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Questions are raised about strenuous drill

FSU player died after workout, prompting speculation it's too tiring.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida State's signature off-season conditioning program, called "mat drills," has come under some fire as a stunned community tries to explain the sudden death of an apparently healthy 18-year-old, freshman Devaughn Darling.

Darling collapsed and died after completing Monday morning's workout that consists of three segments: tumbling and jumping on mats; running sprints; and lateral agility drills that require players to run through ropes and under plastic pipes. Each segment lasts 21 minutes. Water is available, but there are only a few moments to grab and swig, players say.

It's grueling by design and has been a cornerstone for the Seminoles' success during the Bobby Bowden era and a model for other programs. Nebraska coaches were here Thursday to watch the drills.

"It's supposed to be hard," sophomore defensive end Alonzo Jackson said. "For 25 years now, great athletes have been coming out of here, great pro players have been coming out here. Mat drills are meant to help you perform at a higher level. That's what everybody wants to do when they come to Florida State: perform at a higher level."

Former FSU safety Shevin Smith, a one-time Buccaneer who just signed a one-year deal with the St. Louis Rams, said the drills, which the team basically would duplicate during the fall two-a-days, prepared Seminoles it to make the crucial plays when opposing players often wilted.

"The fourth quarter; that's what we did the mat drills for," he said.

But there have been rumblings, understandable given that anger is a typical stage in the grieving process, that perhaps the mat drills are too tough. Bowden met with the team Wednesday afternoon to talk about the drills as well as whether to begin spring practice Tuesday. It will go ahead as planned.

Jackson, one of the few current players emotionally ready to talk to the media since the tragedy, stressed that he didn't think the drills had anything to do with Darling's death.

Smith agreed.

"They're the toughest thing I ever went through," he said. "You hear tales of mats coming into Florida State and some guys used to talk about leaving early so they wouldn't have to go through mats. But guys come back. Peter Warrick was there doing them, I think, to do that kind of training because it gives you discipline and quickness. I think it's a great style of training."

Jackson said he never experienced anything bad, passed out or saw anyone so sick he needed hospitalization. As for staying hydrated and energized, he learned some tricks such as using only mouthwash; brushing leaves the mouth dry. He always ate an orange or banana beforehand.

Former FSU lineman Eric Luallen, who hosts a radio talk show here, tried to provide an insider's view of the drills in a Feb. 16 column for a Web site and unwittingly offered a chillingly prophetic picture. He recalled then-coach Chuck Amato telling the players:

"Just remember gentleman, the body is a wonderful machine. You will pass out before you die. If you pass out, the trainers will take care of you."

Those words, meant to motivate the athletes to push the envelop, sound shocking now. (Amato, coach at North Carolina State, could not be reached for comment.) According to freshman offensive lineman Bobby Meeks, Darling complained of chest pains but didn't mention anything to team trainers.

An autopsy Tuesday morning was inconclusive and the medical examiner will not be able to determine the cause of death until lab tests are completed in 4-6 weeks. Doctors, including FSU's, agree when an athlete dies suddenly and no abnormalities are detected, the usual cause is arrhythmia.

"The university will look into the circumstances and events leading up to the tragic death of Devaughn Darling," FSU athletic director Dave Hart said. "There is an obvious obligation for due diligence to occur in any instance of this nature. That should not be misconstrued, rather it should be understood as expected and proper follow through."

Mat drills scheduled for Wednesday and today were canceled. The school will hold a service for Darling at 10 a.m. today.

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