The Hardest Hit: Sickle Cell, Bowl Redemption, and Dale LloydMarch 28, 2010
Dale Lloyd was only 19 years old when he collapsed on the Rice Stadium turf in 2006, dying the next morning from sickle cell complications. His tragedy left a new coach, an untried athletic director and a transitioning program reeling, but his legacy has assured that his death, however preventable, was not in vain.
YOU'RE EXHAUSTED, and you're beaten. Your head throbs. Your throat feels like it's been scrubbed with steel wool. Rice Stadium is glinting in the heat, microwaving a mirage as you sprint along the grass.
Your coach, crewcut and thick, is barking at you to do more, care more, give more ! He's on the sideline with sunglasses, glowering. Your season is dying—four straight losses, all by an average of nearly four touchdowns, all leaving you gasping for air and grasping for relevance. There are expectations, too many to count, and you'll be damned if you don't meet them.
You see the other freshmen, arms pumping and lungs bursting, going further and faster than you ever thought they could. And you're with them every step, every cringe, each and every time you hurt.
You're too tired to move. They won't let you stop.
It is Sept. 24, 2006, and it is the last time you will see Dale Lloyd.
* * *
At the age of 19, Dale was Superman.
To look at him, the 5'9", 190-pound defensive back was not the tallest, nor the bulkiest, nor the fastest. His physique was as unassuming as his demeanor. But he had the invincibility that every just-out-of-high-schooler comes with: that aura of impenetrability, a force field that not even those first few opponents could crack. No one could fault the freshman for feeling that way—everyone had been in those shoes before.
"At the age of 19, you're thinking you're King Kong," says athletic director Chris Del Conte. "Everyone does. It's just the way [it is]. You're almost invincible."
And why would Dale think otherwise? He was playing Division I football. He was the modern-day gladiator, with helmets and chinstraps and shoulderpads to smash. He could inflict all the damage he wanted, all the while knowing his equipment would prevent him from harm. And it's a good thing, too, because if you were hit by Dale, you were going to feel it for weeks on end. The defensive back wasn't yet a speeding bullet, but he was close.
Because this was big-time, show-'em-up college football. You couldn't let up, not once. You couldn't back down, especially with first-year head coach Todd Graham's fire-breath scalding your every slip.
There was no quit in Dale's blood. But when practice was over, Dale, to use a coach's favorite fortune-cookie phrase, left it out on the field. He wouldn't sulk; he wouldn't rage if his play made him sullen and peeved. He was quiet, sure, but he wasn't brooding. More unassuming than anything else. No need to be the center of attention.
A little bit like Clark Kent, if you will.
Dig a little bit deeper, though, and you can find the smile that would melt starlets, humor that could make the heads of Mt. Rushmore crack and grin.
"He was one of those guys who wouldn't really say anything, and then middle of the way into the conversation he'd throw his two cents in [and] crack people up," says former roommate Andrew Sendejo. "He was efficient with his comments."
And he would make sure you came along with him. His smile, as senior wide receiver Toren Dixon remembers, was "infectious," lighting up a team that was as tread upon as roadkill on a West Texas highway. He was a student first, frequenting study hall more than most non-athletes, but sometimes forgoing homework if a teammate needed help slaying the hordes in whatever video game was glowing from the screen.
Sure, he didn't soar—he used a Razor scooter, able to sweep past the longest buildings in a single push. But when he did fly, bound for either of the road games he saw in his Rice uniform, he always channeled the man from Krypton. As the plane lifted off, there was Dale: "Up, up and away!"
No, he wasn't the fastest, nor the biggest, nor the strongest. He couldn't lift any cars. But he lifted an entire team, and he saved a season.
* * *
Sendejo, a senior defensive back, sits in the Wiess College Commons, surrounded by homework stragglers and a cleaning staff preparing for the lunch-time onslaught. He hulks over the remaining students, his 6'1", 225-pound frame looming. He is the media- and fan-friendly savant, the unspoken leader of a team in desperate need of someone, anyone, to right the rickety ship.
His team is winless, a third of the season completed. Just like three years ago. Just like the day before Dale died.
It was a Sunday, the fourth of the season, and practice had been canceled. Graham was made of rawhide, but you couldn't quite call him heartless. The team needed a reprieve after the 55-7 slaughtering 18th-ranked Florida State University had just wreaked, the second week in a row the Owls had given up over 50 points. The season, dubbed the "Renaissance of Rice," was still floundering in the Dark Ages.
And for a freshman, the pressures were extraordinary.
"Football was a lot harder [than in high school]; way more intense, and the coaching style was a lot more intense, getting chewed out all the time," says Sendejo, who only had a month of school under his belt at the time. "Then we had lost four games in a row. And with trying to adjust to Rice, you're getting it from all angles...You think it can't get any worse."
Of course, as a freshman, you're dealt the brunt of the coaching staff's reprisals, so first-year workouts were still on for that Sunday. The newcomers were split into two groups: those who earned heavy minutes and those who were either redshirting or who played only sparingly. Dale was in the latter, along with a dozen others.
According to a complaint later filed by Dale's family, he and his constituents were slated for weightlifting and 16 100-yard sprints during the late afternoon workout. Typical stuff. Manageable at any level of college football. Houston's humidity was railing on them—90-degree heat was grinding their muscles down—but they were all used to it. So they finished weights, had their workout shakes, headed out to the turf of Rice Stadium and ran.
When it was over, as the players were recuperating, a movement, downward and quick, caught then-freshman quarterback Pierre Beasley's eyes.
There lay Dale, on the ground. Collapsed.
But it was nothing, Beasley thought. Just another victim of the work; just the way practices went.
"When somebody falls you really don't think there's anything wrong with them, that they're just tired," says Beasley, now a redshirt junior wide receiver. "You expect some people to be tired. I'd fallen over a couple times, so I really didn't think too much of it."
Sendejo wasn't on the field. He was one of the few who had earned significant playing time, bashing his way into the rotation at defensive back. His group had started first, and he was showered and hungry by the time Dale began working out. Set to dine with a group of boosters in the south endzone's 'R' Room, Sendejo looked down onto the hashmarks and noticed a huddle of trainers and coaches. Out of earshot and visibility, he couldn't tell what, or who, was down there.
Dinner finished, and the team's meetings began. Game plan, game review—again, typical stuff.
Until it wasn't.
"We were just going to have our meetings and go home, and one of my coaches pulls me out of the meeting and said I needed to talk to Coach [Jess] Loepp, our safeties coach, who was at the emergency room and wanted to ask me a lot of questions," says Sendejo. "That's when I realized it was getting serious."
Dale was lying in Memorial Hermann's emergency room, unconscious and falling fast. Doctors did not know what was happening, couldn't figure out why someone young and virile would simply crumple. Coaching staff and family members were present. When Sendejo showed up that evening, he stayed with his ailing roommate's family, sitting until 2 a.m. before heading back to the room he had shared with Dale, without any idea of how seriously his teammate's situation was deteriorating.
In class the next morning, Sendejo had little reason to worry when Loepp called while he was in class. Still, he answered, and his coach broke the news that Dale had died.
"And that was it," he says, eyes beginning to show his emotion.
Class ended. The team gathered their ranks, shared a meal with one another, looked up and down the table and wondered, Why ? The coaches, some but a few years older than their students, tried to juggle their duties and their agony. The administration stood in shock, brains spinning in place as they tried to lay out the protocol for continuing a season well underway.
No one, not even the ones with all their bases covered, prepares for a situation like this.
"How do we go on with life as we've known it?" asks Del Conte. "I don't think you're ever prepared. You do the best that you can possibly do for your family, the Rice family. But I don't think you can ever be prepared for that. I have too much faith in humanity, and in life, to not want to prepare for that. You want to prepare for the goodness in life."
Grief counselors were called in. Lovett College planned a candlelight vigil. The team would attend Dale's funeral, to be held in a week.
And Sendejo would have to survive with a single.
"It was weird going back to my room and seeing all his stuff, exactly how he'd left it," he says. "I couldn't stay there. I grabbed some of my stuff, and the guys on my team were supportive, offering me places to stay if I wanted. I stayed with some guys at Baker College...then I went back to my room. His parents came by and cleaned all his stuff out, and it was just gone.
"An empty place where he used to be."
Sendejo sits back in his chair, still looming, just like his memories of that practice. He is asked about how he still remembers Dale, about what his former roommate left him with. He talks about Dale's heart and about his hustle. He talks again about his humor. And then he hits you in the gut:
"He was about to pass out while running sprints. He literally was dying and didn't know."
* * *
YOU'VE NEVER BEEN to New Orleans before. You've never seen the baubles, the breasts, the boozehounds of Bourbon Street. You've never smelled this much crazy .
Above you, the Superdome is humming. Just a year after Katrina, the Dome's reawakening is instant American lore, and you, a college kid who has only just figured out the laundry room, get to be a part of it. Colors are everywhere: red and black for the Trojans, blue and gray for your teammates, purple and gold for the city.
You see the rising tide amongst your teammates, the seeds of anticipation and the nods of shared swagger. Forty-five years since a bowl game. Decades of embarrassment. Screw American lore—tonight, you get to be a part of Rice lore.
But you hesitate. You're not nervous—a sergeant of a coach hammered your nerves out long ago. You're not injured. Your energy just...stalls.
You don't know why, and then you know exactly why.
You're staring right at the "39" on your teammate's helmet. Dale's number. Centered between the wings of the Owl, carried on your uniform for the last eight games. You think about how the number has helped boost you out of the emptiness you felt from the news. Helped you remember your mortality. Erased the invincibility you felt in your high school tournaments and senior year throw-downs. Brought together a team that, up until that point, had all the pieces but no glue.
You think about how it brought you here, in New Orleans, three days before Christmas. In front of friends and family, those whom you make proud every day.
You think about it all, and you put your helmet on, and you sprint out into the Dome's electricity.
* * *
It took two months for doctors to figure out why Dale died. "Acute exertional rhabdomyolysis," said the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office, a result of the sickle cell trait Dale had no idea existed.
The doctors had concluded that Dale's blood cells, under certain conditions, transformed into sickle shapes and turned parts of his blood flow into molasses. When the lactic acid built up in Dale's muscles, his oxygen delivery slowed and he became dehydrated. Then the sickle cells, already formed, began to choke his organs.
Sickle cell trait is a product of thousands of years of evolution, a method of staving off malaria in tropical and sub-tropical environments. It is found in one in 12 African-Americans and, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, its effects are eminently preventable with a simple blood test.
Something Dale wasn't tested for when he matriculated at Rice.
That is what Dale's family claimed when they filed a lawsuit against Rice in September 2008. Working with the Lanier Law Firm, Dale and Bridgette Lloyd targeted both the university and Graham, who had since settled into the University of Tulsa's head coaching position, as negligent parties in the death of their son.
The lawsuit held the university to task for failing to learn of Dale's disease. But there was no mandate, no higher authority foisting the issue upon Rice. According to Del Conte, the situation was much like those of seat belts before Congress mandated their usage.
"I was reading this thing in National Geographic the other day on seat belts, about how nobody ever wore them [before laws were implemented]," the athletic director says. "Can you imagine that today? Or not having dashboards that have airbags? There are so many things that have come over the time. I look back at the time and don't necessarily say 'woulda, coulda, shoulda,' because at the time, it wasn't [a law]."
But according to Gene Egdorf, the attorney for the Lloyd family, two-thirds of schools were already testing for sickle cell trait. Rice, for whatever reason, was the exception to the rule.
Plus, Dale wasn't exactly a test subject. Nearly a dozen college athletes have died this decade from sickle cell trait, a number that nearly increased last spring when Eric Ikonne, a lineman on San Diego State University, collapsed from overexertion. Ikonne survived, but his future in football is all but erased.
Last June, an out-of-court settlement was reached. Certain details were kept private, but the NCAA and Rice both came public with other agreed-upon stipulations. According to the Lanier Law Firm's announcement, the NCAA would recommend that all universities screen for the disease that killed Dale, especially among the African-American athletes that comprise more than half the ranks of college athletics.
The NCAA can't make the practice mandatory, but Egdorf said Rice is planning to submit a proposal at the January meetings to write the testing into protocol.
Yet testing alone will not erase all risk.
"Testing is an important part," says Egdorf. "But...you can have a seat belt on [and] if the guy driving the car hits a wall at 120 m.p.h., the seat belt isn't going to do you much good."
Beyond the recommendations were fiscal promises, with the NCAA providing $50,000 to the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America and $10,000 to the Dale R. Lloyd II Scholarship, a fund that was set up soon after Dale's death. According to additional reports, the family was named as a beneficiary of insurance policies maintained by the university.
But has the settlement had its intended effect, or have the lessons from Dale's death waned with time? Dixon and Beasley, both four-year African-American members of the squad, have said they've not been tested for sickle cell trait. And before legislation was seen through, another victim suffered Dale's fate: Ereck Plancher, a 19-year-old receiver at the University of Central Florida, collapsed and died March 2008 from sickle cell trait.
The University of Tulsa, where a handful of former Rice coaches now preside, would not return multiple phone calls for this story. Graham's involvement in the issue is now completely finished, his last ties to Rice sealed off with the closure of the case. His Renaissance of Rice, begun so long ago, is finally over.
But none of that changes what happened.
"There's a little bit of happiness, and a little bit of sadness," says Egdorf. "But nothing in this brings Dale back."
* * *
Army didn't stand a chance.
Graham thought about canceling the road game, nixing it out of all the grief and turbulence that Dale's death had wrought, but his players wouldn't let him. They were dedicating the season to Dale. It didn't matter that the contest with the Black Knights was a day before his funeral—there was no way they were going to attend with a loss.
The team hadn't taken a road game in three seasons. They were winless, and they were grieving.
No, Army didn't stand a chance.
The final score was 48-14. Rice had a win under its belt.
Said Graham at the time, "I told somebody on the bus coming back that it was the most gratifying win I've ever had. Just going through what they've been through as a team and with our staff, no win has ever meant more to me than that win."
Tulane bullied past Rice 38-24 the next week, finishing Rice's road slog and sending the Owls back to Rice Stadium to take on the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The Owls ran with the Blazers for three quarters, but a late lapse allowed UAB to go up 33-27. With 23 seconds left, Chase Clement, Rice's storied gunslinger, stood deep in Blazers territory, ready to put the Owls up and seal their first home win of the year.
But his pass was picked off by UAB's Kris Guyton, and the game looked over.
Then, with no one around him, Guyton inexplicably fumbled the ball, allowing Rice's Lute Barber to slide on top and give the Owls a second chance. Clement made the most of it and, with 3.5 seconds left, found Jarett Dillard in the back of the endzone. One extra point later, Rice's miracle was complete.
"I'm telling you, I still believe Dale knocked out [the ball]," remembers Beasley.
Dixon concurs: "Everyone says it was such a magical season, and there was a reason all those things happened to us. And it was Dale looking out for us."
From there on out, the season was nothing but roses for Rice. The team stomped UCF and held off the University of Texas-El Paso. They squeaked past Tulsa in double-overtime. They were down 17-15 with a minute left against East Carolina University, Clement out with an injury, facing a fourth-and-10 on their own 24—and somehow completed a 40-yard bomb to Dillard. Two plays later, Clark Fangmeier found the uprights, and Rice was guaranteed a bowl game for the first time in 45 years.
"Some of the stuff that happened that season I don't think could have happened without the grace of someone, you know?" says Sendejo.
Football was relevant. At Rice. Somewhere, a movie script is writing itself.
Three years later, football is still pounding away, still drawing record student crowds to their games, still playing in—and winning—bowl games. The sheen of the New Orleans Bowl, dimmed by Troy's trouncing, has yet to wear off.
And neither has Dale's legacy. His jersey still hangs in Rice's locker room, his cleats, his helmet and his pads just the way he left them three years ago. His neighbors may have changed, but he stands frozen in time, only to be moved once his class graduates this year.
Head Coach David Bailiff wasn't there in 2006. He didn't know Dale, but it's plain for him to see the kind of impact the loss left on this year's senior class.
"The players just wanted to pay tribute, you know," the coach says. "They loved him. When you're winning in football, you have to fall in love, and it's a word you don't use enough. They actually lost a brother."
Those who remember wear it on their sleeves. Wrapped around the wrists of all the seniors are royal blue bands, rubbery and worn, that read, "DALE R. LLOYD II, R.I.P. 8/21/87-9/25/06."
Some may take it off for practice or for formals, but for Dixon, his isn't going anywhere.
"As long as it holds up, I'll wear it, regardless of what I'm wearing," he says. "I can be wearing the craziest colors, but, oh man …." He trails off, lost in the past, smiling at the bittersweetness of it all.
There are other tokens, too—buttons of remembrance, honorary captain honors for the 2009 season and a proposed Texas Bowl ring for his family—all of which keep Dale's memory from evaporating. Preserving his memory also prompted Bailiff to attend the American Coaches Football Association's 2008 meeting on dealing with sickle cell trait, a think tank that helped remind the Rice coach that "you can't push somebody with the trait."
The safety and the trust of these players is in his hands. And Dale's message, and that extraordinary 2006 campaign, is carried with them.
Says Bailiff, "He's still in these kids' hearts."
* * *
ONCE MORE, YOU'RE exhausted. The water bottles are miles away, and the humidity weighs on you like a two-ton anvil.
You take your helmet off and squint, picking apart the reality from the bleary heat. Your coach, all height and heft, crouches between the hashmarks, showing the proper three-point stance to a trio of sweaty offensive linemen.
You're weathered now, a three-year veteran of agonizing two-a-days, eye-numbing video sessions and enough ice baths to make a polar bear wince. You've experienced a pair of bowl games and seen a tandem of teammates make the jump to the NFL. You've put Rice on the college football map.
This is your final go-round. You can kick back and relax, revel in a career that, so far, has been good to both you and your school. You can get out of the heat, slip into some clean clothes and head off campus for an early-evening happy hour. You've earned that right.
Plus, you're tired. Too tired to move.
But you're not going anywhere. You slip your helmet back on, the sweat cooling your scalp, the mouthguard sticky with desiccation. You focus your eyes. Cut out the blur.
And you go.
Because that's what Dale did, even as he was dying. And because that is how you're going to remember him. Not with a scholarship, not with a button, not with a sticker - but by going.
Even when you're tired.
Even when you can't.