By Robbie Neiswanger
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino had to pause for a moment Sunday night, fighting back tears as he read a brief statement regarding freshman tight end Garrett Uekman’s death.
“Garrett was a special member of our family,” Petrino said hours after the redshirt freshman was pronounced dead. “The team and I were shocked today when we learn of his tragic passing. The entire football program is grieving his loss.
“Last night he was very proud of the win in Little Rock, which came on the same field that he played his high school football on. He truly loved being a Razorback and was loved by his teammates.”
The Arkansas football program, which experienced one of its biggest wins of the season in knocking off Mississippi State 44-17 in Little Rock on Saturday night, was in mourning hours later after the devastating news of Uekman’s passing.
The 19-year-old was pronounced dead at Washington Regional Medical Center at 12:10 p.m. after being found “unconscious and unresponsive” in his room at the Northwest Quad residence hall an hour earlier.
The exact cause of death was not known, but University of Arkansas Police Department Lt. Matt Mills said there were no suspicious circumstances.
Athletic director Jeff Long, like Petrino, fought through emotions when he spoke Sunday night, saying the university lost a family member.
“This is an extremely sad day for the university of Arkansas,” Long said. “We lost a member of our family. A young man who is an outstanding student and a much loved member of our football team. Garrett Uekman passed away earlier today. ...
“As you would expect, his loss is painful and incomprehensible to all of us.”
Uekman, a Little Rock native, redshirted in 2010 and played in nine of 11 games this season. It included Saturday’s game in his hometown.
He was last seen playing video games by a roommate at 10:15 a.m. and “appeared to be in good health,” according to Arkansas’s press release. Another roommate found him unconscious an hour later.
Emergency services were called at 11:17 a.m., and first responders were on the scene at 11:20. Uekman was in cardiac arrest when responders arrived and he was pronounced dead less than an hour later.
Long said Arkansas was not aware of any pre-existing medical conditions. Uekman’s body will be transported to Little Rock to the state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.
Uekman’s parents, Danny and Michelle, provided a statement saying “our son was living his dream” of attending Arkansas and playing for the Razorbacks.
“He loved his school, his coaches, and his teammates and classmates, and was an influence and inspiration to so many people,” the statement read. “We ask for your love and prayers for Garrett, our family and his friends as we all cope with this heavy and painful loss. Meanwhile, we ask for respect and privacy during this time of grief.”
Arkansas’ players were called into a team meeting and told of Uekman’s death Sunday afternoon.
Soon after, players congregated outside the Broyles Center and several were visibly distraught, crying and embracing one another. Some took to social media after the team meeting, sharing some of their emotions and grief.
“RIP Garrett..I am thankful for the opportunity to have you in my life! I will always remember the times we had together. I love you buddy!” senior guard Grant Cook said via Twitter.
“Garrett Uekman rest in peace my brother Watch over us as we continue to chase the dream u started with us. I love u and will forever miss u,” added Arkansas running back Knile Davis.
News of Uekman’s death quickly spread to his hometown of Little Rock, where he was a football and basketball standout at Catholic High. Uekman was coached at Catholic High by Ellis “Scooter” Register, who is now at Little Rock Central.
Register said he heard the news from Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton, who sent a text message telling him there was an emergency. Upon learning of Uekman’s death, Register was stunned and “didn’t get out of my chair for 30 minutes.”
“It just goes to show you how really fragile life is,” Register said. “We can’t take anything for granted. He was so young, vibrant and strong.
“He had his whole future in front of him.”
Little Rock Catholic coach David Estes, who also was on staff when Uekman played at the high school, attended the Mississippi State game and said he was “beaming ear to ear with pride” watching the tight end play. Estes said it was hard to cope with the fact Uekman was gone less than 24 hours later.
“It’s devastating to the Catholic High school family, his family, the city of Little Rock and the entire state of Arkansas,” Estes said. “It’s just devastating. I don’t know how else to put it. ... It’s just a complete tragedy.”
Long said a support system is in place for grieving teammates and students. He also said the school is working closely with Uekman’s roommates.
The university has scheduled a candlelight service open to the public to honor Uekman’s memory in Bud Walton Arena tonight at 8. Long also said the Razorbacks will discuss remembering Uekman in other ways the rest of the season, saying “we’ll have an appropriate way to honor Garrett.”
“I am proud of the way he represented our program,” Petrino said. “He did everything right and had one of our highest GPA’s on the football team. There was nothing Garrett loved more than competing. ... I know it was Garrett’s dream was being at Arkansas and being a member of this football team. Our team will honor and respect his memory as we build this program.”