Former Whittell High athlete is remembered: Died after inhaling from can of compressed air |

Former Whittell High athlete is remembered: Died after inhaling from can of compressed air

Steve Yingling

Death comes in many mysterious ways, making some passings extremely difficult to understand.

Such a tragedy occurred early Friday morning with the shocking death of former Whittell High School athlete Adrian Norman. Preliminary reports from El Dorado County Sheriff’s Coroner Larry Olsen indicate that 25-year-old Norman, a three-sport athlete for the Warriors in the late 1990s, died from inhaling, or “huffing,” a can of compressed air.

Pending an autopsy and toxicology report, the exact cause of Norman’s death won’t be available for at least two weeks.

Compressed air is commonly used to clean computer keyboards and is found in simple household items like air freshener and whipped cream. Inhaling compressed air can deliver a brief high and dizziness to the user.

Huffing or dusting can also lead to death when the propellant difluoroethane in compressed air cans prevents oxygen from reaching the brain and heart. National studies reveal that hundreds of teenagers and young adults die from inhalants each year.

“It looks like it only takes once,” said South Lake Tahoe Police Department detective Robbie Hight, who has researched “huffing” since Norman’s death since it is new to his department. “I’m not aware of a previous one in the Tahoe Basin.”

Norman touched a lot of students and teachers’ lives while growing up on the South Shore. He made his biggest impact in athletics, excelling despite being shorter than most of his opponents.

“He was one of the kids who never had the biggest stature but always played bigger than he was,” said former basketball teammate Dusty Apocotos. “He was one of those people, even though he might have been shorter, everyone seemed to look up to.”

One of Norman’s shining moments came during a tight basketball game on Jan. 26, 1999, in Lovelock. With the game tied, Norman buried a 15-foot jump shot as time expired to give Whittell a rare 57-55 road win in Lovelock.

“It was the first time and maybe the only time we won at Lovelock during my six years as coach,” said former Whittell basketball coach Steve Maltase. “It was a tough place to win and a great moment for Adrian.”

Maltase grew fond of Norman on the basketball court for his competitiveness and the effort he spent from baseline to baseline.

“He was a little water bug who was all over the place,” Maltase said. “He was a fighter who would never quit. He could pick anybody he was so fast, he was always fighting around screens and he never got tired.”

During his senior year, Norman was nominated for all-league – quite an honor then because Whittell was a small fish in a large Nevada 3A pond that included Bishop Manogue, Incline, Yerington and Dayton. The Warriors narrowly missed the playoffs that season, finishing with 10-14 overall and 5-7 division records.

Norman’s 5-foot-7 frame had its benefits, too. Apocotos recalled a time when former NFL linebacker Mike Crawford made an appearance at the gym and turned Norman into a potential ESPN play of the day.

“Mike would pick him up and throw him from about the free throw line and Adrian would dunk it,” Apocotos said.

Norman also played football, starting the 1998 season as the Warriors’ top running back and a reliable defensive back.

“I remember Adrian as a kid who really wanted to get after it any time he stepped on the football field or basketball court. He was always out there to compete,” said John Summers, who coached Norman in football and basketball.

After rushing for 54 yards in a 1998 season-opening loss to Battle Mountain, Norman broke his collarbone in game two against Rite of Passage and missed the rest of the season.

“After he went out, we just kind of floundered,” Summers said. “He was a leader for us and we were expecting big things out of him.”

Not one to let a season go by without competing, Norman also contributed to the school’s track and field team.

Maltase said that his friendship with Norman didn’t cease after graduation. They played on the same city league basketball team and they occasionally ran into one another at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, where Norman worked as a craps dealer.

“I’ve been around him and it’s a hard one to take,” Maltase said. “I really feel bad for his brother (Avery) and his family.”

A service to celebrate Norman’s life begins at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Kahle Community Center.

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