ROCK HILL, SC (AP) – Any visitor to Rock Hill, South Carolina quickly learns that “Football City, USA” is basking in the glory of the dozens of young Leaguers who have won college championships and landed coveted contracts with the NFL.
Competitive football is so essential to the city of 75,000 that a longtime high school coach can’t even take a break to watch a nearby college game for fear of being accused of recruiting. But following a mass shootout by a popular local player whose family blamed football for its problems, some parents and coaches face tough questions about the role of sport in children’s lives.
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 caused the deadly attack.
His father, Alonzo Adams, told WCNC-TV that “he was a good kid, 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 concerning” signs of mental illness, including an escalation of mental illness. anger.
People who knew the Rock Hill High graduate as a kind, gentle-mannered 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 potentially degenerative disease that has been found to cause 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 illness. 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 the murderous act of violence this month. But in the aftermath, some leaders in the city’s football community are considering how to frame what happened to the many young players still in the game.
Rock Hill is renowned for raising budding players through small teams of fries 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 Premier draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, who signed with the Cleveland Browns this offseason.
But parents, players and spectators are increasingly aware of the potentially lasting effects of sports concussions, including Rock Hill.
Ed Paat, who runs a nonprofit in town, played football as a kid decades ago. Now 42, he and his wife are directing their four children into 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 damage and head trauma – for us, there are just 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 it’s a minority in the south, not just in the south but in Rock Hill” , said Paat.
David Sweem, a former track and field coach and football coach who is now on the South Carolina Brain Injury Protection Task Force, said he had noticed that parents were significantly more aware of the risks of injuries to the head of football. “It made me rethink some things with my own kids. And I love football. Still very passionate about sport, ”he said.
Children also take note. Ronnie Collins, an accountant, said he was trying to get his son interested in playing, but Jackson, 12, is worried about getting hurt after learning of concussions and seeing players injured on television.
Some young city coaches oppose football being singled out for safety reasons while other contact sports also face inherent physical risks. Perry Sutton, who has coached youth football for three decades, said his 7-year-old grandson’s football games are tough: “These kids kick each other in the head and everything. You don’t understand that in football. “
Yet Rock Hill’s youth programs have responded by providing coaches with hours of concussion training each year and teaching children to tackle with their bodies, not their heads. With youth and high school sports plummeted nationally, most coaches surveyed here said the number of kids playing football at Rock Hill remains about the same.
Lawrence Brown, a young coach who grew up with Adams and played on the same small French fries team, said the murders changed his perspective. He recently thought about insisting that players also have to live their lives outside of the game. “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 didn’t want to talk about it, likely fearing to take him out of football if he did.
“I can’t get him out of a game he loves,” Wright said.
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 report on secret issues.