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Forever changed

Exactly one year after the death of their 18-year-old son after a voluntary college football workout, David and Joanie Autin have come to realize life goes on.

But it is forever changed.

Faith and family have kept the Autins afloat during the past year, but time has done little to erase the pain that began last July, when Eraste Autin collapsed from heatstroke and died six days later.

"Things will never be the same," said David Autin, a urologist in Lafayette, La. "The sun is never as bright. The sky is never as blue as it was before. It's just so different. But we just have to wait and see. I've heard from many people that with time, things get better. It's just a very sorrowful, sad situation.

"I think we feel basically the same now. Nothing really has changed much (during the past year). I don't think an hour or day goes by without us thinking of Eraste. Although I think we're doing as well as parents can do for having undergone the loss of our son."

"We're all right," Joanie Autin said. "We're just hanging in there. We're fine. It's day to day from now on. It's coming up to a year now, which I can't even. It's hard, but we're okay."

On July 19, 2001, the temperature in Gainesville was 88 degrees with humidity hovering around 72 percent and a heat index of 102 degrees.

Eraste Autin, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound fullback, was participating in drills for freshmen.

He lifted weights from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. and participated in a conditioning session from 4 to 4:50 that included a 10-minute warmup (light mobility drills), five minutes of stretching, five minutes each at four agility stations and 15 minutes of sprints.

Four trainers and three strength and conditioning coaches were present. Water was available, and players said they saw Autin drinking. Some said he looked ill and acted strangely, but others said he showed no signs of distress.

He collapsed outside of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as he and teammates jogged nearly 300 yards from the practice field to the stadium.

According to the medical examiner's report, his temperature upon arrival at the emergency room of Shands at the University of Florida, Gainesville, was 108 degrees. He suffered multisystem organ failure, the report said.

He died July 25, leaving behind his parents, two sisters and a twin brother, Robert.

"It was like a lightning bolt out of nowhere," Florida strength and conditioning coordinator Rob Glass said.

Toxicology reports showed Autin had no drugs in his system, and at the request of his father, an autopsy was not performed. David Autin says, however, he believes the hospital was negligent in its care of his son, most notably during the first three hours after he arrived.

According to Autin, his son's temperature was 102 degrees, not 108, and he was coherent. He said his son asked to go home and became agitated. Hospital personnel sedated him so they could perform more tests. From there, Autin believes the hospital erred.

The hospital conducted an internal review and concluded there was "no deviation from the accepted standards of care" in his treatment.

"The Autin family was invited to select any medical experts of their own choosing to review the full medical records of Eraste Autin," W. Martin Smith, director of Florida's Self Insurance Program, said. "We understand how difficult this time has been, and our thoughts and sympathies are with them."

David Autin said last week the family is considering legal action against the hospital, although he recognizes no amount of money can fill the void Eraste's death created.

Robert Autin has rarely spoken publicly about his brother's death, but David Autin said he believes Robert has suffered most.

He and Eraste were inseparable until Eraste left for Gainesville. Robert made the team at Louisiana-Lafayette after walking on. But he quit after his brother's death to concentrate on his studies.

"I'm Robert's father. I'm Eraste's father, and I can't even imagine how Robert can handle this," David Autin said. "They were best of friends. Everybody knew that they were the closest brothers, closest twins and best of friends. They just loved each other so much, and I just can't imagine being Robert and living without his twin brother, Eraste.

"Everybody's twin is special, but Eraste was so strong and handsome and smart and funny. He was just the total package. He was an awesome child."

In an essay written for his freshman English class, Robert called Eraste one of the most influential people of his life.

"We fought often while growing up, but we were always best friends," Robert Autin wrote. "He was a very powerful person. Oftentimes, people of his size and strength come to realize that they can bully people around and impose their will on others. Eraste never used his gift in such a way. There was no one who stood for the little or weak guy with the same vigor that Eraste did.

"I love him more than anyone else in the world. Even though he is gone, he continues to influence me by leaving me with the task of continuing his legacy."

Joanie Autin said she is afraid this week. She will be during the next few weeks.

Voluntary workouts have begun for the upcoming season. Soon, thousands of high school and college players will participate in drills in the sweltering, summer heat.

Eraste Autin's death was one of three heat-related fatalities within a nine-day period last year, including the Minnesota Vikings' Korey Stringer and Northwestern's Rashidi Wheeler. Three high school players also suffered heat-related deaths during preseason drills.

According to a study at the University of North Carolina released Wednesday, there were 23 football deaths in 2001. Eight were from injuries. Twelve were from natural causes aggravated by exercise. Some of those, including the high school deaths, fell into this category.

"Right now, I'm just so worried about other children out there," Joanie Autin said. "Now I know so much more about heatstroke. You can't believe that it can happen. But it does, and I am concerned about everybody because this is the time. I know people are aware of it, but it's like lightning. You just can't believe it really can kill people, but it does."

It also is a painful time for some Gators, especially those who became close to Autin during his brief time in Gainesville.

"We still miss him," said linebacker Todd McCullough, who was part of last year's freshman class. "There's a lot of things you miss. You wonder about all the experiences that you could have had with him."

Autin's death changed the freshman class forever, the players said. But it won't change how they approach workouts.

"You can't stop (workouts)," sophomore offensive lineman Mike Degory said. "And Eraste understood that. You've got to be the best you can. Coach Glass is doing a great job. He has to get you in shape."

The Autins will spend part of today together, attending mass and marking the anniversary of their son's death. The church service is fitting because faith has played a strong part in their lives, particularly during the past year.

"My faith?" Joanie Autin said. "That's the only thing that has kept me going and the only place where anything makes any sense at all. It's only through faith and truly knowing that it really is what it's all about and knowing that he's truly in a better place. It's the only thing that keeps you sane, and that truly explains the importance of life and everything else."

Faith also serves as a constant reminder of what they have lost and what they still have.

"We have a lot to be thankful for," David Autin said. "We have three fantastic children. I think we have a good marriage. We're very blessed. But even though we've been very blessed and we're very happy, Eraste was such a critical part of our lives, just like our other children. It's just that there's a void there, and it's unimaginable."

During the past week, the Autins have received dozens of calls and letters from their son's former friends and teammates. They write about how much they miss him and how much his life _ and death _ has affected them.

"In the years we spent together, I learned to value Eraste's friendship and to realize he was a true friend who knew my best and worst but still cared deeply for me," wrote Michael Marceaux, one of Eraste's best friends from high school.

"I often spend time at Eraste's grave site talking to him as if he were still with me. I miss him."

Shortly after his death, the Autins began collecting funds for the Eraste Thomas Autin Memorial Scholarship Fund.

Last month, Brian Etier, a football player from Autin's high school, St. Thomas Moore, became the first recipient of the $3,000 scholarship, which will be awarded annually to a high school senior. Etier will play football at LSU.

A $1,000 scholarship will be awarded annually to a student who is about to enter the ninth grade. Ryan Lerouge is this year's recipient.

"(The high school award) is for a senior from Eraste's high school who basically portrays the qualities that Eraste did, disciplined in faith, academics and athletics," Joanie Autin said. "The Florida (fans) were so continuous in giving, and now it will be an (annual) thing in Eraste's memory."

Through their grief, the Autins have managed to move on. Their daughter, Julia, 22, returns next week from Ireland after spending the summer in Spain as part of the LSU summer studies program.

Camille, 18, will be a freshman at LSU in the fall and works at a children's museum. Robert, 19, is a premed major at Louisiana-Lafayette, the same course of study Eraste had planned. He earned a 4.0 grade-point average for his first semester.

The loss of a family friend's son made Joanie Autin realize her pain isn't as unbearable as it once was.

"It changes (with time)," she said. "It's better in that it's not so raw. On May 21, one of my good friends lost her son in an automobile accident. He was 21. He attended Carnegie Mellon, and he was a wonderful child also. When I was with her through that, I realized that distance has helped me.

"I'm so sorry for her where she is right now because it's worse. It doesn't really get better, but it's not as bad (with time). It's not as critical and traumatic. You just get to where you have to live with it. You just have to live."

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