'What happens next?' Seeking answers on guns, race, NFL following mass shooting by former player

Josh Peter, USA TODAY
·11 min read

ROCK HILL, S.C. — Rev. Dr. Carlton Brown stood behind the casket.

He looked out at the crowd gathered for the funeral of Phillip Adams, who played in the NFL for six seasons and was a beloved son, brother, father and now a killer, too.

“What matters most,’’ Brown told the crowd, “is what happens next.’’

Two police cars sat parked outside the Robinson Funeral Home as Brown delivered the eulogy.

Monique Ramseur, manager of the funeral home, said she felt there was no choice but to enlist the help of law enforcement given the circumstances.

Adams killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot wound after shooting to death six people April 7 less than a mile away from his house.

Among the victims were a 9-year-old girl and her 5-year-old brother, and Ramseur said she feared retaliation during the funeral — in part because Adams is Black and all of the victims were white.

People participate in a memorial service and prayer vigil for the Lesslie family at Fountain Park in Rock Hill, North Carolina.
People participate in a memorial service and prayer vigil for the Lesslie family at Fountain Park in Rock Hill, North Carolina.

“You got yahoos out there that are crazy," said Ramseur, who during the funeral April 16 found herself pulled in by Reverend Brown’s refrain.

His voice grew louder as he stood behind the casket and continued the eulogy.

“What matters most is what happens next," he cried.

'HE WAS BATTLING SOMETHING:' Phillip Adams' family says ex-NFL player was struggling after playing career

ANOTHER FORMER PLAYER, ANOTHER SHOOTING: Justin Bannan says head trauma from football is to blame

Indeed, more than two weeks since the shootings, questions that have been asked over and over around the country are lingering in Rock Hill.

What happens next for those trying to curb gun violence as the mass killings continue?

What happens next for in a community that has struggled with race relations?

And what happens next to the NFL, which faces increasing scrutiny about its care for retired players?

'They'll come take away your guns'

Billed as a revival, a rally against gun violence in Rock Hill is scheduled for Saturday.

In 2020, there were nine homicides in Rock Hill and six of them were shooting deaths, according to Michael Chavis, Public Information Officer for the Rock Hill Police Department. Less than five months into 2021, there have been six homicides and five of them were shooting deaths, according to Chavis, who said the Adams shootings are not included in that total because they took place outside the incorporated city limits of Rock Hill.

In the York County Sheriff's Office jurisdiction, which includes the neighborhood where the Adams lived and the shootings took place, there were seven shooting deaths in 2020 and there already have been seven shooting deaths in 2021, according to the sheriff's office.

“It’s like a revival and we need to revive our city,’’ said Nikita Jackson, a Rock Hill councilwoman who noted the event was in the works before the Adams killings. “We need to have an awakening in our city to let the people know that this is not the direction we want to let our city to go in."

Phillip Adams played for six teams during his six seasons in the NFL.
Phillip Adams played for six teams during his six seasons in the NFL.

Jackson declined to address the Adams’ killings but said, “The solution is we need to have responsible gun owners and gun carriers.

“There are people who are responsible, but when guns get in the hands of irresponsible people or people with mental illness or people who are out to get revenge on something, that’s where the dynamics and direction goes into a negative feel.’’

The direction in Rock Hill and nationally remains unclear.

On the same day Adams fatally shot his victims, the South Carolina House passed a measure that would allow handguns to be openly carried without a permit. It was the second time this year the House has voted to expand gun rights.

Two weeks after the rally against gun violence in Rock Hill, gun show is scheduled to be held there at the American Legion Post 34.

“As far as I know it is,’’ Tom Ayres, the organization’s finance officer, told USA TODAY Sports.

Robert Chipley, the promoter of The Great American Rock Hill Gun Show, said he is not surprised the event will be held, even less than two months after a killing spree — the sixth in America this year, as tracked by The Washington Post.

“I’ve never had a complaint,’’ Chipley said.

In the investigation of the Adams’ killings, authorities have not said how the guns were purchased and who owned them. But detectives found nine guns at the home of Adams’ parents where Adams killed himself, according to records released by the York County Sheriff’s Office.

Patrick Wisher, owner of the Sportsman Inc gun store and firing range in Rock Hill, said the guns are getting unnecessary blame for the tragedy.

“I mean, he could have walked in the house with a hammer and killed everybody," Wisher said. “And it would have been a lot more brutal that way.''

Adams’ father, Alonzo, said guns are part of the family’s culture.

By the time he was 13, Alonzo Adams said, he was using a gun to help his family hunt for food. He said he continued to use guns when he joined the Army in 1974 and was part of an artillery unit during his four years of duty, spent primarily on border patrol in Germany.

Phillip Adams was the youngest of three siblings, and Alonzo Adams said he brought a shotgun when he took them fishing to a nearby pond to kill the water moccasins.

“But I did not teach my children to shoot guns,’’ he said. “I didn’t think it was right.’’

As an adult, Phillip Adams began collecting guns and using them, according to his father, who said he occasionally went to a shooting range with his son.

Adams was arrested in 2016 in North Carolina and charged with carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor. He vacated an apartment there before he returned to his parents’ home in recent weeks, and detectives found firearms and a gun safe left behind at the residence, according to the search warrant.

Over the past two years, Adams’ behavior shifted dramatically, said his sister, Lauren Adams.

“His mental health degraded fast and terribly bad,’’ Lauren Adams told USA TODAY Sports of Phillip Adams, a cornerback who played in the NFL between 2010 and 2015. “There was unusual behavior. I’m not going to get into all that (symptoms). We definitely did notice signs of mental illness that was extremely concerning, that was not like we had ever seen. …

"He wasn't a monster. He was struggling with his mental health.’’

The rally against gun violence in Rock Hill will focus in part on the mental health aspect in recent shootings in the city, said Dr. Norma Gray, president of the NAACP chapter in Rock Hill. Gray said the Adams’ shootings and two others in Rock Hill this year “clearly were incidents where individuals should have been red-flagged and were dealing with mental illness.’’

Wisher, the gun store owner in Rock Hill, said families must accept some responsibility for keeping guns out of the hands of relatives with mental health problems — especially if the mental health issues are not readily visible.

“They just may need to say, ‘You need to go talk to somebody,’ ” Wisher said. “But that’s a slippery slope.

“Don’t take this the wrong way when I say this, but who are you to say who can and who can’t have any (guns)? Because somebody may not like somebody and say, ‘You know what, I don’t think you should own a gun. You’re crazy.’ And they’ll come take away your guns.”

'We've got a long way to go'

When Adams was buried at Grandview Memorial Park-Hollis Lakes April 16, the customary, temporary name marker was not left by his grave site.

“We were concerned about someone vandalizing the grave," said Ramseur of the Robinson Funeral Home.

Gray, president of the NAACP chapter in Rock Hill, said It’s impossible to ignore the racial element of the killings. She said they have “touched upon the sensitive nature of race relations in Rock Hill."

The unmarked grave site of Phillip Adams.
The unmarked grave site of Phillip Adams.

Sixty years ago, the city drew national attention for two racist incidents.

The first took place in January 1961, when nine Black college students were arrested and sentenced to hard labor for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter. Later that year, civil rights icon John Lewis was beaten bloody at a Greyhound Bus Stop.

Adams’ parents said their son was not racist and the family has lived in an integrated pocket of the city. In recent years, Rock Hill has adopted the motto “No Room for Racism.’’

Will the killings test the character of Rock Hill?

“We’ve got a long way to go in our community in a lot of different ways,’’ Mayor John Gettys told USA TODAY Sports. “This tragedy is still new, still fresh, so we’re going to continue to take it day by day and mourn the losses and hug on each other and love on each other as best we can.’’

C.T. Kirk, a well-known Black pastor in Rock Hill, said he initially was asked to lead the prayer during a vigil for the victims, including Dr. Robert Lesslie, his wife and their two young grandchildren. But before the event, Kirk said, a representative for the Lesslie family told him he no longer would be needed at the event.

Beth Langley, an organizer for the event, did not respond to a request for comment.

The ministers from West End Baptist Church, where the Lesslies attended, were used instead of Kirk during an event that drew about 1,500 people and included no Black clergy.

“Even though we sang great Christian songs and we sang about Jesus, I still felt a very much divided community in that moment,’’ Gray said. “If we don’t dialogue and talk about it, we’ll never be able to fix it.’’

'It's such a quagmire'

Two weeks before the killings, Lauren Adams said, Phillip Adams indicated he had applied with the NFL for disability benefits.

“And towards the end he felt like they were trying to basically stiff him on money,’’ she said. “He felt like they were just trying to nickel and dime him. I think he got upset about that and that’s kind of where it started, with him kind of feeling like the whole world was against him.’’

Paul Scott, who worked for the NFL benefit plan for 13 years and now helps former players apply for benefits, said he’s seen the frustration. He said the process can require players to travel out of state to see doctors and the benefit rules change often.

“It’s such a quagmire," he said.

In 2017, Scott said, he communicated with Adams five or six times in an attempt to help him get benefits. Scott said Adams told him that he was having trouble obtaining medical records from some of the six teams he played for during his six-year career.

Scott said he doesn't know if Adams ever applied for benefits but thinks Adams sought line-of-duty benefits, awarded for orthopedic issues and worth about $54,000 a year.

There also are neurocognitive benefits, worth approximately $36,000 to $60,000 a year, and total and permanent disability benefits worth approximately $60,000 to $265,000. Scott estimated that only 20% of former players are approved for disability benefits.

A copy of Adams’ disability benefits file will show if he ever applied and, if he did, what the status was, according to Scott. Adams’ father said he requested a copy of the file April 20 from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and was told it would take two weeks to produce.

The NFLPA did not respond to requests for comment.

Adams’ family said he was experiencing psychiatric distress they think was linked to head trauma resulting from football. Adams’ brain will be tested for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is believed to cause mood swings and changes in temperament.

Scott said there are hundreds of players in similar situations, struggling without benefits.

“I’m not trying to sensationalize anything, but there are a lot of guys out there,’’ he said. “Some may have better support systems, some are probably in jail. It’s hard to say."

It would be impossible for the disability office, as it's structured now, to reach players who are in need of help rather than waiting for those players to ask for help, according to Scott.

“They don't have the staff to do it,’’ he said. “The people that they dedicate to the benefits are spread very thin. They’re not focused on assisting the players from start to finish.’’

Adams’ mother said she wants the public to know about that, along with the danger of concussions.

“It should no longer be swept under the rug,’’ Phyllis Adams said. “They say the truth will set you free. I’ll free fine when the truth comes out."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Answers sought on guns, race, NFL following Phillip Adams shooting