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Banning Player Dies of Cardiac Arrest

November 13, 2001|BEN BOLCH and GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A Wilmington Banning High offensive lineman whose season was delayed by health concerns died Monday of cardiac arrest after collapsing during an afternoon practice.

Jonathan Diaz, 17, was taking part in a walk-through of plays when he fell unconscious, eyewitnesses said. He was pronounced dead at 3 p.m. at Kaiser Permanente Harbor City Medical Center, about 15 minutes after he arrived in full cardiac arrest, hospital spokesperson Tara O'Brien said.

A two-year starter at tackle, Diaz had just finished warming up at the start of practice on an overcast and cool day. He was temporarily revived after two Banning coaches administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but he was unconscious again by the time medical personnel arrived about five minutes after a 911 call was made, Coach Ed Lalau said.

Practice came to an immediate halt and, as stunned his teammates looked on, paramedics worked on Diaz for between five and eight minutes, using a defibrillator in an apparent effort to get his heart started, school officials said.

Diaz, a senior, sat out Banning's nonleague games this season because he failed an initial health screening, but was later cleared to play after being examined by a cardiologist, Lalau said.

Diaz was a key player for the Pilots' City championship team of last year, when he was listed in the program at 6 feet 3, 280 pounds. He weighed in at more than 300 pounds before the start of this season. The player's health problems prompted Banning coaches to back off what they would normally expect of him during conditioning drills, the Lalau said.

"He didn't run the same amount as the other kids," the coach said. "But he wasn't running when he collapsed, that's what shocked us."

Diaz's parents could not be reached for comment. Teammates said Diaz seemed to be feeling fine during warmups and at the start of practice. But concerns about his health were commonly known.

The Daily Breeze, the Wilmington area's local newspaper, reported in its Oct. 4 editions that Diaz was likely to "miss the rest of this season with a heart condition." And at least one observer connected with the Pilot football program said Diaz told him he was feeling faint while on the sideline in street clothes during a game earlier this year.

"He felt lightheaded and sat down on a bench and I said, 'Are you OK?"' said the observer, who did not want to be identified. "He said, 'I'm fine.'

"It was well known he needed clearance [to play] because of some irregularities."

Saying "nothing is worth a life," Lalau said he is naturally second-guessing the decision to allow Diaz to play. Asked if a lesson was learned, the coach said: "After this, yes. This should put everything in perspective for us."

Lalau rode to the hospital with Diaz in the ambulance. Later, the coach returned to the Banning practice field and gathered his team for a meeting in the school's weight room, where he told them of Diaz' death.

Some players cried, others stood in stunned silence. "They're not taking it so well," Lalau said. "It happened right in front of them. They were shocked."

School administrators also attended the meeting, and the team stayed together for more than an hour before they were told they could leave.

Ivan Meza, senior defensive tackle, said Diaz "was a good person." "He always did his best on the field," Meza said. "All he wanted to do was win a [City] championship and keep it at home. We'll miss him."

Banning opens the playoffs in defense of its City title Thursday against Dorsey at Jackie Robinson Stadium. School officials said the team is dedicating the rest of its season to Diaz and will honor him with an acknowledgment as part of its uniform.

"He's one of those happy-go-lucky kids that never complained much," Lalau said. "He was joyous and happy all the time. He was popular. He was also quiet. He didn't say much but was big in his performances."

Diaz is the fourth person related to the Banning football program to die in the past five months. Pilot defensive line Coach Ralph Gameroz died in June when he was crushed by heavy equipment while at work. A week later, Ricardo Robledo, a 1998 Banning graduate, was shot at a party, a month before he was to leave home to play football for the University of Cincinnati. John Mendez, stadium announcer and Pilot team booster for more than 30 years, also recently died.

Football-related fatalities are rare. But the heatstroke death of Minnesota Viking star Korey Stringer this summer has heightened awareness about deaths linked to football.

At least 16 football players have died nationwide this year, including Stringer, Northwestern player Rashidi Wheeler and more than a dozen middle, high school and college players. The deaths have been linked to a variety of causes, from congenital heart illness to game injuries to the use of dietary supplements.

Lalau said Diaz did not use supplements.

Diaz is at least the fifth high school football player to die since the start of this season, including Costa Mesa senior Matt Colby, who collapsed on the sideline during a game in September and never regained consciousness. Early in the season, Colby had been complaining of headaches after games. The cause of his death is pending.

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