Counting down Southwest Georgia’s Top 10 sports stories of 2013 — No. 2: Tragedy strikes Darton with wrestling death


Ben Richards

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Herald’s sports staff has chosen, in our eyes, Southwest Georgia’s top 10 sports stories from 2013. Today marks the ninth of the 10 we’ve picked as having a significant impact as we count down to No. 1, which will appear in the Jan. 1 addition. Look for No. 1 in Wednesday’s Herald.

Darton State College has raised one championship banner after another and brought home countless trophies in the past decade as the athletic department has emerged as one of the most successful in the nation among junior colleges.

In September, a pall of sadness draped over the campus when tragedy struck, suddenly and cruelly.

Sophomore wrestler Ben Richards collapsed at practice on Sept. 4 with a heat-related illness and then died nine days later from liver failure.

“It’s numbing,” Darton women’s soccer coach Ken Veilands told The Herald on Sept. 13 in response to Richards’ death. “I don’t know what to say or how to feel. I know some of my players were friends with him, and this is going to affect them. This is a tragedy and is painful for everybody.”

The Darton community rallied together during the tragedy and held a memorial service Sept. 25 to celebrate the life of the 20-year-old native of Tampa, Fla.

But with the grieving came the questions from the community as many wondered how Richards and two other Darton wrestlers collapsed and were hospitalized after heat-related illnesses during practice.

Richards collapsed on campus during a five-mile team run one day after teammate Alex Washington collapsed, but Darton athletic director Mike Kiefer told The Herald in late September that Washington’s incident “didn’t raise any red flags” because it was an isolated problem on a day when the rest of the wrestlers had little trouble with the workout.

“On the first day, the first student-athlete that fell out was only a mile into the workout, and that day the team started running outside and there was lightning in the area and had to move indoors to finish their workout,” Kiefer said. “No one else to my knowledge showed any signs on that first day of anything, so that’s why it didn’t raise a major alarm to go out and continue on the second day.”

Washington remained in the hospital for several days but was released from Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, while Jaden Smith — the third wrestler to collapse — was briefly hospitalized before being released.

Darton had a heat-safety policy at the time of the incidents, and the school took extensive steps to review the policy and also introduced educational and preventative measures.

“A lot of what we are looking to do is very much educational in nature because from talking with our student-athletes the awareness of heat-related illnesses is not as high as it should be,” Kiefer said. “So we are taking measures to make people aware of this.”

Nobody within the athletic department — including wrestling coach James Hicks — resigned or was fired after the incident, however Darton President Peter Sireno was forced to resign in October, and sources told The Herald at the time that one of the issues that led to his sudden departure was the heat-related death of Richards.

September was a month that rocked the Darton campus, sending students to grief counselors and forcing coaches to re-evaluate training methods in the South Georgia heat.

It was also a month that pulled the Cavalier community together.

“I think there is an internal bond we all have when you go to the same school and something tragic happens,” Veilands said the day Richards’ death was announced by the school. “Everybody feels it. It’s real, and not something that you see on television. It’s right here at home. And with me being a parent, imagining a parent losing their child is gut-wrenching. I know I will go home and hug my kids and keep them close.”

The death of Richards was a tragic event in Southwest Georgia and The Herald’s No. 2 sports story of 2013.