A photo of late Georgia Tech football player Brandon Adams appears on a screen as Tech coach Geoff Collins speaks about Adams at a memorial service at McCamish Pavilion, Monday, March 25, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Bill Curry, Mike Riley know Georgia Tech’s grief too well

At some point, if he hasn’t already, Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins will encounter a player who has difficulty keeping his concentration, doesn’t practice with great effort or wants to give up football. They are common occurrences for any college football team.

But in the days, weeks and months after the death of defensive tackle Brandon Adams, the likelihood that Collins and his staff will encounter one or all of those situations figures to be greater.

“I’ve had all of the above,” Tech great Bill Curry said. “All of the human emotions – we all have them.”

Curry is far too familiar with Collins’ responsibility. In 20 seasons as a head coach – at Tech, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia State – his teams endured the tragedy of the death of a team member four times (Tech’s Brian Yates died in 1982 in an accidental fall from a bunk bed). Further, the Alabama team that he inherited had lost two players the year before his hire, and another Tech player he recruited died after Curry left to coach the Crimson Tide (Chris Caudle, in a drowning accident in 1988).

It has been three weeks since Adams’ death struck a powerful blow to his family, friends, teammates and coaches. Curry and Mike Riley, a former Nebraska and Oregon State coach who himself has three times been handed the responsibility of guiding his team through the death of a team member, attested that Collins and his team are only at the start of a mourning process.

“Some of it stayed or reappeared or guys would get depressed and maybe not even know why,” Riley said. “It doesn’t just go away.”

Curry called each experience a nightmare. Riley called it devastating. Yet in the midst of that grief, they had to continue to adhere to the jobs they were paid to do – win football games.

“You’re utterly absorbed with trying to get your people through this thing and let them know you care,” Curry said. “And yes, it is tragic and yes, we are all grieving, but it’s also time to go back to work. We’re not going to use it as an excuse.”

And even in saying that, Curry acknowledged that regaining the ability to maintain concentration after a tragedy is “really difficult” and much easier to talk about than to actually do.

It is a delicate balance. Some players rebound quickly and find motivation in the loss of a beloved teammate. Others may find it painful to be in the place where their friendship with the lost player was forged. What some may consider a fitting way to remember Adams, others may not.

“The most difficult thing was and is, why should anybody care about a game?” Curry said. “It’s just a game. This is a human life we’re talking about here.”

Is a player not practicing well because of the pain he is carrying, or just simply not practicing well?

“When we noticed that about somebody, we tried to get with them,” Riley said. “And sometimes you feel inadequate, so you reach for outside help. We had a good team of psychologists around the kids and the program at Nebraska. Really good group, and they stayed real close to the team at that time.”

Curry, too, described feeling out of his depth as a coach in trying to serve as a grief counselor for players, coaches and staff, men and women, younger and older. Both Riley and Curry stressed the importance of having assistance in the form of school psychologists or other therapists available.

“When you’re dealing with life and death, you’ve got to be real careful throwing around flippant statements, the kind of thing coaches love to do,” Curry said.

Asked what advice he’d give Collins, Curry said that “I would suggest that he make sure he knows how every single one of his players, every single one of his student-athletes is dealing with this personally,” as well as assistant coaches and other staff. Knowing who is handling Adams’ passing well and who is the most affected, he said, would be “a very important thing to know.”

Riley’s two pieces of wisdom – surround the team with as much as help as possible and “stay close to your teammates, appreciate them.” He also said that the team sought to include the family of the fallen player as much as possible.

“Because so many times, the families, a good portion of their world is planning around coming to the games, getting to the games, getting together with the other parents, having some time with their son,” Riley said. “All that can just disappear. So we tried, as best we could, to keep them included.”

Curry said that the impact on the teams that experienced the loss of a teammate differed by team. Some actually played better, he thought. Others, he said, “it absolutely smashed us emotionally.”

Following the on-campus memorial for Adams on March 25, Collins acknowledged the enormity of what lay ahead of him and his team.

“They don’t give you that chapter in how to be a head coach,” he said.

But he seems to be taking helpful steps. With spring practice days away at the time, he left it up to the team’s seniors to determine if they should keep the same practice schedule or delay it. (They kept it the same, believing it was what Adams would have wanted.) The athletic department quickly arranged the memorial service. Collins pushed back a practice that weekend to ensure that the whole team could travel to Nashville, Tenn., to attend the funeral.

In meetings and at practice, Adams is remembered in various ways, including a chant of “Big ‘B’!” (his nickname) to end practice. On Saturday, for Tech’s first scrimmage of the spring, teammate Chris Martin led the team out of the Bobby Dodd Stadium tunnel carrying Adams’ gold practice jersey, pulled over shoulder pads, and kept it on top of a cart on the sidelines. The 10-yard line on the north end of the field was painted black in his memory. (Collins called it the 90-yard line – 90 was Adams’ jersey number.)

“Just so we’re constantly trying to embrace him and his family, his legacy that was so special to all of us,” Collins said.

As days pass, there will assuredly be more tears, memories, questions and, hopefully, healing.

“The only thing that I would say that I should have brought up is that this forces us all to our knees in whatever our spiritual lives are,” Curry said. “We need to call on God as we perceive God to be to help us to be the right kind of support for the ones who remain and the ones who are just so utterly crushed by this.”

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