The University of California has admitted its negligence was a substantial factor in the 2014 death of Cal football player Ted Agu, who died after a strenuous team workout.
The admission comes after testimony in a lawsuit brought by Agu’s parents raised questions about the actions of Cal football personnel in the events that preceded his death. The testimony, given in confidential depositions, also detailed allegations that campus officials did not provide the Alameda County coroner’s office with all police and medical records after Agu died, including some that indicated he had sickle cell trait — a blood abnormality that experts believe can lead to death under extreme exertion.
The medical examiner’s office initially attributed Agu’s death to a heart condition that would not have presented the same symptoms as a crisis related to sickle cell trait.
Agu, a walk-on defensive lineman with medical school aspirations, died at age 21 nearly two years ago after taking part in a conditioning drill in which players holding a rope together had to sprint repeatedly up and down a hill outside Cal’s Memorial Stadium. His parents sued the university for wrongful death, alleging that coaches and trainers did not come to his assistance when he was clearly struggling.
The university’s acknowledgment of liability, contained in court documents signed Monday, does not necessarily signal a settlement, which would preclude a jury trial scheduled for April in Alameda County Superior Court.
“Saying that their wrongdoing solely caused this young man’s death is certainly not enough,” said Steve Yerrid, one of the attorneys representing the Agus. “There needs to be reform and meaningful change.” Agu’s parents, Ambrose and Emilia Agu of Bakersfield, opted to have their attorneys speak for them.
UC Berkeley officials said in a statement that by declining to contest liability, they could focus the legal proceedings on appropriate compensation for the family.
The depositions, obtained by UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program and shared with The Chronicle, offer contradictory narratives of the hours leading up to Agu’s death. Cal staffers say they came to Agu’s aid as soon as they noticed him falter and had to forcibly stop him from completing the workout. But teammates say he was visibly struggling for an extended period and fell on multiple occasions before he finally collapsed and team officials intervened.
The players’ accounts of the incident have led to a rare amendment of the cause of death, and suggest that what UC Berkeley officials told the public and the media about the morning Agu died may not have been the full story.
At the time of Agu’s death on Feb. 7, 2014, the Cal football team was coming off one of the worst seasons in the program’s 127-year history. Head strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington devised the new drill to try “something new, exciting, fresh, kind of keep the guys engaged,” according to his deposition.
The workout involved groups of players grabbing a heavy rope together, running to a steep street nearby and charging up and down the incline 10 times.
Head coach Sonny Dykes, who worked with Harrington at Louisiana Tech, had recruited him to join the Cal program a year before. Many players contrasted Harrington’s workouts with those of his predecessor, who focused more on skills and agility.
“His are a whole different type of workout,” former defensive end Sione Sina said in a deposition, referring to Harrington’s workouts. “His are like some down South mental toughness. … It’s like, we got to push you to your edge and see if you can go even further.”
Neither Harrington nor Dykes responded to requests for comment.
Though he was a walk-on who didn’t see much playing time, the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Agu often worked out longer and harder than what was required, teammates said. He exercised relentlessly despite the fact that he’d been diagnosed with sickle cell trait in 2010.
The blood condition — an evolutionary mutation to defend against malaria present in about 8 percent of the African American population — is caused by the inheritance of an abnormal gene used to make hemoglobin. At times of extreme exertion, many hematologists and sports doctors say, red blood cells will turn crescent-shaped — a process known as sickling — obstructing small blood vessels and leading to a metabolic crisis.
Documents filed in the lawsuit show that Cal football’s head physician, Dr. Casey Batten, informed coaches and trainers that Agu carried the trait and instructed them in an annual briefing that they should immediately cease such an athlete’s activity should any warning signs appear.
Experts say those with the trait are capable of becoming elite athletes as long as proper precautions are in place. To die from the trait, athletes typically need to be pushed beyond their normal exercise limits.
In 2010, the NCAA implemented universal screening for sickle cell trait in Division I athletes after several universities were hit with lawsuits filed by parents of football players whose deaths were attributed to exertional sickling. One of those fatalities involved Robert Jackson, Cal’s head football trainer at the time of Agu’s death, who oversaw a 2008 workout at the University of Central Florida at which another sickle cell athlete collapsed and later died.
In depositions and interviews with The Chronicle, a dozen former teammates described the rigors of the rope-and-hill drill: Several players tripped over potholes, fell to the ground and vomited afterward. Some said it was by far the most difficult workout they had ever done.
Daniel Lasco, a running back and team captain at the time, was on the rope with Agu during the drill. He said he assigned Agu to lead their group up the hill, which required him at times to pull the other players behind him. Former offensive lineman Matt Cochran, who was injured and observed from the drill route’s periphery, described Agu falling multiple times and showing signs of fatigue beginning about midway through the workout.
After teammates noticed Agu struggling, Lasco took his place at the front of the rope. Lasco testified of his time leading the drill: “It felt like you were pulling three tires behind you. … When I was up there, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I let him do this.’”
Jacobi Hunter, a former defensive tackle who was also injured that day and walked the route, testified that Jackson, the trainer, was looking directly at Agu when he fell, and did not offer aid.
About halfway up the hill on their last lap, Lasco testified, Agu finally stopped, bent over, fell to his knees, then curled into a fetal position. A few players said they helped him up and walked a few steps with him before he fell down again.
“It’s like something just pulled a battery out of him, and he just stopped working,” cornerback Trevellous Cheek said during his deposition.
Players said they threw water on Agu and yelled for team trainers.
Jackson, like Harrington, did not respond to requests for interviews. But their testimonies differ from those of Agu’s teammates. Jackson testified that Agu never actually collapsed and that he did not notice Agu and Lasco switching places. Neither Harrington nor Jackson saw any sign of Agu noticeably struggling up until the final lap, they testified.
Jackson said he approached Agu after he saw players huddled around him. He said that teammates were urging Agu to keep running and that they initially ignored him when he told them to stop.
“I tell the guys, ‘We’re ceasing activity. We’re stopping. We need to take control of the situation,’” Jackson said in his deposition. He also testified that Agu wanted to keep running.
Harrington said he was alerted to the situation only when Agu’s drill team ran down the hill without him.
Jackson said he called for a golf cart to take Agu down the hill. He also said he tried to take Agu’s pulse, but Agu slapped his hand away and said, “I’m good.”
As the cart reached the stadium, Cal officials said, Agu slumped over and became unresponsive. Trainers called 911, laid him on the ground, started cardiopulmonary resuscitation and attached an external defibrillator. Emergency medical personnel then drove Agu to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly before 8 a.m.
Batten, the team doctor, was not at the workout. In his deposition, he said that at a news conference later that day, he based his statements primarily on what Jackson told him. He and other Cal officials told the media that the workout was routine, that Agu had successfully completed numerous similar drills and that he was given immediate medical attention.
Batten said he called the coroner’s office and relayed similar information, adding that what he knew suggested Agu died of a cardiac problem.
Dr. Thomas Beaver, then Alameda County’s chief forensic pathologist, initially determined that Agu died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes the heart muscle to grow abnormally thick.
But after the Agu family’s attorneys asked Beaver to read players’ accounts of the incident, his conclusions changed.
Beaver now believes the events described in players’ depositions suggest that Agu’s death was due to an acute sickle cell crisis. In August, he sent a letter to the Alameda County coroner requesting that Agu’s cause of death be changed. Dr. Michael Ferenc, the new forensic pathologist, re-examined the evidence and, in an uncommon move, officially amended Agu’s cause of death in October, more than a year after Beaver’s initial finding. He certified the primary cause as exercise collapse associated with sickle cell trait, but listed hypertrophic cardiomyopathy under “other conditions.”
Some medical experts believe sickle cell trait alone can’t cause a person to die, and university officials have said that a common feature of sickling crises — rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue — was not evident in Agu’s death.
Although UC Berkeley officials say they provided the coroner’s office with the medical records it requested, which included Agu’s sickle cell status, Beaver insists his former office never got any information from the university on the subject. Two interviews with football players by the UC Berkeley Police Department, which the family’s attorneys say described Agu struggling, were never sent to the coroner’s bureau, whose personnel declined to discuss the issue.
After Agu died, Cal football workouts were canceled for several days. Jackson, the trainer, later transferred to work with the Cal track and field teams before leaving UC Berkeley. Campus officials say they have instituted additional medical screening for athletes, increased oversight of workout regimens, and boosted the training of coaches and conditioning staffers.
During a series of team meetings about Agu’s death, according to players who were there, some challenged football staffers on what went wrong and why paramedics didn’t arrive sooner.
“We all lost a lot of trust in the coaches,” Cheek, the cornerback, said in an interview. Multiple players, including Hunter, said they transferred to other schools or quit the team because of how football staffers handled Agu’s death.
“We didn’t have a grieving process,” Hunter testified. “They just kind of, ‘Well, we need to move on,’ instead of giving the respect where it was due and the honor where it was needed.”
Hundreds of UC Berkeley students attended memorials for Agu, and nearly two years later, he continues to be a symbol for the football team. An image of his jersey number, 35, replaced many of his teammates’ Facebook and Twitter profile photos, and he is memorialized on the team’s website. Dykes told players after a September 2014 win, according to a video of his speech, “I don’t know about you guys, but I can feel Ted with us today. I can feel him with us on the sidelines.”
Agu’s friends, who nicknamed him “Pre-Med Ted,” say they respected him for doing what few achieve: excelling in school while playing Division I football. He was part of a student-athlete advisory committee, worked as a peer adviser and managed finances for his fraternity.
“We lost a great guy,” Hunter said in an interview. “I just pray that the truth comes out and that what needs to be done is done.”
This report was prepared in collaboration with Abbie VanSickle and Tim McGirk of the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program.