'Football City, USA' killings raise sport safety concerns

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FILE - In this July 30, 2014 file photo, Seattle Seahawks' Phillip Adams runs during an NFL football camp practice in Renton, Wash. A source briefed on a mass killing in South Carolina says the gunman who killed multiple people, including a prominent doctor, was the former NFL pro. The source said that Adams shot himself to death early Thursday, April 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

ROCK HILL, S.C. – Any visitor to Rock Hill, South Carolina, soon learns that “Football City, USA” basks in the glory of the dozens of youth leaguers who have gone on to win college championships and land coveted NFL contracts.

Competitive football is so essential to the city of 75,000 that a longtime high school coach can’t even pause to watch a nearby middle school game, lest he be accused of recruiting. But in the aftermath of a mass shooting by a popular homegrown player whose family blamed football for his troubles, some parents and coaches are facing tough questions about the role the sport plays 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 killing himself last month. Investigators haven't said what might have prompted the deadly attack.

His father, Alonzo Adams, told WCNC-TV that “he was a good kid, and I think the football messed him up.” And his sister, Lauren Adams, told USA Today that her brother’s “mental health degraded fast and terribly bad” in recent years, leaving him with “extremely concerning” signs of mental illness, including an escalating temper.

People who knew the Rock Hill High graduate as a kind and mild-mannered young man are wondering if head injuries he suffered as a player affected his mental health. A probe of his brain was ordered to see whether he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a possibly degenerative disease that has been shown to cause violent mood swings and other cognitive disorders in some athletes.

Adams, 32, played in 78 NFL games over 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 severe 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 act of deadly violence this month. But in the aftermath, some leaders in the city’s football community are reflecting on how to frame what happened to the many young players still in the game.

Rock Hill is renowned for bringing up aspiring 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 goes back to the 50s. Current pros include New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore and No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, who signed with the Cleveland Browns this offseason.