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Lawsuit taints memory of fallen player

I never understood how a bigger house, a faster car or a sleeker suit could cure the emotional distress caused by death. I never believed that a packed pantry could compensate for the unexpected open seat at the dinner table, and I never thought dollars made sense of human tragedy.

The shameful handling of Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler's recent death by those most intimately affected isn't about to change my mind.

The afternoon of Friday, Aug. 3 offered predictable height-of-summer conditions: radiant sun emitting the kind of vicious heat that glues to the skin like Velcro. Perfect for sunbathers. Terrible for asthmatics. Wheeler was a lifelong asthmatic.

Sometime within the window of 4:25 p.m. and 4:45 p.m., following Wheeler and his Wildcat teammates' completion of a conditioning gauntlet - 10 100-yard sprints, eight 80-yard sprints and six 60-yard sprints - the senior safety suffered a massive bronchial asthma attack, traumatizing his body and leaving him lifeless at Evanston Hospital one hour later.

Perhaps Anthony Will, Wheeler's uncle, crystallized the life of his fallen nephew most aptly: "He was a little taste of heaven on earth."

If so (and, though I know him not, I harbor no doubt that he fit the portrait), why has the family that so lionized their hero subsequently transformed his loss into a three-ring, seven-figure circus?

Linda Will, Wheeler's mother, charges in a lawsuit that Northwestern failed on multiple fronts to properly handle the on-field emergency. Complaints range from the experience of the trainers assigned to oversee the voluntary workout, to the preparedness of the staff in tending to such an instantaneous emergency, to the swiftness with which the medical team identified the problem and called for backup.

All are legitimate, well-grounded queries that demand urgent attention, not to mention a thorough inspection of the excessive physical exertions exacted in conditioning programs nationwide - not just at Northwestern, but coast to coast at every level of football.

At this point in my perusal of the case, Mrs. Will still garners my respect and arrests my attention.

Then I reach the line in the grievance that seeks "substantial damages" for both emotional loss and potential professional earnings were Wheeler to have played in the NFL.

Desiring financial payment for the extreme agony produced in horrific incidents like these is perfectly logical, but please, let's not unveil Mel Kiper's 2002 NFL Draft board to pocket a little extra. Let's not reduce this catastrophe to something as petty as football.

Flatly put, the gridiron-based facet of Will's lawsuit taints her image as a mother mourning the loss of a son.

First, several sources close to the Northwestern program hinted in hushed tones that Wheeler was locked in a duel for his starting job - a battle he was likely to lose. If he can't start on his own team, how can Will realistically expect her son to qualify as a professional prospect?

To delve any further into on-field issues is to stoop to the base level this controversy succumbed to weeks ago.

When Mrs. Will invests a parallel interest in her son the football player versus her son the person, she reduces him to an investment. Wheeler is no longer a lost loved one; he is now the strong safety who can no longer be filthy rich.

Will's decision to enlist the services of renowned attorney Johnny Cochran and world-famous if not infamous spokesman Jesse Jackson further intensifies the carnival atmosphere.

Cochran and Jackson, while huge in name value, bring nothing to this case. They knew Rashidi Wheeler as well as I knew him: not at all. What makes them qualified to represent his family and speak on his behalf baffles me.

Moreover, whether Americans want to admit it or not, the Cochran/Jackson combination connotes race.

This is not a racial issue.

Until Mrs. Will comes to grips with what the pertinent issues are and ceases her senseless public posturing, her son will never rest in peace.