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August 8, 2011It was obvious during Saturday's Media Day inside the Switzer Center's Red Room, Oklahoma's linebacking corps is still grieving, still dealing with the death of Austin Box.
Players were prepared to talk about Box, who died earlier this summer on May 19 due to an accidental, but lethal overdose of pain medication, but there was no hiding the pain and sadness his teammates still felt over his absence.
"There were so many great stories that I have about Austin," said middle linebacker Tom Wort. "Ever since day one when I showed up, even as a recruit, Austin's had my back. He was one of my closest friends here. We spent so many hours together. Losing a close friend like that is hard."
Ben Habern told the story on Saturday about getting the news about Box's death when eight other members of the football team were together on a mission trip in Haiti.
"We had just finished the day painting a bunch of houses and (they) sat us down at one of the properties we were painting houses and told us," Habern recounted. "I think it might have been a little more difficult because we were already emotional from the first couple of days in Haiti.
"For 30 or 45 minutes we just kind of sat there and hung around each other and (cried)."
Box's teammates are moving on to football, but they aren't moving on without their fallen teammate. In fact, Travis Lewis has a freshmen carry Box's helmet out to the practice field every day.
Even back in the summer, before each workout, the linebacking corps would say a prayer for Austin.
"We all came together," explained Wort. "When something like that happens, you've got to lean on someone. You've got to look to your teammates for help. That's what we did and it was hard. Every day before workouts we would get together and pray that Austin's presence would be looking down on us."
Box was expected to be out on the practice field this fall. He was supposed to be the one running with the first-team defense.
He sat out all physical activity last spring just trying to get his back healthy enough to make it through one last season of football.
But now linebackers coach Brent Venables is looking to answer the question he never wanted to answer: What do you do at middle linebacker without Austin Box?
"We really like the group of guys that we have. Tom Wort, Jaydan Bird - I think Corey Nelson can flip over there. Rashod Favors had a really good spring. I'm really pleased with his progress and I think he's going to be a really good player in time.
"We've got Londell Taylor looking at that position as well. But I think we'll have three or four guys that can play there at any point in time. I can always flip Travis over there if need be. At times he did that a year ago."
There won't be a shortage of volunteers among Austin's teammates to step up and fill-in for his absence. And there won't be a shortage of heavy hearts either.
Last season, Wort was up-and-down filling in for the injured Box early in the season. And even then, he took Box on the field with him.
"Last year I had my wrist taped and I had Ryan Reynolds and Austin Box's numbers written on my wrist," explained Wort. "That was purely because when I was hurt and tore my ACL, I was so down and so low and both of those guys built me up. He meant so much to me before he passed."
This season, Wort will carry Box onto the field with him once more. Unfortunately Austin's memory is all he and his teammates have left.
"The only reason I'm able to play this game is because I play with heart," said Wort. "He's even more heavy on my heart and there's more reason for me to play with my heart. That's the way I'm going to honor him.
"I'm going to do everything I can to honor him on the field the way he would want to play, the way he would want me to play."