classes and workouts. Venables said counseling will be available 24/7.
“News travels fast, but you want to inform people the appropriate way,” Venables said. “Our people got together rather quickly and did it the right way.”
The Sooners won their final five games last season to win a seventh Big 12 title under coach Bob Stoops, who is vacationing in Europe.
It was no coincidence the defense improved when Box, sidelined by a back injury the first half of the season, started the final five games.
“He's made a ton of big plays,” said Venables, who was Box's position coach. “He was instrumental in the turnaround we had, to finish the way we did and become Big 12 champions. Without him, I'm not sure we would have finished the same way...
“He had a profound impact. He's been a huge part of the success we've had as a team. He stands for everything that's right about this program. He's such a big part of what we do, this family. To not have him here leaves a real empty feeling. It's really, really hard.”
Overcoming knee and back injuries throughout his career, Box played in 30 games, starting 11. He compiled 107 tackles.
“He exemplified everything you want from your players,” Venables said. “You want to talk about adversity, he faced a lot. It was never an option not to fight his way out of it to put himself back in position to contribute. That meant a lot to him to not let his teammates down.
“He was one of the most selfless guys I've ever been around, a great leader for us. His biggest fear as an Oklahoma Sooner was to let down the great players and great coaches that made this such a great program, that he wouldn't live up to that in some way.”
Venables opened with a statement before taking questions from the media.
“It's with great regret we're here tonight under the circumstances,” Venables said. “It's a devastating day for the Oklahoma family, the Box family. We're deeply saddened by the tragic death of Austin Box.
“Our deepest sorrows, sympathy, love, thoughts and prayers go out to the Box family and friends. Craig and Gail lost a son. Courtney and Whitney have lost a brother. We've lost a great teammate and a great friend in Austin Box. It's every parent's worst nightmare to get that call.”