After the violence in ‘Football City, USA’

A former NFL player killed seven people, including himself, in South Carolina. Now this football-obsessed town is grappling with the game’s dark side.

Perry Sutton, a longtime youth football coach, in his “Demon Den” in Rock Hill. Many of Sutton’s former players went on to college and the NFL. (Travis Dove for The Washington Post)

ROCK HILL, S.C. — At precisely 4 p.m. on March 9, 2016, Phillip Adams stopped being a football player. It wasn’t just something he’d called himself for 21 years. It was something he’d been.

“That’s all he was,” says Adams’s longtime NFL agent, Scott Casterline. “All he knew himself to be.”

There was nothing remarkable about the end. After one season with the Atlanta Falcons, the team didn’t renew his contract. At 3:59 p.m. that day, he was an NFL cornerback who’d made his life about being a Green Dragon and a Bearcat and a Bulldog and a 49er, along with the privileges that entailed. A minute later, the NFL began a new league year and he was set adrift.

“When you lose your identity like that,” Casterline says, “you can get really lost.”

Almost immediately, Adams made what would become a fateful decision. He would make a lot of those in the coming years: to mentor young athletes in a town so rich with talent it’d become known as Football City, USA; to open a smoothie and produce shop he thought his NFL career alone would make successful. Ultimately, his life would be defined by his last decision: to drive into the woods near his parents’ house on April 7, emerge near the home of a local doctor and fatally shoot six of the people there — the doctor and his wife, their 9- and 5-year-old grandchildren, two HVAC technicians — and then himself.

“I think the football messed him up,” his anguished father, Alonzo, would tell a reporter the following day, and soon Adams’s family would order his brain to be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease associated with repeated blows to the head.

But it was long before all that that the 27-year-old made his pivotal choice. Setting off to begin his short life after football, Adams decided to head back home.

The godfather of Rock Hill football is in his three-car garage, apologizing for the mess. The “Demon Den” is a multipurpose facility: tool shed, storage shack, youth football hall of fame.

Perry Sutton coaches the Sylvia Circle Demons, and each fall kids as young as 7 stream in to review game film and discuss proper tackling technique. They receive a variation of the structure and discipline Sutton learned in the Coast Guard (though none of the colorful language, he claims), while being surrounded by reminders of what so many kids here are striving to achieve — and what many already have.

On the walls, behind the trophies and medals and Fas-n-Tite screws, are retired jerseys and framed photos of Sylvia Circle alumni. Play college football, Sutton says, and get your photo on the wall. Near one corner is a kneeling Stephon Gilmore, long before he’d become a two-time all-pro with a $60 million contract. Across the room is Jadeveon Clowney glaring at the camera before becoming the nation’s best high school player and the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick. In the rear is little Chris Hope with his youth team decades before becoming a Super Bowl champion and local legend.

“A teaching tool,” Sutton says of the decor. He views the game, and his program, as a beacon for local children. He says it erases barriers of race and class. He calls players his sons. “We’re turning young men into productive citizens.”

And helping to turn Rock Hill, a small city on Charlotte’s southern outskirts, into a nationally known football incubator. As Charlotte booms, Rock Hill is trying to capitalize on its growth by selling “sports tourism,” adding in recent years a massive soccer complex; a velodrome; a BMX supercross track; and, in 2019, a 1,200-seat indoor sports facility, which replaced a textile printing and finishing plant that, long after being the city’s biggest employer, had sat vacant for two decades.

But no sport has defined this town in recent years like football. For a while, it was estimated that this community of about 75,000 residents was milling one NFL player for every 8,500 residents. The Carolina Panthers have begun construction on their team headquarters, scheduled to open in 2023 and the result of $225 million in tax incentives. And a county councilman said in an interview that he is leaning toward running for mayor in part because he wants FOOTBALL CITY USA painted on a railroad trestle and the incumbent does not. (Rock Hill’s mayor, John Gettys, denies this last part.)

“Football here,” says the councilman, William “Bump” Roddey, “is right below religion.”

Locals of a certain age tell stories of playing ball in cow pastures and graveyards, dodging all manner of obstacles on the way to the end zone. Playing in college or the NFL was a fairy tale back then. Boys would hear of a nice car passing through town, mount their bikes, and go peddling off to see whether Jeff Burris or Gerald Dixon had come home.

Then Hope made it, and then the Dallas Cowboys drafted Derek Ross, and the New England Patriots selected Benjamin Watson, each making extreme success seem slightly less like fantasy.

Sutton put their pictures up, and the boys playing in pee-wee and small-fry leagues saw the walls filling in. Their heroes visited home, drove their nice cars and bought their parents big houses. Some tried to demystify the game’s highest levels, assuring the kids at Cherry and Hargett parks this could be you — if you work hard and buy in and believe. Then the Cincinnati Bengals made Johnathan Joseph a first-round pick, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Jonathan Hefney, and the San Francisco 49ers drafted Phillip Adams.

“There’s pressure,” says Watson, who attended Northwestern High and Georgia before beginning his NFL career. “But there’s expectation and possibilities: I want to be the next one, and I want to be the best one.”

More trophies, more medals and pictures, and fans of Northwestern and Rock Hill High bragged not just about who won or went deeper into the Big 16 playoffs but whose athletes had performed better on Saturdays and Sundays. Who had been drafted higher. Who had the richer contract.

Then a third high school, South Pointe, opened and sent its own players to the big time: Gilmore to the Buffalo Bills, DeVonte Holloman to the Cowboys, Clowney to the Houston Texans. Their photos went up not just in the “Demon Den” but on websites and the walls of restaurants and barbershops. Adrian “Ace” McCrorey’s clients at Platinum Cuts didn’t just talk about Rock Hill’s success stories. Some of his clients, passing back through town, were the success stories.

They almost always drove away, back to their big cities and luxurious lives. But back home the legends grew. Their stories kept getting told, and kids kept hearing about how possible it was, learning, almost from birth, to associate success and adulation with the city’s favorite sport.

“We’re filling a void,” Sutton says. He points to another photo in the corner of his garage. If the luminaries on the wall are his “sons,” the boy in this picture actually shares Sutton’s blood. It’s his 1-year-old grandson, sliding on an oversized Demons helmet. “We take that very seriously.”

Seven years ago, Chris Hope came home. He was in town for his annual youth football camp, and Sutton had planned an elaborate ceremony to retire Hope’s No. 5 Demons jersey. But that’s not the image that stuck.

When he started the camp years before, Sutton had planned for 40 kids. Now there were hundreds packed onto the fields at Sylvia Circle. An NFL player coached each team, and Hope remembers parents baking in the summer heat and barking whenever their child made a mistake.

“Every move, every catch, every drop,” Hope says now. “Something is wrong with this picture.”

As Rock Hill’s profile grew, outsiders wanted to stake their claim of a football gold rush. College recruiters might well have set up camp, and families moved from out of state so their sons could get noticed. When Hope played at Rock Hill High in the mid-1990s, he says, suiting up at District 3 Stadium “was the NFL” to most kids. Now, with a pipeline seemingly running from the city to major colleges and the league, high school football felt transactional, and some young people were taught that the future was superstardom or bust.

“A gift and a curse,” Hope says of a culture he inadvertently helped create. “That pressure that they feel from home, that they feel from the community, that they put on themselves. That they say: ‘If I don’t make it, I’m letting them down. I’ll be letting down my family.’ If I’m not the next guy, that pressure can be devastating.”

But the city was producing so much talent, with football seeming to do so much good, that it became a struggle for anyone here to see any bad. From 2005 to 2015, much of the nation was reconsidering tackle football as a youth sport amid the first studies that showed a link between football and CTE. That same decade, 10 Rock Hill players were drafted or signed out of college with NFL teams. At a time when parents across the country were signing their kids up for soccer and lacrosse, two beneficiaries of a steady decline in football participation, four Rock Hill natives became first-round picks and overnight millionaires.

Three years ago, Boston University’s CTE Center published a report that suggested long-term emotional and cognitive disability weren’t just tied to the number and severity of collisions but also the age at which those collisions began. In other words, the younger kids start playing, the greater risk of possible damage. The CTE Center recommends that children avoid tackle football until at least age 14.

“It definitely creates some hesitation and causes people to seek knowledge,” says Lawrence “Snoop” Brown, a Rock Hill native who began playing football at age 8 and now coaches youth players in the city. Helmets fit better these days, though, Brown and others say, and equipment has been modernized. Players are taught to tackle using their arms rather than their heads. “What it has done is made the game a lot safer. You’ve got kids that are actually learning the game the new way.”

But what about those who learned and might’ve actually suffered from the old way? The league and the NFL Players Association make mental health and post-retirement resources available, but there’s no obligation to use them, and those options largely don’t exist for players who never make it that far. Football is a game that relies on denial — of pain, weakness, limits. Kids here and everywhere are taught that, if you’re unable to suspend those thoughts, you have no business stepping onto the field. The NFL has only recently begun telling players it’s okay to report symptoms of head injuries and mental illness, though players are still taught to push through everything, with no less than their paychecks depending on it.

Then, in a snap, the game has no more room for them. For even the most successful players and those who have convinced themselves they’re prepared for it, the end is jarring.

“My entire adult life has been in a locker room,” says Watson, who retired after the 2018 season before returning for a final season a year later. “Then you just go off into the abyss. We all depart individually, not collectively.”

Watson played 15 seasons in the NFL, and he felt unmoored after he left the game. Hope, who played 11, planned his life’s next chapters but still wasn’t ready to walk away from football.

“I had to die from Chris Hope the football player,” he says. “I don’t care how much money you make. If you don’t find a way to keep living and keep your motor running, you will find yourself in a state of depression or an identity crisis.”

And those who don’t play that long? The players who head back to “Football City,” where restaurants are decorated with your former teammates’ jerseys and your barber is debating the other players on the wall? What’s it like to go home, during the most vulnerable period of your life, and be surrounded by constant reminders of the things you didn’t achieve?

“For a guy who’s already been told that he’s not good enough or he’s too old or he’s injured, that’s hard enough,” Hope says. “But for you to come home and get beat up and made to feel ashamed …”

He trails off. Maybe that’s why, like many of Rock Hill’s heroes, Hope goes back sometimes. But he never moved back.

“If I can’t come back home and receive peace and love,” he says, “there’s nowhere I can go.”

One day in September 1995, Phillip Adams started being a football player. He had just turned 7, carried around a baby blanket, and he could run and throw and catch.

“You could tell he had it in him,” says Snoop Brown, who played with Adams on the Green Dragons of Oakdale Elementary.

He played football and basketball at Rock Hill High, where Hope and Hefney and Dixon, an NFL-bound linebacker, had once suited up for the Bearcats. But it was Adams who helped the team win two state football championships in three years — something none of the others had done. When Stratford High was attempting a comeback in the 2004 championship, it was Adams who cemented the victory with a fourth-quarter interception.

Adams became a star at South Carolina State, a historically Black university, and following a 2009 car accident that left his mother paralyzed, he vowed to work hard and to support her. Because Phillip was a football player and Phyllis a beloved elementary school teacher, Rock Hill came out to do the same. Hope scheduled a celebrity basketball game to raise money for the family’s medical bills, and he invited many of the city’s luminaries to participate.

Around that same time, the 49ers made Phillip Adams the first S.C. State player to get drafted in nine years. Coach Mike Singletary boasted about Adams’s work ethic, about how he was always in the film room or siphoning off wisdom from coaches. An overachiever who played in 15 games as a rookie, Adams suffered a compound ankle fracture during a kickoff and was carted off the field. Eight months later, with Adams’s ankle visibly still bothering him, the 49ers cut him. The Patriots and Seattle Seahawks signed, and released, Adams a combined three times over the next year.

“That wears on a kid,” NFL agent Casterline says. “I told the Patriots: You can’t do that to these kids. Every time they get cut, it’s a personal rejection.”

Adams suffered multiple injuries as he tried to hang on. He had at least two concussions, Casterline says. In 2016, after six seasons and six teams, Adams retreated to Rock Hill. He waited for another NFL team to call and, Casterline says, missed a flight that might’ve prolonged his career. He volunteered with local teams. He had a son.

Splitting his time between Rock Hill and Charlotte, he watched as some peers came home and attempted to rediscover their footing. A few found purpose in coaching or youth sports. Hefney, Adams’s former teammate at Rock Hill High, fell into the drug trade and is now serving a nine-year prison sentence.

Adams looked for other ways to motivate himself and support his mother. He tried farming, and in 2019, he opened a smoothie shop called Fresh Vibes. The only problem: There was already a vegan restaurant called Fresh Vibes in Rock Hill. Its owner, Charlotte Brown, says she called to offer Adams advice on running a business here. But he dismissed her.

“I don’t really need any help,” Brown would recall him indicating. “What I called arrogance at the time, I think in his head, he was thinking: ‘I’m Phillip Adams. This community is going to support me because of who I am.’ ”

Always a loner, Adams withdrew, and old friends and teammates fell out of touch. He no longer participated in celebrity basketball games or showed up at youth camps or went to restaurants. All around him were reminders of what he’d been, and what he no longer was.

When Adams’s smoothie shop and market, which he renamed Fresh Life, failed last year, he called Casterline and said he needed help finding a job. Casterline had no sway in Rock Hill, so he invited Adams to move to Dallas, where Casterline runs his football agency and an energy company. Adams said he couldn’t leave. Casterline says he encouraged Adams to look into the resources the NFL and players’ union make available, including those added in last year’s collective bargaining agreement that emphasize mental health and wellness. But Adams refused.

Casterline and others suspected Adams’s mental health was deteriorating, but it’s not something they discussed.

“You don’t show pain. You don’t show your emotions. He just wouldn’t do it,” Casterline says. “He’s from a football city, got an old-school dad; he’s not going to call anybody and say, ‘Hey, I’m hurt.’ That just wasn’t his nature.”

Adams’s father, Alonzo, didn’t respond to a text message seeking an interview. Casterline says Alonzo Adams occasionally called to express concern for his son and to ask for advice. Phillip had moved back in with Alonzo and Phyllis on Rock Hill’s south side, and he had taken to riding his new four-wheeler into the woods at night. According to a search warrant filed later by York County sheriff’s deputies, Adams filled numerous notebooks with “cryptic writing with different designs and emblems,” leading authorities to suspect he had possibly become interested in “a new religion or ideology.” He owned at least nine guns, and police suspect a safe he’d abandoned in Charlotte might contain more.

On the morning of April 7, Alonzo Adams called Casterline, who was busy and didn’t answer. He left a voice mail, Casterline says, calmly saying he needed to talk. A few hours later, authorities say, Phillip Adams pulled on a dark green hoodie and camouflage pants. He picked up two of the guns, his iPhone and a blue can of Skoal. Then he slid on a black motorcycle helmet, boarded the four-wheeler and pointed it west. And for reasons nobody can yet explain, he lowered the visor, hit the throttle, and set off between the trees.

It’s a cloudless evening in Rock Hill, and Sutton is on a field surrounded by young athletes. Some are as young as 6, and among them is Sutton’s grandson. The boy is playing soccer, not football, a game with its own injury risks.

“You see this?” Sutton says during a momentary scrum. He says one of the kids got kicked in the head. “Talk about dangerous.”

Less than two weeks after the shootings, Sutton feels the need to defend the game he has played, coached and used as a teaching tool for five decades. Before April 7, football in Rock Hill was nothing but a social event, a source of civic pride, a pathway to glory and a scholarship and maybe even a career. Now, with Adams’s relatives and the football world speculating the game might’ve played a role in a national tragedy, it’s something else.

Though an investigation is ongoing, authorities haven’t revealed a motive or connection between Adams and the victims. The four children of Robert and Barbara Lesslie issued a statement last month that said they were “in the midst of the unimaginable,” and when the family held a memorial service, its theme was hope.

The colleagues of James Lewis, one of the HVAC technicians shot while working at the home, wore their red uniform shirts to Lewis’s funeral. Robert Shook, the other technician, dialed 911 and provided details to emergency workers before he died three days later.

Weeks later, others were still trying to untangle what happened and why.

“There’s got to be something underlying,” Casterline says, “this demon he was carrying.”

The day after the killings, Sutton says, he called 15 of his former players. He wanted to hear their voices. He wanted to ask if they needed anything, even if that was someone to just listen.

“That fatherly instinct,” he says. “Everybody was in shock. As a matter of fact, I’m still in shock. I’ll tell you this: I was in complete denial.”

He shakes his head, admitting he still is.

“That didn’t happen,” he says of the shooting.

A few minutes later, Sutton’s phone rings. It’s Chris Hope calling. He and Sutton are planning a seminar in Rock Hill in which Hope will explain to young athletes and parents that, considering the fragility of football careers and the game’s effect on the human body, their lives and identities must be about other things. That there’s nothing simple, or even viable, about a career in football. That home, wherever that is, should be about safety and comfort and not judgment. And that everything ends, and everyone is replaced.

“We’re all going through the same things, but what is the problem with asking for help?” Hope says. “We’re all connected to each other somehow, some way, and that pressure does start at a very young age now — this pressure of living in Football City, USA.”

Hope, who settled in Nashville after he retired, has a 6-year-old son. That’s a year younger than Hope was when he first became a football player. He hasn’t decided if he’ll push his son toward the family business or encourage him to play baseball or basketball. He says the decision would be harder, the pressure much harsher, if he’d gone home to Rock Hill. Especially as his influence there fades: He no longer holds a celebrity basketball game, and his summer football camp is now named for Clowney.

“It’s part of our DNA,” Hope says. “It’s like being a Marine vet: His kids are just following in his footsteps. His uncle went; his father went. We all know what could happen. We all know we could get that knock on the door.”

He thinks on his 25 years in the game, the hits he took, the commitment it required.

“That was a lot of chances I took,” he says. “God spared me.”

Back on the soccer field, Sutton is swinging his 1-year-old grandson between his legs. The boy will grow up playing football, he says, and no matter what scientists might find in Adams’s brain, the game — at least here, especially here — will be just fine. He’ll say that again and again as day turns to night, a man admittedly in denial, perhaps coping by insisting Rock Hill is just different.

At one point a young mother walks up to say hello. Sutton greets her, then her two young children, maybe 7 and 4.

“Y’all play football?” he asks, and the kids shake their heads. “Neither of y’all?”

They playfully run away, and Sutton sighs.

“You can’t convince mine,” the kids’ mother says.

Sutton motions toward the soccer pitch.

“Y’all aren’t on the football field getting kicked in the head,” he calls to the kids as they keep walking. “Man, you need to come to the house and get a football helmet to put on.”

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