ROCK HILL, South Carolina — Any visitor to Rock Hill, South Carolina will quickly learn that “Football City, USA” basks in the glory of the dozens of young leaguers who have won college championships and landed coveted league contracts. NFL.
Competitive football is so essential to the city of 75,000 that a longtime high school coach can’t even stop to watch a nearby college game for fear of being charged with recruiting. But following a mass shooting by a popular local player whose family blamed football for his troubles, some parents and coaches are facing tough questions about the role sport plays in children’s lives.
Phillip Adams, whose NFL career is still celebrated on the county’s 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 committing suicide last month. Investigators did not say what could have triggered 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 her brother’s ‘mental health has deteriorated rapidly and terribly badly’ in recent years, leaving him with ‘extremely concerning’ signs of mental illness, including a growing temper. .
People who knew the Rock Hill High graduate as a kind and gentle young man wonder if the head injuries he suffered as a player affected his mental health. A probe of his brain was ordered to see if he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a possibly degenerative disease that has been shown to cause violent mood swings and other cognitive impairments 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 had 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 football community are considering how to frame what has happened to the many young players still in the game.
Rock Hill is renowned for raising budding players through small fry teams 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 that dates back to the 1950s. Current pros include New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore and first overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, who signed with the Cleveland Browns this offseason.
But nationwide, parents, players and spectators are increasingly aware of the potentially long-lasting effects of sports concussions, and that includes Rock Hill.
Ed Paat, who runs a nonprofit in town, played soccer 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 emerging research and 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 avenues for athletics that don’t 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 only in the South but in Rock Hill,” said Paat said.
David Sweem, a former athletic trainer and football coach who is now part of the South Carolina Brain Injury Safety Net Task Force, said he’s noticed parents are significantly more aware of the risk of injury to the head of football. “It made me rethink some things with my own children. And I love football. Still very passionate about the sport,” he said.
Children also realize this. Ronnie Collins, an accountant, said he was trying to get his son interested in the game, but Jackson, 12, feared injury after learning about concussions and seeing players injured on TV.
Some City youth coaches object to football being sidelined on safety grounds when 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 are kicking each other in the head and stuff. You don’t get that in football.
Yet Rock Hill youth programs have responded by subjecting coaches to hours of concussion training each year and teaching kids to tackle with their bodies, not their heads. And while participation rates for youth and high school sports have fallen nationally, most coaches interviewed here said the number of kids playing football at Rock Hill remains about the same.
Lawrence Brown, a youth coach who grew up with Adams and played on the same small fry team, said the killings changed his perspective. He recently thought to point out that players also have to live their lives outside the game. “We know we can’t play football forever. We know we can’t play any sport forever,” Brown said.
Growing up alongside future football stars has been exciting for Kia Wright, but now she’s worried 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 speak about it, likely fearing he would take him out of football if he did.
“I can’t take him away from a game he loves,” Wright said.
Liu is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.