Wheeler’s Mom Fighting A Lonely Battle

By Greg Couch
Updated: July 14, 2005

Rashidi Wheeler

Rashidi Wheeler

CHICAGO — She’s just one woman. One who lives a few blocks from the tracks. She doesn’t have much money and is standing there alone against so many of the most powerful elements of our society. A great university, Northwestern, our out-of-control college sports culture and even our court system. They have worked in harmony to paint her as an unfit mother and emotional ruin.

Linda Will is none of those things.

She’s a hero.

She has fought the unwinnable fight over the death of her son, former Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler. He died four years ago of an asthma attack, the Cook County coroner declared, while the team was running an illegal practice. His attack was misdiagnosed and mistreated by team trainers. The school says he killed himself by taking a banned dietary supplement containing ephedra, part of the team’s rampant substance-abuse problem.

Long search for justice

For four years, Will has wanted justice, whatever that means. She is pursuing a wrongful-death suit against Northwestern and has spent every moment trying to get her day in court. She wants her one small voice to be heard. Legal maneuvers have made that impossible, and on Monday, she must stand in front of a Cook County judge, who will consider a report from a court-appointed guardian that says Will is not acting in the best interest of her kids and should be removed as co-administrator of Wheeler’s estate.

Do you know what makes her so unstable? So unfit?

She won’t settle. They want to give her $16 million to shut up in an out-of-court deal, and she won’t take it. The guardian seems to think that makes her insane. And they want to force her to take it.

“Whatever my motivation, I shouldn’t have to justify it,” she said. “Who is to put value on the loss of human life? Who says everything has to be settled? Who are you to tell me I’m so poor that I should be googly-goggly because you offered me this much money?”

One woman. There she is, and our system, which has come to a scientific conclusion that $16 million is the fair market value for a dead child, also seems to think it knows what makes a good mother. What do lawyers in $400 shoes know about that?

She just wants to be heard

Will is teaching her kids that you don’t sell out at any price. And she’s not a fit mother? She has fired her lawyers a few times because they don’t understand.

But it’s so simple: She wants people to hear her. She wants a football coach who runs a program with illegal practices and rampant substance abuse to be fired so he won’t get his hands on anyone else’s baby. She wants someone from Northwestern to stand up and say, “We’re sorry,” because all NU has said so far is that her son killed himself and that she’s crazy and if we give you $16 million, would you be willing to agree with that? She wants a fund set up in her son’s name to help other kids. She wants some sort of memorial for her son on campus.

And just maybe those things are worth more than $16 million to her.

If this thing gets to court, you wait and see what else crawls out from under the rocks of the NU football program.

“They don’t want 70 student-athletes taking the stand,” she said, “and showing just how deep this stuff goes.”

Northwestern does not acknowledge having agreed to this settlement. But all sides, except for Will, have been negotiating, and for some reason they’ve come to the conclusion that $16 million gets the deal done. Will and Wheeler’s father are not a couple anymore, and the father apparently wants to settle.

Will’s lawyers told her it might cost her $300,000 to go to court.

She said that was OK, she’d sell her house.

This one woman has been vilified while standing there with as much courage as we have ever seen. No one seems to understand her because our values say she should take the money, shut up and run. Our justice system is supposed to be there for one person, isn’t it?

“How dare they try to use my grief and say I can’t think clearly,” she said. “I’m not on trial here.”

Oh, yes, she is. That’s how this system has turned things. Her son is dead, and now the system is bullying her.

Would she take $50 million if they offered it? Would she take $100 million?

“I don’t want to answer that,” she said. “That’s what is getting me in trouble.”

Does she seem confused at times? Sure, and who wouldn’t be? She has been thrust into a world of power plays and can’t find anyone to trust. She cries when you talk to her about her son. She keeps firing lawyers. She trusted attorney Johnnie Cochran, who was working for a percentage. But he died March 29, and the case went to his partners, who Will says want only to settle. So she fired them, too.

It’s a lot of money, but that’s her decision. On Monday, unless she names another attorney, she’ll be alone, fighting nakedly for justice.

Whatever that is.