“Football City, USA” Killings Raise Sports Safety Concerns

ROCK HILL, SC – Any visitor to Rock Hill, South Carolina quickly learns that “Football City, USA” enjoys the glory of dozens of young League leagues who have won college championships and landed coveted NFL contracts.

Phillip Adams, whose NFL career is still celebrated on the county tourism website, is accused of killing Dr Robert Lesslie, his wife, their two grandchildren and two air conditioning technicians at the doctor’s home before of committing suicide last month. Investigators did not say what could have been behind the deadly attack.

His father, Alonzo Adams, told WCNC-TV that “he was a good boy and I think football ruined him.” And his sister, Lauren Adams, told USA Today that “his brother’s mental health has deteriorated rapidly and terribly” in recent years, leaving him with “extremely worrying” signs of mental illness, including an escalation of mental illness. anger.

People who knew the Rock Hill High graduate as a kind, gentle young man wonder if the head injuries he suffered as a player have affected his sanity. A probe of his brain was ordered to see if he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a possibly degenerative disease that causes violent mood swings and other cognitive impairment in some athletes.

Adams, 32, played 78 NFL games in six seasons for six teams – San Francisco, New England, Seattle, Oakland and the New York Jets before retiring with Atlanta in 2015. He suffered a serious ankle injury as a rookie with the 49ers, and was recorded as having two concussions with the Raiders.

There may never be a definitive link between his concussions and this month’s deadly act of violence. But in the aftermath, some leaders in the city’s soccer community are pondering how to describe what happened to the many young players still on the line.

Rock Hill is renowned for raising budding players through small teams of fry and catapulting them into the pros. At least 37 athletes from the city’s three public high schools have played in the NFL, according to a list maintained by one of the coaches dating back to the 1950s. Current pros include New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore and No. 1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, who signed with the Cleveland Browns in the offseason.

But awareness is growing nationwide among parents, players and spectators about the potentially lasting impacts of sports concussions, and that includes Rock Hill.

Ed Paat, who runs a nonprofit in town, played football as a child decades ago. Now 42, he and his wife are directing their four children to other sports, such as gymnastics and jiu jitsu, in light of research and emerging events, including shooting.

“For our family, it’s not something that’s an option,” Paat said. “The more we learn about CTE, brain injury, traumatic brain injury – for us there are only other pathways for athletics that do not have such potential for long-term medical effects. . “

Paat acknowledges that his point of view is probably unpopular in the city: “The mindset that my wife and I have, I guess, is a minority in the South, not just in the South but in Rock Hill,” he said. said Paat.

David Sweem, a former track and field coach and football coach who is now on the South Carolina Brain Injury Safety Net Task Force, said he noticed parents were significantly more aware of the risks of football head injuries. “It made me rethink some things with my own children. And I love soccer. Still very passionate about sport, ”he said.

Children also realize this. Ronnie Collins, an accountant, said he was trying to get his son interested in playing, but Jackson, 12, is worried about injuring himself after hearing about concussions and seeing players injured on TV.

Some youth coaches in the city are opposed to football being singled out for safety reasons while other contact sports also face inherent physical risks. Perry Sutton, who coached youth football for three decades, said his 7-year-old grandson’s football games were tough: “These kids kick each other in the head and everything. don’t get that in football. “

Yet the Rock Hill Youth Programs responded by subjecting coaches to hours of concussion training each year and teaching children to attack with their bodies, not their heads. And although participation rates in youth and high school sports have plummeted nationwide, most coaches interviewed here said the number of kids playing football in Rock Hill remains about the same.

Lawrence Brown, a youth coach who grew up with Adams and played on the same little fry team, said the murders changed his perspective. He’s been thinking lately of stressing that players have to live their lives outside the game as well. “We know we can’t play football forever. We know we can’t play any sport forever, ”said Brown.

Growing up alongside future football stars has been exciting for Kia Wright, but now she worries about her own 12-year-old son, Kaleb. She wants him to play baseball, but her son’s passion for football surpasses any other sport.

She said Kaleb had heard about the shooting on the news, but would not talk about it, likely fearing that she would take him out of football if he did.

“I can’t take him out of a game he loves,” Wright said.

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Liu is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.