Sooners Lose Beloved Leader

NORMAN, Okla. -- When the Sooners open up the 2011 season, they'll have a sting, an unanticipated sting, a serious sting.

And not the type of sting one can throw some medicine on and heal just like that.

Sooner Nation has been stung with a deep wound by the most unfortunate of circumstances, as authorities announced Thursday afternoon that starting linebacker Austin Box has passed away after being transported to Oklahoma City's Mercy Hospital due to an unknown medical condition.

"The University family is deeply saddened by the tragic death of student-athlete Austin Box," said OU President David L. Boren. "Our hearts go out to his family and friends."

"This is a devastating day for the OU family," said athletic director Joe Castiglione. "Austin was incredibly well-liked by his teammates, coaches and fellow students and will be greatly missed by all of us. We're providing all the appropriate resources necessary to help everyone in his family, and ours, cope during this extremely difficult time."

More of the same came from head coach Bob Stoops.

"We're all shocked and heartbroken," Stoops said. "Austin was a great young man, a great young man to coach and a great teammate. He played an integral part in our success the last three years and was looking forward to a big senior year. As heart-wrenching as this is for us, we know it's even more difficult for his family. More than anything, our thoughts and prayers are with them."

Because of that, the Sooners undoubtedly will have to replace what he brought to them on the field.

Box brought great technique to the linebacker position.

He was always in the right spot ready to make the right read.

Rarely was he out of position.

Box brought toughness.

Though he suffered numerous injuries throughout his career, including a sprained knee, an elbow injury and most recently a flare-up in what was diagnosed as a "disc issue" in his back prior to the 2010 season, Box has never backed down.

He played through those setbacks, demonstrating his mental edge.

And Box brought incredible productivity.

In three seasons for the Sooners, he racked up 107 career tackles, including 13.5 tackles for loss.

He also had a pair of interceptions, a fumble recovery, forced fumble and three passes broken up.

That productivity, as Stoops alluded to, was a huge reason why the Sooner defense stepped it up down the stretch en route to reeling off five straight victories to close the season and winning an unprecedented seventh Big 12 Championship and the Fiesta Bowl.

While the Sooners may be able to make up for Box's technique, toughness and productivity with other talented athletes, what they most certainly won't be able to truly replace is a player with so many intangible qualities both on and off the field.

Coming out of high school from Enid, Okla., it was apparent that the Sooners had not only snagged a talented prospect, but they had also snatched a levelheaded, great person that just happened to have a knack for playing the game of football.

"It was easy to tell that he commanded the leadership of his team," said Scout.com Midlands Recruiting Manager Greg Powers. "All the other players rallied around what he was doing. And he led by example. He was able to go out and keep a good attitude on the field, a winning attitude, and he played hard every snap, whether he was hurt or whether he was banged up. It didn't matter.

"Box was going to be bringing it to try to will his team to a victory. And he almost led them to a state championship. They just fell short by one game, but they overcame some great hurdles just because of his will power that helped his team to fight to get there."

He carried that into college, as well as his unselfish attitude.

"As soon as the games were always over, the first people that he always wanted to celebrate with were his friends and family," Powers said. "And there were some good moments there that you could tell that that's what he was about, and I don't think that there was anybody that really wanted to be a Sooner more and wanted to make his family prouder than Austin Box.

"I mean, he was playing for the pride of his high school. I mean, he was playing for his friends. I mean, he was playing for his family. You could definitely tell that it was a big deal for everybody."

Indeed, whenver he took the field, it was certainly hard to imagine a player taking the gridiron with as much selfless grit and determination as Box.

And his presence of mind: phenomenal.

"Yeah, he did seem like he was a real true cerebral player," Powers said. "And I think that's why you saw him be so effective as a quarterback [in high school]. I mean, he was a guy who loved to run the ball, but he sure would chuck it down the field in a hurry, too, if somebody was open, and he would use that ability to help cripple the other teams because they would always assume that he was going to pull it down and run, but he would use, you know, his smarts to outthink those guys."

So, the Sooners will sorely miss him on the field but also as a great guy in the locker room.

Follow me at twitter.com/joeyhelmer10 or facebook.com/joeyhelmer.

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