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Darton community reacts as wrestler put on life support

ALBANY — Ken Veilands didn’t know how to react, what to say or even what to do.

For a little over a week, Veilands and the rest of the Darton community had been praying for a miracle recovery for Cavs wrestler Ben Richards, who collapsed Sept. 4 from heat exhaustion during the team’s practice.

On Friday, Richards lost his battle at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fla. Darton officials said late Friday afternoon that Richards had ceased brain activity and that the condition was considered irreversible. His family was waiting for relatives to arrive before discontinuing life support.

“It’s numbing,” said Veilands, the Darton women’s soccer coach. “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.”

Richards, a sophomore from Tampa, Fla., was one of three wrestlers to collapse during a two-day period last week. Freshman Jaden Smith was released from the hospital late last week, and freshman Alex Washington remains in Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in good condition — but Richards, who suffered from liver failure because of the heat-related illness, had been listed in critical condition and was never able to recover.

“He had been in my prayers every day,” Darton golf coach Dale Dover said. “(The golf team) was on a trip this week and lifted him and his family up during our blessing before every meal. He has been on our minds and in our heart.”

Darton Sports Information Director David Mann was Richards’ academic adviser and remembered the first time the 197-pound wrestler stepped into his office.

“He was a big dude. He was a physically intimidating guy, but he had this special way about him,” Mann said. “He was a pleasure to be around. He was a very humble guy and would come to me to talk about school. He showed genuine interest in his studies.”

Richards was majoring in exercise science, and Mann said it was about a year ago when the they met.

“He listened to everything I had to say,” Mann said. “He would come in and sit down and would really want to focus on his studies and his career. You didn’t get the feel that he was just here to be an athlete. He was a true student as well. A lot of times wrestlers are seen as tough, maybe even bullyish kind of people, but he was a very kind and good individual.”

The Darton campus, which held prayer vigils for Richards in the days following the incident, has been solemn over the past week, Mann said.

“Every day when I get to work, everybody I come across is asking how he is doing,” Mann said. “It’s tough because we don’t always have the best news to tell them.”

On Friday it got even tougher.

“I think there is an internal bond we all have when you go to the same school and something tragic happens,” Veilands said. “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.”

Veilands, like other coaches on campus, is now tasked with helping 18- to 20-year-old athletes get through a trying period.

“The kids had been going to prayer vigils, and I had decided not to go in depth with them, other than to say to be praying for him, because it all happened so quickly,” Veilands said. “There is no rally cry you want to use here. It’s just something you want to pray for. Now it’s a tragedy, and we have to talk about grieving.”

There will also be talks about nutrition and proper hydration — two issues that wrestling coach James Hicks, who was unavailable for comment Friday, said he has been stressing to his wrestlers in the aftermath of last week’s incidents.

“Last week, my assistant coach (Karl Reed) and I were at the hospital most of the time and didn’t see the rest of the team very much, but this week we have been meeting with them and making sure they have proper time to get educated about hydration,” Hicks said on Tuesday. “We talked about it in the past, and I want to take some time to talk about it and pound it into their heads.”

Richards collapsed during an afternoon practice on Sept. 4 — one day after Washington suffered a similar heat-related illness — and Hicks said this week that his wrestlers will no longer be running outside in the blistering Georgia heat.

“We will be inside for the rest of the week, and when we do go outside, we will go out at 6 a.m. No more afternoons just to be extra, extra precautious,” Hicks said on Tuesday.

On Friday, Veilands said that he hasn’t been notified of any changes to the school’s heat-safety policy, but Darton athletic director Mike Kiefer told The Herald earlier this week that the school was speaking with medical and training experts to see how protocols could be further modified.

“I quickly learned coming down here and running in this heat, that it changes the way you have to do things,” said Veilands, a native of Indiana. “So we do a lot of conditioning early in the morning. When I am pushing the buttons on a kid and trying to get the most out of them, I have to be very, very careful in this heat.”