ALBANY — As the Darton State College community prepares for a memorial tonight at 7:30 on campus to honor the life of wrestler Ben Richards, the administration is still trying to understand how the 20-year-old sophomore collapsed at a Sept. 4 practice from a heat-related illness and then died nine days later.
The school is still evaluating the incident, and on Wednesday, Darton athletic director Mike Kiefer said the university isn’t pointing blame on anybody, including Cavs wrestling coach James Hicks, who has been with the program since last summer.
“I don’t think this is a situation where you can point blame,” Kiefer said. “I don’t think it is. It’s an unfortunate tragedy that causes you to reflect and look at a lot of things.
“The concern is that when you have a situation like this, the concern is to look at it and try to figure out how and why. I think anytime you have this type of tragedy that there is concern. It causes you to look at it really closely.”
Kiefer and many from the Darton wrestling program attended Richards’ funeral Saturday in Tampa, Fla., and Kiefer said he didn’t feel like Richards’ grieving family was blaming Darton for the incident either.
“The times I spoke with Mr. Richards, I didn’t sense that,” Kiefer said, referring to Ben’s father, Chuck Richards. “He had the sense and character about him that he knew we were all there for Ben.”
The school will hold a 30-40 minute service this evening next to the student center, and the public is welcome to attend the memorial for Richards, which will conclude with a candlelight vigil.
Staff members from Greenbriar Church — which Richards was attending at the time of his death — will lead the service, and pastor Johnathan Schroeder will give a message. In the event of bad weather, the service will be held inside the student center.
“We want to provide an opportunity for the Darton family to honor the life and memory of Ben Richards,” said Tracy Goode, the Dean of Advancement at Darton.
Richards collapsed on campus during a five-mile team run one day after teammate Alex Washington collapsed with a heat-related illness, but Kiefer said 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 has since been released from Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.
Kiefer, who added that the wrestlers were wearing shorts and T-shirts during their five-mile runs, said the wrestling roster has stayed intact in the wake of the tragedy and that the team will still compete this season.
“We are trying to move forward with practices in anticipation of the season,” he said. “It is going to be a hard season, but the team is going to honor and remember Ben and go out there and compete to the best of their abilities.”
Kiefer admits it has been a difficult two weeks on Darton’s campus.
“It’s been really hard,” he said. “Any time you lose a student-athlete, it’s a tough situation. The team spends so much time together that you have that bond as a teammate and a friend. He was a good team leader with good character. He was just one of those guys people look up to and gravitate to.”
Darton had a heat-safety policy, but Kiefer said the school has taken extensive steps to review that policy and is introducing 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.”