OAKLAND -- On the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse, in front of three large family photos, attorneys for the parents of former Cal football player Ted Agu said they filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the U.C. Regents on Tuesday to address "a tragedy that should never have occurred."
With Agu's parents and three of his four siblings on hand, attorneys said Cal was negligent in its supervision of the 21-year-old defensive end from Bakersfield, who died following a Feb. 7 team training run.
Attorneys Brian Panish and Steve Yerrid said the university was aware that Agu carried the sickle cell trait and that supervising team athletic trainer Robert Jackson did not respond appropriately when Agu began to experience distress.
"The trait isn't the killer," Yerrid said. "It's the failure to safeguard that trait."
Attorneys charged that Cal has not presented an accurate picture of what happened, that Agu began to struggle much earlier during the session than reported and that the activity "was not an ordinary workout," according to Panish.
Yerrid said the workout included an activity where eight teammates, all attached by a rope, ran up a hill 10 times.
"Agu was placed in a conditioning drill that was inappropriate and too extreme given his known medical condition," the attorneys wrote in a news release. They said he experienced dizziness, shortness of breath, loss of balance and other signs of extreme fatigue that were "clearly symptomatic of the sickling process ... and should have been observed."
They also said it's significant that Cal should have known Jackson was an assistant trainer helping to supervise at the University of Central Florida during a 2008 episode in which football player Ereck Plancher, 19, died after what they described as a similar workout.
Jackson continues to work as a football team trainer for Cal.
A spokesman for the U.C. Regents said, "We respectfully decline to comment," and referred inquiries to Cal athletics.
Here is a portion of the statement the Cal athletic department released Tuesday:
"When Cal's medical staff on scene saw Ted show signs of problems, they reacted promptly. But as the Alameda County Coroner's report states, the cause of death was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which suggests there was little anyone could have done to save him.
"While we cannot discuss any student's specific medical history, we follow all recommended protocols, including those outlined by the NCAA, for all student-athletes with identified medical conditions. We want to make clear that we are committed to ensuring the care and safety of all our student-athletes and we have great confidence in our athletic department's staff's ability to do so."
The 13-page complaint, filed in California Superior Court contends that Agu experienced similar symptoms as Plancher before he died and that both young men had previously tested positive for the sickle cell trait.
The plaintiffs are requesting a jury trial, which Panish said he expects to begin in 12 to 16 months. No specific amount in damages is set forth in the complaint. "We'll let the 12-member jury decide that," Yerrid said. "It will be substantial."
Yerrid represented the Plancher family in a 2011 lawsuit against UCF, in which a jury awarded a $15 million judgment. Currently, that case is on appeal in the Florida Supreme Court.
Panish said his intention is to take the case to trial and said a settlement would only take place if it becomes the family's preference.
Complications related to sickle cell trait have been the leading cause of death of Division I college football players since 2000, according to CBS Sports. Athletes who carry the trait do not have sickle cell anemia. However, during periods of extreme exertion, red blood cells of those who carry the gene can "sickle," restricting oxygen to muscles and organs and posing a "grave risk," according to the National Athletic Trainer's Association consensus statement and guidelines.
Agu, a one-time walk-on and pre-med student at Cal, was popular with his teammates. He was known on the team as "Pre-Med Ted."
"Ted was living the American dream," Yerrid said. "Not just Ted, but his parents were let down by the university. You would expect more from them."
"Cal is in a complete denial mode," Panish said.
Yerrid said they have talked to witnesses of the training event that will support their contention that Agu began to have difficulty early in the workout, that he didn't simply collapse toward the end of the team run. "Evidence will show that (Agu) did not die within seconds," Yerrid said.
He said protocols are clear for addressing issues experienced by athletes with the sickle cell trait, and that those weren't followed.
Parents Ambrose and Emilia Agu, sisters Doris and Cynthia, and brother Kency declined to speak or take questions from reporters. Agu's mother appeared emotional throughout much of the 30-minute news conference.
Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at twitter.com/JeffFaraudo.