Phillip Adams' family wants to know if football caused the ex-NFL player to kill six people

Josh Peter, USA TODAY
·8 min read

ROCK HILL, S.C. – They continue to search for clues.

Not just law enforcement officers investigating the tragedy that rocked this city April 7, but also people who knew Phillip Adams best.

They want to know how a 32-year-old former NFL player once known for his mild-mannered behavior off the field shot to death six people – including two young children – before killing himself with a gunshot wound. And they want to know if football played a role in yet another mass killing, the sixth in America this year, as tracked by The Washington Post.

Ashley Clemons, Adams' former girlfriend and the mother of his son, 7-year-old Phillip Adams Jr., said Adams exhibited previously unseen anger after his six-year NFL career ended in 2016. She also said Adams, who played cornerback, was especially upset when he learned Clemons had signed up their son, then 5, for flag football.

Phillip Adams with his son, Phillip Adams Jr.
Phillip Adams with his son, Phillip Adams Jr.

“He never explained his concerns or his reasons to me,” Clemons told USA TODAY Sports last week. “But he was very, very angry. He just shut down. It was kind of like if I told him, ‘Hey, this is the schedule for the season,’ it automatically triggered him to go to a dark place.

“I knew he was battling something. I just didn’t know how deep it was or what the issue was. But I knew he wasn’t the person I fell in love with seven years ago or the person in 2014 who was so excited when his son was born.”

Adams’ parents said they think he was suffering from brain trauma resulting from football. While playing for the Oakland Raiders in 2012, Adams had two concussions during a three-game period.

His brain will be tested for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is believed to cause mood swings and changes in temperament. Two weeks before his death, Adams expressed frustration about attempts to get disability benefits from the NFL, according to his sister, Lauren.

“I know he had been applying for disability and he said they were making it hard for him,” Lauren Adams told USA TODAY Sports the day after the shooting. “And towards the end he felt like they were trying to basically stiff him on money.

“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.”

Adams’ father told USA TODAY that on Tuesday he requested from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) a copy of his son’s disability benefits file in hopes of determining if Adams had applied for benefits and whether he faced any obstacles in getting help.

The NFLPA said it will take two weeks to get a copy of the file, Alonzo Adams said.

On Friday, the York County Sheriff's office released documents showing they're investigating whether Adams may have been following a new religion or ideology before the killings. Investigators also have sought medical records for Adams and his parents at Riverview Family Medicine and Urgent Care, founded by Dr. Robert Lesslie, who was among the six victims.

Harsh realities of the NFL

Although the reasons remain unclear, there was a marked change in Phillip Adams’ behavior and how he felt about football, according to friends and family members. Clemons recalled the 2010 NFL draft, when Adams was a cornerback at South Carolina State and picked in the seventh round by the San Francisco 49ers.

“You would’ve thought it was first round,” said Clemons, who met Adams in 2009 when they were attending South Carolina State. “He was very, very excited.”

But Adams was about to encounter the harsh realities of the NFL.

Over the next six years, Adams played for six teams – the 49ers, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Raiders, New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons.

He was cut by each team.

“He worked harder than anybody I ever had,” said Scott Casterline, Adams’ former agent who has represented more than 150 players. “When he would get released, it was chipping away at him.”

At least once, Casterline said, Adams was the victim of politics – released because he was associated with executives or coaches who had lost power.

“He didn’t understand all that,” the agent said. “He was like, ‘Why? I’m better than this guy,’ or ‘I can help the team. Why are they releasing me?’ That was hard on him.”

After playing for the Falcons in 2015, Adams remained in Atlanta during the offseason in hopes of improving his chances of re-signing with the team.

“He was over-training, going three times a day,” Casterline said. “We were trying to pull him back because you can wear yourself out.”

Despite all of the work, the Falcons released Adams.

“It hurt him,” Casterline said. “I remember telling him, ‘Phillip, if you want to play, you’ve got to stay ready.’ ”

Not too long after, the opportunity came, according to Casterline.

The Indianapolis Colts wanted to sign Adams, but he needed to be on a 6 p.m. flight out of Charlotte, North Carolina, and was uncharacteristically hard to reach, according to Casterline. He said he reached out to Adams’ father, who in turn dispatched his daughter to search for Adams.

She said she found him helping out with the football team at Rock Hill High School.

“I went on the field and told him everybody was looking for him,” Lauren Adams said. “He just said, ‘I’m not going.’ He didn’t want to talk about it. Had my Dad on the phone and tried to talk to him, but there was nothing anybody could say at that point.

“I don’t remember him ever going to the airport, but I left. He was adamant about the fact that he wasn’t going.”

Said Casterline, “That wasn’t Phillip. He would’ve been running to the car to get to the airport.”

For the next three years, he had no full-time job, family members said. He had earned an estimated $3.6 million during his NFL career, according to Spotrac.com.

“He really didn’t want anything to do with football,” Lauren Adams said. “He didn’t watch it. If we were watching it, he would leave the room or ask us to turn it off.”

In 2019, he opened a small market in Rock Hill called Fresh Life, where he sold smoothies and fresh produce. He’d bought a tractor and on family farmland tried to grow fruit and vegetables to be used in the smoothies, said Alonzo Adams.

Phillip Adams outside of his smoothie shop.
Phillip Adams outside of his smoothie shop.

The store caught the interest of C.T. Kirk, a pastor in Rock Hill.

“He was very quiet and just talked about ideas he had for the community,” Kirk said. “He spoke about creating a radio show that empowered people.”

But Phillip Adams struggled with the farming and had trouble keeping the market stocked with fresh produce, his father said.

The store closed in 2019.

Casterline said Adams later expressed interest in the NFL’s coaching internship program. But he said he’s unsure if Adams followed up with the NFL.

“Phillip didn’t follow up on a lot of stuff like that,” Casterline said.

That’s one reason the Adams family is seeking to confirm through the NFLPA that he submitted paperwork for disability benefits.

A view of the home where Phillip Adams lived with his parents and where he killed himself after fatally shooting six people.
A view of the home where Phillip Adams lived with his parents and where he killed himself after fatally shooting six people.

Withdrawing from family life

Over the past two years, Casterline said, Adams periodically called looking for work. Casterline said he offered him jobs out of state but Adams said he had to stay in South Carolina to be close to his son.

But during that same time, Adams withdrew from his son, according to Clemons. She said they communicated mostly through FaceTime and text messages.

“He was still hurting, whatever he was going through,” Clemons said. “It showed because he went from being a great father, hands on, getting him every other weekend, to whatever he was going through.”

Lauren Adams said family members also had trouble getting in contact with her brother, who was living in nearby Fort Mill.

“We wouldn’t hear from him for months,” Lauren Adams. “It was totally unlike him. He’s always been a family person.”

Weeks before his death, Phillip Adams moved in with his parents. He was living in his old bedroom that is now heavily damaged, Alonzo Adams said.

On April 7, law enforcement officers surrounded the family’s one-story, brick house. Phillip Adams was locked in his bedroom after authorities found the shooting victims in a home less than a mile from the Adams’ house.

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Before law enforcement officers entered the Adams’ house, a robot was sent in to scan the premises. Last week Alonzo Adams was making arrangements to repair the damage.

“The bed was broken, the door was tore down, the closet door was broken, knocked a hole in the wall,” he said.

During the cleanup, Phillip Adams’ state championship high school ring was recovered, his father said. The ring was one of the few things his son wanted from his football career, according to Alonzo Adams.

On the day Phillip Adams was buried last week, his 7-year-old son chased his cousins among a gathering of mourners. Phillip Adams Jr.’s mother watched from afar.

“His father is no longer here, and as he gets older he’s going to find out reasons, he’s going to find out details,” she said. “I want to instill in my son, no matter what anybody else says, no matter what you read when you get older, your Dad loved you and he was here for you.”

And on how a once-doting father could become a killer and the role football might have played in the tragedy, Alonzo Adams said, “All we can do is speculate and guess.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mass shooting: Why did ex-NFL player Phillip Adams kill six people?