ENID — Sooner linebacker Austin Box had five different painkillers in his system when he died May 19. It was the toxic combination of those prescription medicines that likely caused his death, according to an informational copy of a state toxicology report released Monday by his parents, Craig and Gail Box.
In an emotional interview at their Enid home, Box's parents talked about their son's death and even more about his life — a life of showing compassion for others that they hope will not be overshadowed by the way he died.
His parents don't doubt the state medical examiner's findings, but they find it hard to
Although Austin had an injured back and experienced pain when he played and some discomfort at other times, he was not believed to be taking any painkillers prescribed to him by a doctor at the time of his death, his parents said.
Austin and his dad shared a love for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and had just returned from a four-day trip to watch their favorite team play less than 24 hours before his death.
During those four days together, Craig said his son rarely left his sight and he never saw him take any medicine other than “liquid Advil, which we both took,” and never saw him drink anything with alcohol rather than an occasional Blue Moon beer.
The single-page autopsy informational sheet the family provided to The Oklahoman did not list any finding of street drugs or alcohol in Austin's system. It listed the five drugs found in his body as oxymorphone, morphine, hydrocodone, hydromorphone and oxycodone with alprazolam.
The probable cause of death was identified as “pulmonary edema and aspiration pneumonia” due to central nervous system depression probably caused by “mixed drug toxicity.” It listed cardiomegaly (an enlarged heart) and chronic pain history as other significant medical conditions.
His parents said Austin suffered a tiny fracture in his back while lifting weights at the end of his freshman year in high school and later suffered a bulging disc that forced him to miss the first five University of Oklahoma football games last year.
There have been other injuries, as well, including a dislocated elbow, but Austin's mother said he was never one to take pain medication any longer than absolutely necessary.
Austin underwent painful Tommy John surgery on his elbow in 2009 and was prescribed painkillers, but refused to take all the medicine, she said.
“He only took that medication for a couple of days and then he said ‘no,'” Gail said.
Gail said she has also been prescribed pain pills in past years and said she had some leftover pills in the house. She said she checked the containers after Austin's death and the pills were still there.
Craig is an attorney and Gail is a school counselor. Both said they have seen people who showed signs of drug addiction in the past and think they would have recognized it if their son had a long-term addiction problem.
“I am a guidance counselor at Enid High School and, yes, I see drugs and what it does to the young person, their attitude about school, their attitude about life, and I see them give up,” Gail said. “I know the signs of drug use. It is not my job to diagnose but it is my job to refer someone when I suspect. And there have been many times when I have suspected and many times when I have referred. I have wracked my brain. Did I ignore signs? I don't know, but I do know that Austin was a silent sufferer.”
Gail said Austin was the type of person who wanted to please everyone, and might have been reluctant to say anything that would disappoint his parents.
If he had told them there was a problem, however, they would have helped him through it, she said. If there are other silent sufferers out there, she said she hopes they seek help.
Investigate the source
Austin, 22, died May 19 while staying in a friend's house in El Reno.
Now that the toxicology tests have been done, Craig said he hopes the El Reno police will investigate the source of the drugs.
The autopsy report listed the manner of Austin's death as “accident.” Both parents say they are confident the death was an accident and not a suicide.
Austin had a “beautiful girlfriend” and was extremely excited about the upcoming year and football season, Craig said.
“I would tell you with my last dying breath that (suicide) is absolutely not what happened,” Gail said. “It is my firm belief Austin did not know what he was taking. I'm not telling you he did not know they were painkillers. I'm telling you he did not know the extent of what he was taking.”
Craig said, “It's terrifying. It's maddening. It's sad and you can't do anything about it.”
Craig and Gail said their son had a wonderful heart and said one of their hopes is people won't let the way he died define his life.
“Austin was my hero,” Craig said. “I wish I was as nice a person as he was.”
The Boxes told many stories of their son's life. It is perhaps telling that none of them focused on his feats on the football field that often amazed OU football fans.
Instead, they recounted stories that showed Austin's generous heart — the things his friends will remember.
In eighth grade, there were 30-some kids on Austin's basketball team — more kids than they even had uniforms, Craig said.
The coach made sure everyone got a chance to suit up and play.
When other good players were taken out of the game, the coach would leave Austin on the floor.
It wasn't because Austin could score, his dad said.
It was because Austin would grab the rebounds and pass the ball to players who might not otherwise have a chance to score.
“That's who Austin was,” his dad said.
That's the Austin his parents want Oklahomans to remember.