Sooners, family search for answers to death of Austin Box

NORMAN — The parents of Oklahoma linebacker Austin Box say they have information that could help police investigating his death last spring from an apparent drug overdose.

By JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS and JEFF LATZKE Published: September 1, 2011
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NORMAN — The parents of Oklahoma linebacker Austin Box say they have information that could help police investigating his death last spring from an apparent drug overdose.

Craig and Gail Box told The Associated Press there were “stark” text messages on their son's cell phone that suggest at least two people know who was supplying him with some of his pain pills before his death last May 19 at the age of 22.

“It's evident what the discussion is,” said Craig Box, an attorney who would not identify who sent the messages but said it wasn't anyone tied to the team. “All I can say is that learning of one person's involvement has been very devastating to our family. It was somebody close to Austin.”

The Boxes have turned the information over to police, who will not discuss their investigation.

Box suffered sports injuries for years, dating to high school. An autopsy found the painkillers oxymorphone, morphine, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam in Box's system, and cited “mixed drug toxicity” as a probable cause of death. Investigators couldn't find any legal prescriptions on file for the drugs Box took.

How could Box fall prey to painkiller addiction with a caring, attentive family, not to mention the host of coaches and trainers at one of the nation's elite college football programs?

The answer, it seems, is that he was good at hiding a problem. And neither his parents nor anyone at Oklahoma could suggest a safety net that might have caught it.

Oklahoma has a psychological resources department specifically for athletes that offers counseling on substance abuse and other topics. The school performs its own drug tests, besides separate tests performed by the Big 12 and by the NCAA during postseason play.

The school will not discuss the results of Box's tests, citing confidentiality rules.

“I think we do have major steps and a lot of steps, and we do feel, `Hey, we did all we could do,“' Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “That being said, I wish we could have done more, had we known to do more. So, at the end, in the way this ended, there's always something you wish you'd have done more.”

Box, a 6-foot-1, 228-pound senior, was found at a house in El Reno, about 30 miles west of Oklahoma City. Police say they were called to the home by John Cobble III, the son of Box's high school coach. Cobble was performing CPR and told police “he believed he had overdosed.”

The Boxes were told at the hospital that their son had apparently taken two pills that didn't go together. Searching for answers, Gail Box went to her medicine cabinet the day after Box died to see if an old bottle of painkillers she had from a rotator cuff surgery had been emptied. She said she found no pills missing.

Craig Box, who had just spent the three-day vacation with his son, was still in shock and the pill discussion hadn't sunk in.

“I don't think I understood the seriousness of it at first,” he said. “It didn't register with me.”

Austin Box was a three-sport standout from Enid whose athletic abilities sparkled under Friday night lights and propelled his high school to the title game in 2006.

He was likable, too, and his parents said he always seemed to look out for everybody else. On the grade-school basketball squad, he dished out rebounds to the other players on his team who didn't have any points. In junior high, he befriended popular jocks and outsiders alike, made people laugh. He liked to say his two sisters were his best friends.

His former prep football coach, Tom Cobble, describes Box as a Paul Bunyan-type figure, a magnetic personality who people were instantly drawn to. In 42 years of coaching the game, he lists Box as arguably the high school's greatest player.

Box, however, frequently got hurt.

His sophomore year of high school, he missed several games with back problems and three more as a senior with a dislocated elbow. Cobble said he had no idea Box was struggling with painkillers and saw nothing to suggest a problem when he was playing for him in Enid.

The trend continued at Oklahoma, where Box redshirted his freshman season.

He aggravated a back injury, had two orthoscopic knee surgeries, dislocated his elbow a second time and ruptured a disc in his back that laid him up for three days in traction. His defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, said at Box's funeral that he “lost count” of all the injuries to his standout player.

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