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Winona State team mourns player's death

WINONA -- Winona State football coach Tom Sawyer said Shawn Afryl was doing the kind of workouts Monday night that are common for football players this time of year.

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Shawn Afryl with his mother, Susan Afryl, in a photo from her gofundme.com site.
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WINONA — Winona State football coach Tom Sawyer said Shawn Afryl was doing the kind of workouts Monday night that are common for football players this time of year. But they proved fatal for the WSU junior.

Afryl collapsed and died while doing voluntary exercises with teammates shortly after the session began at 7:30 p.m. It happened in front of Warriors strength and conditioning coaches, who quickly administered CPR until paramedics arrived.

No official cause of death has been released, but Afryl's high school football coach, Curtis Tate, said the family has been told Afryl died of cardiac arrest related to an enlarged heart. Susan Afryl, his mother, told the Chicago Tribune that he had no previously known medical conditions.

The 22-year-old Afryl was set to begin his first season at Winona State, after transferring from the University of Illinois. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound junior and native of Skokie, Ill., signed with the Warriors two months ago.

Afryl's mother  created a page at GoFundMe.com in hopes of raising $20,000 to pay for his burial. It had raised about $30,000 as of Wednesday morning, including $7,500 before Winona State officials had even confirmed his death on Tuesday afternoon.

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"My heart is aching ... the pain is devastating," wrote Susan, who told the Chicago Tribune she hopes to start the Shawn Patrick Afryl Shoe Fund to help needy youth obtain sports equipment. "He had the biggest heart in the world and was a leader with kindness of soul. He was, and is, my hero."

Coach Sawyer was on vacation in Clearwater Beach, Fla., when he got the news of Afryl's death Monday night. He left by plane Tuesday morning and met with his football team late Tuesday afternoon.

"This is gut-wrenching," Sawyer said. "It's like losing your own child. Anyone that is 22 years old; we shouldn't be going to their funeral. He was one of our guys, and he was awesome. A fun-loving guy who had a playful spirit but was passionate about playing football and eventually teaching. We will miss everything about him."

The gathering went as he had expected. Sawyer, who has been Winona State's head coach for 17 years, considers this current group of players among his best.

"The meeting went as well as I expected," Sawyer said. "I've got a group of young men right now who are unbelievable. It doesn't matter if it is at a time like this, the middle of winter or on a game day. I have an extraordinary group of guys right now. It felt good to be with them.

"The biggest thing is that our guys are close. And something like this will bring them even tighter."

Sawyer was not able to attend Monday's training session because of NCAA rules but noted that the volunteer workout Afryl and others were doing Monday was nothing unusual.

"We were doing in our program what every football program across the country does," Sawyer said of the workout, which was done without helmets or pads but came on a day when the temperature touched 90 degrees in Winona. "We weren't doing anything different than anybody else."

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Former Winona State football player Cale Schliesman agreed that the workout sounded like ones that WSU players routinely put themselves through in July, weeks before official practices begin on Aug. 14.

He was also quick to point out the lengths that Sawyer has always gone to in order to keep his players safe.

"Sawyer and the entire coaching staff always are very good about making sure you take care of yourself during practices and workouts," said Schliesman, a WSU offensive lineman from 2010 until last spring. "They make sure you are drinking enough water and go out of their way to tell you that if you're not feeling well in a practice, to take an hour and rest."

Current Winona State football players were not made available to the media Tuesday, but the outpouring of support from Afryl's previous school was immediate. Illinois head coach Tim Beckman said he was "greatly saddened by Shawn's passing" in a statement posted on the school's website.

"Shocked and saddened to hear the news of Shawn Afryl's death," tweeted Jimmy Nudera, a junior tight end for the Fighting Illini. "Was one of the best people you could ever meet."

"We lost a good one today way too soon," tweeted Jeff Allen, a former Illinois player who now plays with the Kansas City Chiefs. "R.I.P. Shawn Afryl you'll be missed, my prayers are with his family."

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Shawn Afryl

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