FOOTBALL: Remembering A-Ross

He had barely completed his tenth workout, a strong, young man who had just turned 18 years old, and recently taken up residence nearly 650 miles away from his Louisiana home. He had plotted a course for a bold new chapter in a life full of promise. He was gifted intellectually, physically, and compassionately. Unexpectedly, six days later, he was gone.

Eraste Autin was the gift of Lafayette. The son of David and Joanie Autin, he simply wanted to make a difference. He was, after all, on the fast track to do just that. Eraste was an exceptional student, had earned All-American honors as a bruising fullback at St. Thomas More High School, and had set his sights squarely on following in his fathers footsteps -- a doctor.

His promising course was forever altered on July 19, 2001. Autin had just completed the tenth workout with his University of Florida freshman teammates and was making his way toward the locker room when he collapsed as a result of heat stroke.

Florida fans, players, and friends will have the opportunity to honor Eraste Autin this Saturday night, as his family has accepted an invitation to participate in Senior Day with the University of Florida for homecoming. The Autin family is making the trip to honor Eraste, in what would have been his senior season.

Today the black patch simply states "A-Ross." Many of those proudly wearing the patch on their jerseys never had the opportunity to say good job to Eraste Autin. Sadly, offensive lineman Lance Butler said recently that while he thinks of his friend and former teammate often, only a handful of his Florida teammates even know the man memorialized on the patch.

He is honored in other ways as well. Florida officials quickly placed a permanent plaque in the Gators Proving Grounds honoring Eraste, which sits just inside the gate.

The fans have also stepped forward. A few of months after Autin's death, the family began the Eraste Thomas Autin Memorial Scholarship Fund with monies sent by Florida fans. The first recipient of the $3,000 scholarship award was Brian Etier, a member of the football team from St. Thomas More. The scholarship is given annually. There is also a $1,000 scholarship given annually to a ninth grader.

And while all of these things are important in terms of respecting the memory of a fine young man who had a future as bright as one might hope, I for one, have to believe that Eraste Autin would find greater solace in the changes made to keep others healthy, and free from suffering his fate.

On that tragic day, the players lifted weights earlier in the afternoon and had just finished running sprints for conditioning at the practice facility. The recorded temperature in Gainesville was 89 degrees. Reports and eyewitness accounts at the time of the incident stated that as many as four trainers and three members of the Strength and Conditioning staff were on hand. Water was plentiful, and those interviewed saw the 6-2, 250 Autin, as well as others, drinking the water.

Autin's body temperature was measured by physicians at Shands at 108 degrees. He passed away in a coma six days later on July 25 suffering from a multi-system organ failure. Autin's family has a wrongful death lawsuit pending against Shands Hospital and the school.

"Eraste was a wonderful young man and mainly our freshman players got to know him real well, bond together, and have that chemistry amongst the freshmen," said Coach Steve Spurrier at that time. "He'll be missed by all who got to know him. But obviously when a tragedy occurs, there is a time to grieve, which hopefully we did it the right way and handled it as well as we could have.

"You keep his memory alive, which we certainly are, and we talk about Eraste every other day or so with the freshmen and try to draw a little bit from him being here."

Since Autin's passing, hydration has been more than a mere buzzword. It's on demand by those overseeing the University of Florida program, and Autin is mentioned when teams begin conditioning from coaches at the youth league level to the National Football League throughout The Sunshine State and beyond.

His mother, Joanie, was asked by the NCAA if she had a message for college presidents. She asked them to go overboard in taking extraordinary precautions to prevent such things from happening again. She wouldn't have had the opportunity to present such a message without this tragedy.

Strength and Conditioning Coach Rob Glass and his staff have revised the way Florida conducts conditioning sessions. Players work out significantly earlier in the summer taking advantage of lower temperatures. They also now receive one-on-one sessions with nutritionists, who among other important aspects drive home the necessity of hydration.

Eraste Autin never received his doctoral degree. But, there is no question that through his loss, he has caused scores of youth league, junior high, high school, and college coaches, athletes, and parents to take extra measures against potential heat stroke. In his passing, Eraste Autins' gift is the many lives that he changed and possibly, helped save.

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