In his memorial service for the Lesslies last week, Rev. Dr. J. Barry Dagenhart said it is important to remember these things as we grieve, because by grieving this way, we make hope a living thing. And, Dagenhart told the audience, hope will be particularly important as we wrestle, in the months and years to come, with the question of why such a terrible thing happened to them, even though it ultimately won’t change the reality of the tragedy.
On April 7, a former NFL football player, Phillip Adams, emerged from the woods behind the Lesslies’ property in Rock Hill with two handguns — a .45-caliber and 9 mm — and opened fire. He shot and killed Robert, 70, Barbara, 69, Adah, 9, and Noah, 5. He also shot and killed two air conditioning repairmen, James Lewis and Robert Shook, both 38, working at the house before Adams fled to another location, where police said Adams shot and killed himself after a standoff. He was 32.
No known motive exists, and the connection between Adams and the Lesslies, if even one existed prior to April 7, remains unknown as well. The police report was expected to shed new light on what happened and why, but added few details when it was released last Friday. A community in which the Lesslies were beloved for their generosity, their charity and their connection to their church, remains shaken. Lesslie was the director of the emergency department at Piedmont Medical Center, Rock Hill’s general hospital, for nearly 15 years, and had founded two urgent care clinics. During his time there, he’d treated many people in Rock Hill, including Adams’ own father.
“They were such peaceful, good people,” said Ralph Norman, a congressman who represents Rock Hill. “[Robert] treated everybody in town at some point. … His wife and my wife were in a singing trio that went over and sang at different functions, and we went skiing and were in the same church for a long time. They were some of our best friends. This is just horrific, unbelievable.”
Adams’ friends and family are also grieving, wrestling with memories of the person they thought they knew, and a reality of the monstrous acts he committed. “I just can’t fathom it,” said Kevin Smith, a three-time Super Bowl-winning cornerback with the Cowboys who was a mentor and friend to Adams during his career. “I don’t know what the situation was, but I just can’t imagine him shooting kids.”
In the absence of answers, people who knew Adams can’t help but contemplate the inevitable question: Was he suffering from some form of psychological illness, perhaps set in motion by collisions and concussions during his football career? His father, Alonzo, gave a brief interview to Charlotte television WCNC-TV after the shooting, indicating as much: “I can say he’s a good kid — he was a good kid, and I think the football messed him up.”
The family has made few public statements since but agreed as part of the autopsy that his brain be sent to Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center for further study. Adams’ sister, Lauren, declined to comment to ESPN until the CTE results are back from BU. “Right now, we’re just trying to grieve and wrap our heads around everything,” she said.
Even that effort likely won’t provide definitive answers. In the last research from BU’s CTE Center, researchers found CTE in the brains of 223 of 266 amateur and pro football players that they studied. But there has never been a link established between CTE and violence.
This much is known about Adams, though: The local standout had always been a quiet introvert who could be hard to track down. Once his football career was over in 2015, he’d done some volunteer coaching at a nearby high school in recent years, and tried starting up a health food shop with a friend. But in the past year to 18 months, family members had a harder and harder time finding and connecting with him.
Adams’ longtime agent, Scott Casterline, said he can’t help but feel a little haunted by a missed call the morning of the shooting, wondering if he could have done something that would have prevented the situation. There is a mixture of guilt and sadness in his voice when he talks. “Phillip’s dad had called me and it went straight to voicemail,” Casterline said. “I didn’t realize it. I guess it was right before all this happened. His tone was normal. It was like ‘Hey Scott, this Alonzo, I’m just trying to touch base with you to talk a little bit about Phillip.’ And it wasn’t alarming or like, ‘Hey man, Phillip is in trouble.’ It was normal, because Phillip was a loner. Even when he played, he was really private. He was hard to reach unless he wanted to talk to his parents, to me, to everybody.”
ADAMS’ PATH to the NFL was, for years, seen as one small part of a football pipeline coming out of Rock Hill, a sleepy, bedroom community 25 miles south of Charlotte that manages to produce an inordinate number of talented football players. Jadeveon Clowney, Stephon Gilmore and Cordarrelle Patterson are among those the city has sent to the NFL in recent years, inspiring one local sports editor to dub the 75,000-population town “Football City, USA,” a moniker that stuck.
Adams wasn’t a star on the level of Clowney, but he was well-known for his athletic prowess. He won a state championship in football and in basketball at Rock Hill High School, and earned a scholarship to South Carolina State. His classmates nicknamed him “Fresh” because he was always so sharply dressed and well-groomed. “His whole family is actually very naturally gifted athletically,” said Lawrence “Snoop” Brown, one of Adams’ high school teammates. “His brother was an all-ACC wrestler. His sister played volleyball and basketball. And Phillip was no different. Always a very good athlete. From the get-go, he has always been super talented.”
Casterline says Adams talked sparingly about his childhood in Rock Hill, but when he did, he usually described it as a happy time in his life. His father, Alonzo, worked as a commercial truck driver who typically limited his work to local routes so he wouldn’t have to spend nights away from his family. Sometimes Phillip, the youngest of three kids, would accompany him on trips. His mother, Phyllis, worked for many years as an educator in the Rock Hill school system until 2009, when she was involved in a serious car accident that left her paralyzed. A community fundraiser brought in more than $15,000 for her after the accident.
Adams was in college at the time, and said it was only after he and his mother prayed together in the hospital that he decided to continue playing football. She was to be part of his motivation to make it to the NFL. “This just makes you appreciate the people in your life,” Adams told a reporter in 2010, discussing his mother’s accident. “It makes you … not worry about material things. It brings you closer to God. That is what it did for me. It helped me out in that aspect. It made me work harder. It can either change you for the worst or the best. Because of my family and the strength that I have, it changed me for the best.”
Adams was a standout cornerback and punt returner at South Carolina State, tying for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference lead in interceptions as a junior and earning first-team all-conference honors as a senior in 2009. But an NFL career was no sure thing. No South Carolina State player had been drafted in a decade. A friend put Adams in touch with Casterline prior to the NFL Draft, and the two clicked in a brief conversation over the phone. Adams moved to Dallas to train, hoping to improve his draft stock, primarily by working with Smith, who was a key member of the Dallas dynasty. “He was just a young, quiet kid, and he wanted all the information,” Smith said. “I used to get on him a little bit. He overworked. It was information overload. He studied it, he dreamed it. It was a long shot coming from South Carolina State, but he had the talent. I told him, ‘Man, you got something.'”
It wasn’t long before Adams and Casterline built a bond that went beyond a professional relationship. “Phillip was like a little brother to me,” Casterline said. “Initially, I put him up in a hotel, but then I said, ‘Why don’t you come over to my house?’ I’ve got a big house. He just started staying with me. We’d go eat and train together. We even took jiu-jitsu together because we took a class and it would be me versus him because we were both beginners. We were both very competitive. Over time, we just became really good friends. I wish I could have foreseen the future. … I just can’t imagine him shooting anybody, especially two kids. That’s just not in his nature.”
Adams was drafted by the 49ers in the seventh round of the 2010 draft, but he managed to make the roster because of a relentless work ethic and willingness to play special teams. But late in the year, in a game against the Rams, Adams suffered a compound ankle fracture on the field, an injury that required emergency surgery and screws inserted into his leg, and it turned his football career into a nomadic existence. For the rest of his time in the NFL, he was a fringe roster player, moving from city to city, barely hanging on from one week to the next with little to no job security. Still, Adams did better than most, scratching out a six-year career that paid him upward of $3.6 million.
The Patriots signed him in 2011, but they ultimately cut him three times in the same season. He spent two full seasons with the Raiders, even cracking the starting lineup for four games over two seasons, but that too came to an unceremonious end because of injuries. It was during his time with the Raiders that he suffered two concussions in a short span. “I remember one of them was really bad,” Casterline said.
Adams had one-year stints with the Jets and Falcons, but he could never move up from being considered a fringe NFL guy. “That does a lot to the psyche of a player,” Casterline said. “Every time he’d get released, I’d pick him up and tell him, ‘Hey, we’ll find your place. Your time will come.’ But he kept bouncing around. I know that frustrated him because he was such a competitor. He wanted to win and be great.”
Smith says he’d travel to Atlanta a couple times a year after Adams signed with the Falcons, mostly just to check in with his friend, and would usually stay with Adams for a weekend. What he saw always perplexed him. “All he would want to do is watch film,” Smith said. “That was it. He had film of every NFL receiver he was going to face the next year, and he’d sit there watching that film all day long. I’d tell him, ‘Phillip, you’re overdoing it. You can’t be working out three times a day. You’re going to ruin your body. You have to preserve your body. The longer you’re in the NFL, it’s about preserving your body and recovery.’ But he was one of those guys who was going to push it to the edge. He was all football.”
After Adams’ contract with the Falcons expired in 2015, the fire that burned inside of him to hang on to an NFL career seemed to wane. He moved back to Rock Hill and started volunteering as a coach at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill, SC, telling Casterline he felt like he was important again, that he was making a difference. He told friends he was also trying to be a present father to his young son, even though he and the boy’s mother were no longer involved.
Casterline got a call from the Colts during training camp in 2016, inquiring about Adams’ availability. They wanted to sign him, but they needed an answer immediately. A cornerback had been injured, they liked Adams’ experience and wanted him to fill in, but only if Adams could be on a flight to Indianapolis that night. Casterline couldn’t reach Adams, which wasn’t unusual. Eventually, Adams’ father got in touch with his daughter, and she tracked down her brother at his old high school, putting him on the phone with Casterline. “I said, ‘OK, your sister is going to take you to the airport right now, we’ll send you clothes,'” Casterline said. “And he started hesitating. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. That’s not like Phillip. But I think he had clocked out of the experience of being signed and cut so many times. It wears on a player. He ended up going to the airport after I talked to him, but he got there late and missed the flight. That was it. The Colts moved on. They signed somebody else. I could tell he wasn’t really into it anymore.”
ADAMS’ FRIENDS insist he wasn’t ashamed of the way his NFL career ended, but it also wasn’t a subject he liked discussing. When he decided to open a Rock Hill smoothie shop in 2019, dubbing it “Fresh Life,” he refused to use his past NFL career as part of the marketing. He saw food as medicine, according to Tynetta Moore, a long-time friend who ran the business for Adams. He wanted to provide healthy fruits and vegetables to a predominantly Black part of town that didn’t even have a grocery store.
He had big ideas for the community that didn’t involve football. He talked of starting a podcast about wellness, and a mentorship to teach people a trade, like plumbing. His dream, he told Moore, was to grow his own food eventually. He had visions of her running the store while he spent his days riding a tractor. “He was just wanting to live a very quiet life,” Moore said. “He was not a flashy guy in the first place. If you bring up something about the NFL, he was, ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ It was like that was off limits to him.”
Adams’ ambitions, however, once again clashed with his reality. Moore says business was slow, and foot traffic was nonexistent. The store ended up closing, Moore says, even before COVID-19 arrived and began devastating small businesses. Outwardly, Adams tried to shrug it off, but friends and family started to notice small changes in his demeanor. “I sensed standoffishness, kind of retreating, but nothing that popped in my mind and thought, ‘Oh, he’s depressed.”’ Moore said.
He became harder and harder to get in touch with. He’d always enjoyed being by himself, but it had progressed recently, worrying his family and friends. He’d been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in 2016, but that charge was dismissed. According to published reports, in the days leading up to the shootings, Adams had been convicted of driving under suspension and failure to maintain proper insurance.
“He was just doing weird things,” said Aaron Neely, one of Adams’ cousins. “Like, his mind wasn’t right. He was doing weird stuff. Like riding a four-wheeler in the woods at night with no lights on. That’s dangerous. People would talk to him, he’d look at you and not say nothing. All kinds of weird stuff.”
Casterline says Adams called him in the fall of 2020, asking if he could help him find a job. His agent was eager to help. “I said, ‘You move to Texas, I’ll put you to work immediately,'” Casterline said. “He said, ‘No, I can’t leave South Carolina.’ I assumed because of his son.”
Before that, in the fall of 2017, Smith had connected Adams with Paul Scott, a former NFL executive who now owns and runs Benefits Huddle, a small business he runs by himself that helps NFL veterans submit the right paperwork to be approved for disability benefits from the league. It’s a complicated, often frustrating process, and one that Scott knows all too well because he used to work on the other side of the aisle, denying benefit applications on behalf of the NFL. He has grown to be seen as something of an angel in the world of retired NFL players, because he knows how the league thinks and can anticipate the red tape they use to discourage or reject claims.
Adams was interested in applying but didn’t know where to begin. “I think he was looking at applying for the line of duty disability benefit at the time, but with line of duty disability, you have to have your team medical records to support your claim,” Scott said. “He was having a difficult time getting his records from teams.”
Scott called an executive he knew with the Raiders, who said he was busy but promised to get in touch with Adams in a few weeks. Scott exchanged emails with Adams a few weeks later, and Adams said he still hadn’t received his records. Scott told him to keep trying. If he was approved for line of duty disability, which is usually granted only to players who suffered on-field injuries that required surgery (such as Adams’ compound ankle fracture), he’d be eligible to receive at least $4,000 per month. “I assumed that he got the records or whatever,” Scott said. “I don’t like to push these guys. I’m not like a salesman. In my experience, a lot of these guys get annoyed at me if I push them. I’ll remind them one time, and then if they don’t respond, I assume they’ve chosen to do something else or found someone else to help them, whatever.”
At no point, Scott said, did Adams inquire about seeking neurocognitive benefits. He just wanted to know, if he was approved, how long it would be before he started getting a check. “Usually what happens with these guys when they come to me, they’ve already exhausted all of their friends and family business associates,” Scott said. “They don’t want to apply for disability, but this is their last chance. And when they’re strung along like this, they feel kind of desperate. They feel it. When they’re approved, great. Because they usually have some debt to repay people. But when they’re denied, they got no other place to go. And there’s nothing else out there for them because they have to wait a full year before they’re able to reapply.”
When Scott saw the news of the shooting, the name sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. “I looked him up in my contacts and was like, ‘Yup, talked to him before,'” Scott said. “He just never followed through. I needed authorization. If he’d sent back authorization forms that I had sent him and some of the teams had sent him in order to send the records to me, then maybe things would have been easier on the disability end. I don’t know. He may have had someone helping him. I don’t know.”
ON APRIL 7, 2021, the York County Sheriff’s Department received a 911 call at 4:46 p.m. from a 80-year-old man reporting a “bad shooting” at his neighbor’s house on Marshall Road. That man said he’d been outside cutting his grass when he heard “about 20” gunshots. He’d just seen someone he suspected was the shooter — a man dressed in a black hoodie — run out of the house carrying something under his arm (police would later include burglary among the charges against Adams). There were at least two people in the yard who’d been shot, he said, and likely more inside.
When officers arrived on the scene, one of the HVAC workers — Shook, a married father of three — was still alive, and conscious, despite wounds that would eventually kill him. Shook told the officers a Black male wearing camouflage pants and a black sweatshirt had emerged from the woods outside the Lesslie house and just started shooting. He went inside, fired more shots, then exited the house and disappeared into the same woods. Shook was rushed to the hospital but died three days later. James Lewis, a single father of three, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Police haven’t said how they identified Adams as a suspect. But the officers soon surrounded his parents’ house, just up the road from the Lesslie residence, where he had barricaded himself inside. A standoff that lasted several hours ensued, with police eventually getting Adams to let his mother, Phyllis, come out safely, according to a neighbor. When officers finally entered the house, they found Adams dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. “It’s disheartening hearing people call him a monster,” Moore said. “Don’t get me wrong. Nobody is trying to excuse the acts. It’s just the acts don’t match the person that we know.”
It’s still unclear what kind of relationship, if any, Adams had with Lesslie. Norman gave an interview on April 8, the day after the shooting, in which he said law enforcement officials had told him that Adams had been a patient of Lesslie’s and been upset that Lesslie stopped giving him medication. But law enforcement officials never confirmed that, and Norman has since walked back his initial statement.
On April 15, a small crowd gathered to say goodbye to Phillip Adams at the Robinson Funeral Home. The family held a private service beforehand, welcoming the public to pay their respects after they’d gone home. The parking lot sat mostly empty for an hour before a few mourners trickled in. Kevin Davis, 54, a friend of the family, was one of the first to arrive. “I didn’t really know Phillip,” he said. “I knew the grandmother and father. We were church members.”
Davis said the impact on the community has been tough, particularly for people like him who knew the Lesslie family as well. “It’s just all messed up,” he said. “It’s odd for him just to go into that doctor’s house and do that. It’s really hard. They’re a great family. It’s sad.”
Inside, Adams was laid out in an open casket. A large arrangement of red and white roses was draped on the lower half of the casket. A framed picture of Adams wearing his No. 35 San Francisco 49ers uniform from 2010, was displayed next to the casket. Visitors were not allowed to linger, or sit in the pews. They moved past slowly and went out another side door. “The only one that can make sense of this is the Lord Above,” said a woman directing visitors.
One of Adams’ cousins, who did not want to be identified, quietly spoke to the sentiment of the room, and for so many others who knew Adams. “None of us understand.”
AT THE LESSLIE family memorial, Rev. Dagenhart did not attempt to explain the inexplicable. Instead, he told stories about the Lesslies, about how important their faith was to them. They regularly invited the entire church to their property for picnics. It was Robert Lesslie who encouraged the congregation, even before America’s recent racial unrest, to forge a connection with a Black church in town, Mount Prospect Baptist in Rock Hill.
Every year for the past 20 years, they spent a week volunteering at Camp Joy, a place where teenagers and adults with disabilities retreated for a respite in the North Carolina mountains. Barbara led bible study and Robert served as the camp doctor, but he threw himself into every activity he could: canoeing, horseback riding, playing bagpipes. “They were encouragers,” Dagenhart said. “They would pray with you. They’d try to make a tense situation better.”
So many mourners came to pay their respects to the Lesslies, the service was held at the cavernous West End Baptist Church instead of the First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, where the Lesslies were members. The building was packed, the parking lot full, an hour before it began. Dagenhart asked the congregation to pray not just for the Lesslies, the Shook and Lewis families, but also for Adams’ family members, a reminder that, hard as it was to understand, they had lost someone as well. He asked the congregation to join him in singing “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” a hymn that was special to the Lesslie Family. It was Adah’s and Noah’s bedtime song.
“Why questions have no answers,” Dagenhart said. “But one question we can pose in which we, as believers, can know. The question is: ‘Do I serve a master that I trust? Do I serve a lord I can trust?’ If the answer is yes, then you can be about the next thing that needs doing. Keep doing the next thing until the day is done, trusting all else, the next day start all over again. Time gives you the peace and strength you need.”
When the memorial ended, the Lesslies’ friends and loved ones slowly gathered their things and began to leave the church. As they packed into vans outside, they all passed a man walking back and forth amongst the crowd, filling the air with the sound of bagpipes.
This story was reported and written by ESPN’s Michael Fletcher, David Newton and Kevin Van Valkenburg.
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