march 2011

Linebacker Austin Box of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrates a 23-20 win against the Nebraska Cornhuskers during the Big 12 Championship at Cowboys Stadium on December 4, 2010 in Arlington, Texas.
(Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times In Soonerland

Bradford Statue Dedicated, Austin Box Dies

By David McGee

statueIn what was a great day for Oklahoma Sooners football on May 14, a 10-foot statue of 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford was unveiled before a packed house of current and former OU players and other school supporters at the Sooner Spectacular gala. Admitting "I'm a little young to be walking around looking at a statue of myself," Bradford gave a gracious speech, thanking first his parents (his father is also a former OU football player) and others who helped and supported him in his dream to play at Oklahoma. He reserved special praise for the teammates he played alongside in his rapid ascendancy to college football legend--he won the Heisman in his sophomore year, his first full season as a starter; his junior season was cut short by injury, and he then entered the NFL draft, becoming the overall #1 pick, by the St. Louis Rams--which moved his former teammate, the ever-popular Gerald McCoy, to quip to a Tulsa World reporter: "I'm just gonna get me a Gerald McCoy bobblehead doll and glue it onto the bottom. Nah, man. Sam definitely deserves it."

Bradford's statue will be officially dedicated before an Oklahoma home game this fall. It will be placed in an area known as Heisman Park, across Jenkins Avenue from Owen Stadium, where the other Sooner Heisman winters--Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims and Jason White--are honored with statues.

On May 19, less than a week after Bradford's big night, came the sad news that one of those teammates he thanked, Austin Box, 22, had died in El Reno, OK, some 30 miles west of Oklahoma City. 

austin box
Austin Box intercepts a pass against Texas A&M in 2008. Mike Simons/Tulsa World file

enidA two-way star at Enid (OK) High School, Box led his team to the Class 6A title game in 2006, playing quarterback, running back, wide receiver and free safety at different times. In his senior year he completed 55 percent of passes (126-231) for 1,938 yards with 13 TDs and ran for 1,086 yards and 15 TD. On defense he recorded 71 tackles and three interceptions; on special teams he ran back two kickoffs for TDs. He was named Defensive Player of the Year and to the All-State team by The Oklahoman newspaper and was selected to the Parade high school All-American team as a quarterback and defensive back.

After spending his 2007 season at OU as a redshirt, Box played in 10 games as a freshman in 2008, starting four at middle linebacker. He suffered a knee injury late in the season and missed the Big 12 Conference championship game. He played in 10 games in 2009, starting a game each at outside linebacker and inside linebacker.

A pre-season back injury caused Box to miss the first five games of his junior season in 2010, but upon his return he became an important contributor to a team that finished 12-2 after getting off to a rocky start. Box, a 6-foot-1, 228-pound senior, started the last five games for the Sooners, recording his second career interception in a win over Oklahoma State and making eight tackles as Oklahoma trounced an outmanned and overrated Connecticut team in the Fiesta Bowl.

Austin Box, quarterbacking the Enid High School football team, takes off on an amazing touchdown jaunt against Midwest City.

At 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, Box, a ferocious player with strength, athleticism and great instincts as a linebacker, had a habit of making good things happen whenever he was on the field. OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who recruited Box for OU, acknowledged as much in reflecting on the young man's impact on the 2010 season.

"He stands for everything that's right about this program," Venables said. "He's made a ton of big plays, and was instrumental in what we did to finish the way we did. Without him, I'm not sure we would have finished the same way.

"Craig and Gail have 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.

"We're numb. Heartbroken. Austin was a great teammate. He was a joy to coach. Everybody on our team loved him. He will be greatly missed."

Box likely would have been the Sooners' starting middle linebacker this fall. Had he stayed healthy, he may have been an All-American candidate.

Head coach Bob Stoops was out of the country when news of Box's death was relayed to him. "He played an integral part in our success the last three years and was looking forward to a big senior year," Stoops said in a statement issued to the press. "As heart-wrenching as this is for us, we know it's even more difficult for his family. More than anything, our thoughts and prayers are with them."

Austin Box (12) and Jamell Fleming (32) celebrate after Box stopped Baylor running back Jay Finley on a fourth and one to give the Sooners the ball inside Baylor territory during the first half of the game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners and the Baylor Bears at Floyd Casey Stadium on Saturday, November 20, 2010, in Waco, Texas. Photo by Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman

In the days after Box's death, police were investigating whether Box had overdosed on pain pills. Apparently Box was staying with his friend John Cobble III, son of Tom Cobble, Box's Enid high school football coach.

The younger Cobble had called 911 to summon help, saying Box was not breathing and had been on pain pills. The dispatcher walked Cobble through the CPR process, during which Cobble said, "I'm a little freaked out." Asked whether Box was breathing, Cobble said, "I don't think so."

Austin Box makes a tackle against Texas Tech in the #5 Sooners' blowout 65-21 win over the then #2-ranked Red Raiders. (Louis DeLuca/DMN Photo Staff)

When El Reno police officer Todd Ward arrived at the house, he found Cobble performing CPR on Box. "Cobble told me when I entered the room Box was in he believed he had overdosed," Ward said. On the police report, under the offense category "controlled dangerous substance" is listed, and Ward checked the "drugs" box under a category listing possible/probable motivation.

Stacy Phillips, a spokeswoman for Mercy Hospital, said "out of respect for the family," the hospital would not release information concerning Box. The family later issued a statement, saying "Austin loved everything about Oklahoma--the people, his hometown of Enid and his many close friends. Most of all, Austin loved his family and we loved him. We invite you to join us in celebrating his life."

Though Box had no known history of drug abuse, he had been arrested twice for public urination, the first instance coming in 2009 outside a restaurant in Norman, OK, the second in February 2010 at a bar in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said Box's death "is a devastating day for the OU family. Austin was incredibly well-liked by his teammates, coaches and fellow students, and will be greatly missed by all of us."

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