ATLANTA, Ga. – Eric Cookmeyer scrolled through an old text exchange until he found the video of Edward Aschoff buffing a gold LSU helmet. He chuckles. The memories from that day in August come flooding back.
Aschoff, an ESPN reporter in Baton Rouge on assignment, was there to learn about this somewhat discreet game-week ritual. Each Thursday night, equipment managers like Cookmeyer scrub helmets of decals and then beautify them with a buffing machine inside the Tigers’ equipment room. Cookmeyer was there to show Aschoff the ropes. “I walked him through the steps,” Cookmeyer says Thursday from Atlanta. “I had some of my students critique the job he did. It was terrible.”
Everyone had a good laugh over it. The helmet was in such shape that LSU couldn’t re-use it and so the staff packed it into a box and mailed it to Aschoff’s home in Los Angeles. Less than four months later, Aschoff is gone. “Everybody,” Cookmeyer says, “is kind of shocked and saddened.”
Aschoff’s death not only has the sports-writing world weeping for its lost colleague, but sent the entire college football universe into grieving over such stunning news—that a fit and previously healthy 34-year old died after a battle with pneumonia on Christmas Eve, also his birthday. This year, Aschoff spent more time around one particular program than any other: the LSU Tigers. In fact, before his passing, Aschoff’s final assignment brought him to Baton Rouge in mid-November for a story on starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. He left such an indelible mark on Edwards-Helaire’s family that the player’s mother, Tonge, posted on Twitter a heartfelt message following Aschoff’s death. Her son was crushed by the news, delivered to him on Tuesday by Cookmeyer. “He got close to Ed,” Cookmeyer says. “He was upset.”
While the top-seeded Tigers (13-0) barrel toward a meeting Saturday with No. 4-seeded Oklahoma (12-1) in the Peach Bowl playoff semifinal here, many on this team—players, administrators and coaches—are reeling over the loss of someone they shared so much with during this magical 2019 run. Aschoff visited the team on three separate occasions since August, staying in Baton Rouge for multiple days at a time and entrenching himself with this group.
His interview earlier this season with pass game coordinator Joe Brady was the first such one-on-one meeting with a reporter in the 30-year-old assistant’s career. Brady and Aschoff didn’t talk much about ball. Instead, they bonded over their connection to the University of Florida. Brady is a Floridian. Aschoff is a graduate of UF. “He’s a Gator,” Brady recalls during LSU’s media day Thursday in downtown Atlanta. “That stung hard. You saw a guy who had so much passion for what he was doing.”
Aschoff and coach Ed Orgeron connected on a couple of fronts. They bonded over their love for Los Angeles, where Orgeron spent years as an assistant at USC, and they talked about Aschoff settling down with a “good Cajun girl,” says Derek Ponamsky, special assistant to the head coach. Aschoff’s fiancée, Katy Berteau, is a native of south Louisiana. “Great guy for the business. I enjoyed being around him,” Orgeron says. “I was shocked when it happened.”
Orgeron learned of the news by seeing it on the ESPN bottom-line ticker, and others found out from text messages they received during a team dinner on Christmas Eve. On Monday, a day after LSU arrived in Atlanta and a day before Aschoff’s death, Marty Smith, an ESPN reporter embedded with the Tigers, told staff members of the seriousness of the illness. Ponamsky even fired off a text to Aschoff checking in on him. He never heard back. “For us, having him around, it was cool because he actually wanted to tell some of the stories that weren’t just the obvious ones,” Ponamsky says. “It sucks, man. That was a dude that every time you saw him he had a smile on his face.”
Aschoff, originally from Oxford, Miss., who spent much of his career based in Atlanta, was known for that permanent smile and his dapper suits, often donning a colorful flower on his lapel. In fact, several reporters covering Saturday’s semifinal game plan to wear similar flowers on their lapels. Aschoff exuded positivity and produced fine work on a combination of platforms, both television and print. His death remains somewhat confounding. According to posts he made on social media, Aschoff had fought the illness since mid-November. The flu turned into pneumonia, which then led to bilateral pneumonia, impacting both lungs. Over the past few days, he had messaged friends from a hospital bed as he battled a sickness that few realized would end in fatality. Pneumonia kills up to 50,000 adults in the US every year, according to the CDC, and while that sounds like a large number, it would rank as just the eighth-leading cause of death in 2017, responsible for 2% of deaths.
Michael Bonnette, LSU’s longtime sports information director, knew Aschoff since he joined ESPN in 2011. “I considered him a friend and I talked pretty regularly with him,” Bonnette says. Aschoff’s strength as a reporter was obvious to Brandon Berrio, an LSU assistant sports information director who spent time with Aschoff in Baton Rouge. “He related to players,” he says. “That’s the thing that people keep saying about him, and it’s true.”
Edwards-Helaire wasn’t the only player he impacted. Safety Grant Delpit and outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson spent time around Aschoff this year. In August, the trio all dined together for lunch in the school’s new nutrition center during which Aschoff revealed his prediction for the Tigers’ record this season: 9-3. They ragged him about that during his return to Baton Rouge later in the year. A month later, they learned of his death on Twitter. “He was just eating with us in the cafeteria talking football and the game. It’s sad to see, man,” Delpit says. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. He was just with us.”
For Cookmeyer, he’ll forever have the video of Aschoff taking a crack at buffing that helmet. The Tigers equipment staff grew so close to Aschoff that they sent his future father-in-law, Jeff Berteau, a rabid LSU football fan, a traditional game helmet signed by Orgeron. Aschoff and Jeff’s daughter Katy were set to be married in April in New Orleans, the site of this year’s national championship game. A win Saturday against Oklahoma would send the Tigers there, playing for a title against Ohio State or Clemson, many of them with heavy hearts.
Sports writers aren’t the only ones who lost a friend Tuesday. Late in the evening on that Christmas Eve, a host of LSU officials gathered at a hotel lobby bar in downtown Atlanta. They ordered a round of shots, raised the glasses into the air and cheered to, of all people, a reporter.
“To Ed!” said one.
They responded, “To Ed!”