There's no hiding from the words of Phillip Adams' father: 'I think the football messed him up'

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·5-min read

Alonzo Adams sat in the driver's seat of his vehicle, a local news camera in his face. He was trying to make some kind of sense of it all, trying to explain his son and his actions. He looked exhausted, emotional, overwhelmed — some kind of nightmarish combination of parental grief and regret.

His son, Phillip, a former journeyman NFL player, had killed five people the night before, including two children, before taking his own life.

This was horrific. This was hell coming to Rock Hill, the small South Carolina city just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I can say he was a good kid,” Alonzo told WCNC in Charlotte. “I think the football messed him up.”

There is no telling if football messed up Phillip Adams. Something did, of course.

A York County sheriff's deputy is parked outside a residence where multiple people, including a prominent doctor, were fatally shot a day earlier, Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Rock Hill, S.C. A source briefed on the mass killing said the gunman was former NFL player Phillip Adams, who shot himself to death early Thursday. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
A York County sheriff's deputy is parked outside a residence on Thursday where multiple people, including a prominent doctor, were fatally shot a day earlier in Rock Hill, South Carolina. A source briefed on the mass killing said the gunman was former NFL player Phillip Adams, who shot himself to death early Thursday. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

This wasn’t just a crime. This wasn’t just a murder, as if that should ever be normalized. 

Police said Adams drove to the home of Dr. Robert Lesslie, who reportedly had treated him as a patient. Adams was armed with two handguns – a 9-millimeter and a .45 caliber – according to York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson.

There, police said Adams shot and killed Lesslie, 70, his wife Barbara, 69, and two of their grandchildren — Adah, 9, and Noah, 5. Also killed was 39-year-old James Lewis, an air conditioning technician working at the house. Lewis’ coworker, Robert Shook, was shot and is hospitalized.

As many as 20 rounds may have been fired.

Adams then drove to his parents' house. Police found him there and were able to safely remove family members before Phillip Adams shot and killed himself. He was 32.

“We don’t know why this happened yet,” Tolson said Thursday.

This was barbaric, inexplicable, the worst of the worst. His father had no definitive answers, either. Maybe no answers will ever be known, if they can even be known.

What possesses someone to shoot and kill a 5-year-old?

All his dad could offer was a theory with no follow-up: I think the football messed him up.

That was Alonzo Adams' initial thoughts, with that news crew asking questions. Is this a father grasping for something or is it the honest opinion of a man who may have known a killer best? He spoke with a reflective tone, a regretful tone, a redemptive tone. This wasn’t excuse-making. He wanted people to pray for the victims.

It isn’t fair to reflexively blame football, but would be just as wrong not to listen and wonder, to investigate and examine, to redouble efforts at trying to guard against this kind of thing.

It is a violent game. It can be a wonderful game, an important game, but rare is the player who emerges unscathed. Adams suffered a gruesome leg injury, a serious groin injury and multiple concussions. And that’s what we know as of now. Some players can move on from that and far worse. Others can’t.

Adams hadn't played in the NFL since 2015, but the impact of the sport lingers. It also can worsen. He was never a famous player. He was a grinder. He played small-college ball at South Carolina State, slowly developing into an all-conference defensive back.

San Francisco selected him in the seventh and final round of the 2010 draft. He played 15 games for the 49ers before that vicious leg injury ended his season. From then it was five teams in five years: New England, Seattle, Oakland, the New York Jets and finally Atlanta. He played special teams and provided secondary help. He had five career interceptions. He once recovered a fumble and returned it 26 yards. He made 128 career tackles, 108 of them solo.

He was one of those guys who churns through the league, an edge-of-the-roster, always-at-risk-of-being-cut guy. There was no generational wealth. No long-term contracts. No gold jackets at the end. Few fans can recall his career, if they even ever knew he was there.

The hits are the same, though. The physical toll. The mental one. The injuries.

Who knows?

“He didn’t talk much and he didn’t bother nobody,” Alonzo Adams said.

Until he became a mass murderer, a child killer, a sweeping force of evil.

Details remain scarce. Phillip knew Lesslie, a prominent local physician. The Charlotte Observer reported Lesslie was a heralded emergency room doctor. Alonzo knew him too. They lived near each other. Probably a lot of people did in a city of about 68,000.

Lesslie "used to be my doctor,” Alonzo said. “I know they were good folks down there. I don’t know what happened down there.”

No one does. About the only good that can come of this is if everyone tries to find out. Law enforcement, of course, but the NFL as well. It does no one any good to dismiss the concerns of the father, or to protectively brush off any suggestion that head trauma or debilitating pain from the sport may have played a part.

Maybe it didn’t. Maybe there is another explanation. If there isn’t, if Adams' brain can be examined and any lasting injuries can be discovered, then it helps everyone continue to view post-career issues through a prism of more than simple pain or basic treatment. Doing so doesn’t condemn the game, it protects it and its players. Everyone, really.

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