Former NFL Player Kills 5 People In South Carolina And Brain Damage Is A Possible Factor

We need to talk about CTE, again.

San Francisco 49ers logo Jeff Bukowski / Shutterstock

On Wednesday, April 7, a gunman killed five people in Rock Hill South Carolina. The victims included a prominent doctor as well as two children ages nine and five. The suspect was later identified as former NFL player Phillip Adams.

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Adams was found Thursday morning in his home where he took his own life with a .45-caliber handgun. Aside from the five victims, another victim is in the hospital with serious gunshot wounds.


Although Adams’s motivations are unclear, many took to social media to link his participation in football, and likely brain damage such as CTE, with the acts he committed.

Adams joins a sad list of former NFL athletes who have died by suicide after retiring from the sport, many of whom were diagnosed with CTE via autopsy.

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Who was Phillip Adams and why did he commit murder?

The 33-year-old joined the NFL in 2010 as a seventh-round pick for the San Francisco 49ers. Across his 5-year career, he played 78 games for New England, Seattle, Oakland, the New York Jets and the Atlanta Falcons. 2015 was his last season.

Throughout his career, he faced a handful of injuries. His first being a severe ankle injury in 2010. In the following year, he suffered two concussions within three games.

Along with the continued "micro concussions", which one study defines as, “impacts to the skull, including those that do not produce acute concussion but nevertheless result in clinical signs and symptoms", these head injuries may have contributed to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, known as CTE, which can only be diagnosed via autopsy, after a patient has died. 

Adams’s father, Alonzo, told a Charlotte television station that he blames the sport of football for the problems his son may have had and for his actions.


“I can say he’s a good kid — he was a good kid, and I think the football messed him up,” Adams said. “He didn’t talk much and he didn’t bother nobody.”

Friends, family and former teammates of Adams are in disbelief, and they too say that such acts were shocking and unbefitting of his character. 

His agent, Scott Casterline, said he loved Adams and saw him as family.

“All of us who knew Phillip are shaking our heads. He struggled away from the game. I tried to get him to come to Texas. I was going to find him a job, but he wouldn’t leave South Carolina because he had a son. He was a good father,” his agent said. “Seeing Phillip shoot two kids, it’s not him. I can’t fathom it. It’s devastating for the victims and the families.”


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CTE and the head injuries that may lead football players to commit murder and die by suicide

Adams is now linked to other players like Aaron Hernandez and Jovan Belcher who committed murder while living with CTE, as well as former NFL players who did not harm anyone else, like Justin Strzelczyk and Junior Seau who died by suicide. Following postmortem investigations, all four of these men were found to have CTE. 


The disease was not widely recognized before the mid-2000s, but football players long suspected something was happening to their brains.

In fact, when Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson died by suicide in 2011, he chose a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest and sent a text to a family member that read, "Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank."

CTE is a progressive and fatal brain disease associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), including concussions and repeated blows to the head. It causes degeneration of brain tissue, leading to gaps and holes in patients' brains that cause symptoms including depression, anxiety, aggression, loss of memory, suicidal thoughts and ideation, unstable mood, impulsive behavior and substance abuse. 

Not every football player will get CTE, and the exact reason why some players will develop it while others do not is unknown, but Dr. Bennet Omalu, the physican who discovered CTE in the noteworthy case of former NFL star "Iron Mike" Webster and the subject of the Will Smith feature film Concussion, insists that CTE isn't the only disease that may cause brain damage to football players.


In an interview, Dr. Omalu told ESPN:

"CTE is just one disease in a spectrum of many diseases caused by brain trauma. If he doesn't have CTE, that doesn't mean he doesn't have brain damage. ... I've always said that every child who plays football has a 100 percent risk of exposure to brain damage. And I've always said that at a professional level, 100 percent would have brain damage of some kind to some degree. That's whether or not their brains are found to have CTE."

One study found that 99% of former NFL players who showed signs and symptoms of CTE were confirmed to have had the disease in postmortem analysis. 

Many football players have been found to have this brain disease and some of them, including Aaron Hernandez, have committed unimaginable crimes due to the brain damage they have endured over their careers in the NFL.


Although it is too early to tell if Adams had CTE, it's a likely conclusion, considering the shock from his family.

Adams committed suicide following a standoff with York County Sheriffs outside of his home.

Allison Hope, a neighbor to Adams, said the police standoff lasted hours as authorities attempted to negotiate with the former NFL athlete.


“This is something I can’t grasp yet. I can’t put it all together and I’m trying to, and I witnessed it,” Hope said. “I feel bad for him because if it was mental or something going on in his life or whatever, you know, he needed help, and that’s the sad part.”

Who were the victims of the tragic shooting?

The victims included Dr. Robert Lesslie, 70, and his wife, Barbara, 69, along with their grandchildren Adah Lesslie, 9, and Noah Lesslie, 5, as well as a man working on the home at the time, James Lewis, 38, according to the York County coroner’s office.


Another person was shot and taken to the hospital with “serious gunshot wounds,” said Trent Faris, a spokesperson for the York County Sheriff's office.

The tragic shooting, which is being labeled as a “mass shooting,” is one more episode in the conversation about CTE. Hopefully, the families of the victims find peace in their loss.

If you're thinking about suicide, or are worried about a friend or loved one, visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or call the hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Tomás Diniz Santos is a writer living in Orlando, Florida. He covers news, entertainment, and pop-culture topics.