Sean Riggins worked, wrestled, played football and practiced tae kwon do.
The Lincoln Community High School sophomore was an average student, drove a beater Buick and loved to hang out with his friends.
His father thought him to be a bit of a class clown; his mother considered him to be a typical teen.
No one saw any signs that Sean, at the age of 16, would die of heart failure, perhaps brought on by use of an over-the-counter energy booster containing ephedra, an herbal stimulant.
Kevin and Debbie Riggins would like for no parents to be horribly surprised as they were, and for no teenagers to have to see their friend for the last time at a funeral parlor.
The Rigginses and Logan County Coroner Chuck Fricke don’t want other teens to die like Sean, so they will testify Tuesday before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of Sen. Dick Durbin. The Illinois Democrat wants more study and closer regulation of ephedra products.
A busy, active kid
More than anything, Sean loved his sports. He dreamt of playing football for Penn State University.
He worked part time at Steak ‘n Shake to put gas in the car and, unbeknownst to his parents, to buy Yellow Jacket — not the amphetamine, but an herbal stimulant containing ephedra and caffeine.
Like so many other high school athletes, Sean started taking ephedra to boost his energy and burn fat.
Ads for Yellow Jacket, Black Beauty and other ephedra products use rock music, bikini-clad women and a life-on-the-edge image to pitch the capsules to teens as a safe alternate to hard drugs.
Sean died Sept. 3. His parents blame ephedra.
“What scares me is this could happen again,” Kevin Riggins said. “No kid should have to go see their friend lying in a box. This is going to have to change.”
U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports have linked ephedra products to more than 80 deaths and nearly 1,400 other incidents of complications, including heart attacks, high blood pressure and strokes, over a seven-year period.
One ephedra manufacturer alone turned over to Durbin’s investigators more than 13,000 health-related complaints about its supplement.
Ephedra use apparently caught up with Sean on Labor Day, when LCHS’ sophomore team was playing a football game at Olympia High School. Sean suited up, but he didn’t play because his stomach and head hurt.
The next morning, Sean’s mother checked to see if Sean felt up to going to school. He said he was having trouble breathing.
“Sean could exaggerate about being sick if he wanted to stay home; he was a typical teen,” Debbie Riggins said.
He lay on the couch for a while, then he asked to go to the doctor, she said. His doctor diagnosed bronchitis, gave Sean some medicine for cough and nausea and prescribed antibiotics.
“Sean didn’t mention ephedra; he didn’t know he should mention ephedra” to the doctor, his mother said.
They stopped to rent a movie and got home about 11 a.m.
“He laid down on the couch, watched the movie and went to sleep,” she said. “For all intents and purposes, he never woke up.”
Sean died at 4:54 p.m. that day at Abraham Lincoln Memorial Hospital in Lincoln.
The coroner said he is certain ephedra played a pivotal role in Sean’s death. Fricke has received the final autopsy and toxicology reports, but he will not release them until the inquest Wednesday afternoon.
Ephedra use a shock
The news that their son was taking ephedra shocked his parents. They had no idea until Fricke called them after Sean’s visitation to tell them the substance turned up in Sean’s urine.
“I felt a little of everything,” Kevin Riggins said of hearing the news. “I can’t describe the emotions.”
Kevin and Debbie Riggins searched their son’s room and his car. They found no drugs, alcohol, cigarettes or ephedra.
“He was a good boy. He never did drugs because he was an athlete, and he knew it was bad for him,” Kevin Riggins said. “He had friends who smoked pot, and he was always on them about that.”
The Rigginses said they talked to Sean, their only child, about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
Sean’s father, a weight-lifter who makes tires at the Bridgestone-Firestone plant in Normal, also warned his son about performance-enhancing substances, such as steroids. Sean asked him once about using creatine monohydrate, a dietary supplement that helps build muscles.
“I told him I didn’t want him to use it,” Kevin Riggins said. “He was too young for it.”
The teenager loved active sports and was always a competitor.
“Sean was an active boy from before he was born,” his father said. “He was a kicker. Debbie said it was like he was wrestling inside her.”
Sean started tae kwon do at age 9, reaching the level of red-black belt.
In sixth grade, he started wrestling. A year, later he joined the football team.
The Rigginses learned from his friends after his death that he probably started taking Yellow Jacket about a year ago to improve his wrestling.
“He was strong. He could dead-lift 450 pounds,” Kevin Riggins said. “We thinks his friends told him it would enhance that.”
No safe assumption
Ephedra products are available over the counter, so young people assume it’s safe, Fricke said.
“He had no idea what this stuff was doing to him,” Kevin Riggins said. “If he had any clue, he wouldn’t have done it.”
The FDA doesn’t recommend dosages or regulate uses of ephedra. Until Sean’s death, ephedra wasn’t even banned under his school’s substance-abuse rules.
The Illinois High School Association is considering joining the National Football League, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the International Olympic Committee in banning ephedra use.
Fricke and the Rigginses said they want to spread the word about ephedra’s potential dangers. They hope their message is getting through.
“Sean’s friends come and sit on the porch and cry,” Kevin Riggins said. “You can tell them all you want, but you know how teenagers listen. Now this has scared the hell out of them.”