A Foundering Football Star Killed a Family. No One Knows Why.

FILE - In this Dec. 26, 2010 file photo, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Phillip Adams (35) is attended to after injuring his left leg during the third quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams, in St. Louis. A source briefed on a mass killing in South Carolina says the gunman who killed multiple people, including a prominent doctor, was the former NFL pro. The source said that Adams shot himself to death early Thursday, April 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam, File)
Jonathan Abrams, Ken Belson and John Jeter
·9 min read

He struggled to find work. His last-ditch chance to make an NFL team fizzled. He had a child to support and little apparent direction in a life freighted with high expectations. His behavior was increasingly erratic. Then Wednesday, for reasons no one yet knows for sure, Phillip Adams, a former NFL cornerback, went to the Rock Hill, South Carolina, home of a prominent doctor and shot everybody he saw before fatally turning the gun on himself.

Now, the football-loving community of 65,000 that bills itself as Football City USA is struggling to contend with Adams’ suddenly violent turn and its aftermath.

Before he killed five people, including two children, and critically wounded a sixth person, Adams, 32, who shot and killed himself several hours after his rampage, had seemed adrift since he last played NFL football almost six years ago, friends and associates said. He remained close to home, caring for his mother, Phyllis, a former high school teacher who became a paraplegic after a car accident a decade ago.

Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times

But for all the pressures on Adams — and family members are openly questioning whether football damaged his brain — the many people who rooted for him throughout his career are grappling with the loss of Dr. Robert Lesslie and his family at the hands of a local son.

“He was the role model that all coaches hoped they could coach,” said Jim Montgomery, who coached Adams in football at Rock Hill High School, the alma mater of numerous NFL players. Montgomery said he had spent most of Thursday answering phone calls through tears.

Authorities said that Adams had fatally shot Lesslie; his wife, Barbara; and two of their grandchildren, Adah Lesslie, 9, and Noah Lesslie, 5. James Lewis, 38, had been working on their home when he was killed, and a sixth victim, Robert Shook, is in critical condition.

Police have yet to explain why Adams, who was described by friends as “chill” and almost reclusive, singled out the doctor or whether the two men had any relationship.

But Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., told Charlotte’s WBTV Thursday that he had learned from law enforcement officials that Robert Lesslie had seen Adams as a patient. Sheriff officials would not confirm the relationship.

“He was treating him and stopped giving him medicine, and that’s what triggered the killings from what I understand,” said Norman, whose district encompasses Rock Hill.

Members of the Adams family have their own theories. They wonder whether football may have damaged his brain in the same way that has led other players to turn violent and, in a few cases, take their own lives.

On Thursday, Alonzo Adams, Phillip's father, told WCNC, a Charlotte television station, “I think the football messed him up.” His sister, Lauren Adams, told USA Today that he had recently become uncharacteristically aggressive.

“His mental health degraded fast and terribly bad,” she said. “There was unusual behavior.”

Adams’ brain will be studied to determine whether he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated hits to the head, according to Sabrina Gast, the coroner in York County. It can take months to receive a diagnosis for the disease, which has been linked to mood disorders, memory problems, impulsive behavior and other issues, and has been found in hundreds of former football players.

Former coaches, colleagues, neighbors and associates who knew Adams described him in interviews as a hardworking athlete who never advanced beyond journeyman status in the NFL but who remained a quiet, helpful presence in town.

“In 43 years, if you would’ve told me that this would have happened with Phillip Adams, I would’ve put him in the last five of the thousands of kids I coached,” Montgomery said Thursday. “It’s just a sad day.”

Duane Belue, a longtime friend and neighbor of the Adams family, said Phillip Adams was close to his mother. Although Adams had bought a new truck, he did not appear to overspend, and he stayed with his parents for extended periods. Within the last year, the Belues said, they noticed that Adams’ behavior had changed. He was less approachable and would pace outside aimlessly.

“We noticed in the yard, he was out walking, kind of sad,” Anne Belue said. “You can’t judge somebody that far away, but he was always real friendly before then.”

A star player in high school and in college at South Carolina State, Adams was picked by the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL draft. He sustained a severe ankle injury his rookie season that may have derailed his career.

“The bone went through the skin,” said Scott Casterline, Adams’ former agent. “Luckily, he had a good surgeon who helped him. But when a team sees a devastating injury like that, they move on.”

After the 49ers released him, Adams bounced around the league with stops in New England, Seattle, Oakland (where he sustained two concussions), the New York Jets and Atlanta.

He had one more shot at landing a roster spot, according to Casterline. During training camp in 2016, the Colts called and asked Adams to get to Indianapolis to participate in practice the following day. Casterline urged his client to jump on the next flight, but Adams — who was always gung-ho for football — was suddenly hesitant.

“He made it to the Charlotte airport, but the flight had left already,” Casterline said. “I could tell his head was not in it. He’d given up on it.”

Casterline described Adams as a loner, not one to go to clubs or drink alcohol. He also hinted at financial troubles. Adams earned $3.6 million during his career and, at one point, wanted to invest in a smoothie shop. Casterline, who said he thought of Adams as a son, told his client it was a mistake because many retail businesses fail.

Last fall, Adams called his former agent and asked for help finding employment. Casterline said he had tried to persuade him to relocate to Dallas and work at one of his companies.

“I said to just come out here to Texas,” Casterline said. “He just wouldn’t do it. He had a son. He was a good father and it was difficult with the baby’s mother.”

On Wednesday, the day of the shootings, Adams’ father, Alonzo Adams, called Casterline and said he wanted to talk about his son. Casterline did not find the message unusual. Occasionally, Adams’ parents called if they were unable to find Phillip.

“I called Alonzo back and left a message, not realizing it had already happened,” Casterline said.

In a news conference Thursday, York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson said evidence recovered from the home of the Lesslies had led them to suspect Adams of the killings. Authorities said they had evacuated the Adamses’ home and tried to persuade Phillip Adams to surrender. They found him inside, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot.

It is often difficult to assign a motive to cases where a gunman has not left a note or spoken specifically of his or her intent, even more so in cases that end with the gunman’s death.

But some of Adams’ friends said he had never gotten over how his NFL career ended. Rather than catching on with one team and landing a big contract worth tens of millions of dollars, he bounced from team to team, often playing for the league minimum salary. The calls for his services stopped coming, a common fate in the NFL, because colleges produce dozens of cheaper, healthier replacement players every year.

The disappointment of washing out was particularly acute for Adams, friends said, because he came from Rock Hill, which has given rise to so many NFL players.

To Adams, even a six-year career — twice as long as the average — may have been a letdown when compared to those of other local players like Jadeveon Clowney, who was picked first overall in the 2014 draft and is a three-time Pro Bowl selection; tight end Benjamin Watson, who played 13 seasons with the Patriots, New Orleans Saints and other teams; and Stephon Gilmore, a defensive leader on the Patriots.

“We have a saying around here: You could pay $6 on Friday night or you can wait a few years and pay $600 to see the kids around here play,” said Gene Knight, a broadcaster who has covered the city’s sports for decades.

Charcandrick West, who played with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2014 to 2018 and shared an agent with Adams, said he and Adams had worked out together during a couple of offseasons. West said Adams was reserved and proud of his Rock Hill roots.

“I never saw him get mad at anyone,” West said. “He was all about his business, washing and folding his clothes, real neat.”

West added: “I feel like every athlete tries to keep high expectations. When you’re from Rock Hill, such a great football town, he didn’t want to be known as the guy who bounced around.”

Casterline, who has worked as an NFL agent for decades, also said Adams had trouble grasping why he didn’t catch on with a team.

“Sometimes, these decisions are political,” Casterline said of teams’ cutting players. “Someone who’s drafted in the first round is going to get the most opportunities. That weighed on him a lot. The Patriots cut him three times in one season. They needed him, they didn’t, they’d cut him and re-sign him. It’s good for the paycheck but not for the psyche.”

Knight, the local sports broadcaster, remembered Adams as “a fierce competitor on the field, but he was a gentleman off the field all the times I encountered him.”

Knight had also been treated once by Robert Lesslie, a popular and well-known physician in Rock Hill, when he struggled with food poisoning. He said Lesslie had worked on him at 2 a.m., easing his symptoms with intravenous therapy.

“It’s not two people whose paths I thought would cross in this manner,” he said. “And I think that’s what a lot of people are wrestling with in the whole craziness of this situation.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2021 The New York Times Company