- Associated Press - Thursday, September 1, 2011

NORMAN, OKLA. (AP) - On the day before he died, Austin Box and his dad flew back to Oklahoma City from St. Louis after catching a couple of Cardinals games, ate lunch near the airport and shot the breeze. Routine father-son stuff, Craig Box remembers, then Austin had to leave to renew his driver’s license and take his girlfriend to the airport. They hugged goodbye.

The next morning, Craig Box was in court when he started getting calls from his wife: Austin was in trouble, Gail Box said. All she knew was that he was breathing. They raced to the hospital in El Reno, a short drive west of Oklahoma City, where Austin had stayed the night with a friend.

They prayed at his bedside, telling their boy to fight, even though they weren’t sure he could hear them. Austin never woke up. He died May 19 at the age of 22.

Weeks later, an autopsy found the painkillers oxymorphone, morphine, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam in his system and cited “mixed drug toxicity” as a probable cause of death. Investigators couldn’t find any legal prescriptions on file for the drugs.

The death shook Oklahoma. Austin Box was not just another casualty in a state struggling with meth labs and other drug problems. He was a heavily recruited athlete, a star since grade school, a once-in-a-generation standout in Enid, population 48,000, who made everyone proud by playing linebacker at the University of Oklahoma.

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.”

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