A service program for Georgia Tech football player Brandon Adams is displayed before a memorial service Monday, March 25, 2019, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/AJC
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Brandon Adams’ hometown recalls a gentle giant who loved the stage

Holly Shepherd knew Brandon Adams through an avenue different than most who came to know the Georgia Tech football player whose unexpected death late Saturday night shook the Yellow Jackets football team and fan base — the stage.

Shepherd is the theater director at Brentwood Academy in Brentwood, Tenn., the private school that Adams graduated from in 2016. Adams was one of her actors. He performed in four spring musicals and at least one more play, she recalled, including a role as the traveling medicine man in the “Wizard of Oz.”

“He was particularly funny in that role,” Shepherd told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday. “Every time I think of him in that role, it brings a smile to my face.”

It was far from Adams’ only memory that Shepherd called back, as she and others at the school mourned Adams’ passing. (Another: “All 300 pounds of him discovered that he could dance.”) One that rang particularly true to the tributes paid to the 21-year-old defensive tackle — with his size and presence, Shepherd considered casting Adams in roles for big, overbearing characters, but it never worked.

“It just didn’t fit,” Shepherd said. “He would try, and it just wasn’t him. He wasn’t aggressive.”

Adams was remembered by teachers and former students at Brentwood Academy much in the same way coaches and teammates at Tech have since news of his death spread — an ever-present smile, gentle, full of life, generous with hugs. Two different quarterbacks with whom Adams played for the Eagles and practiced against experienced his character in amusingly similar ways.

Conner Woodlee, who was two years behind Adams, played on the scout-team offense, portraying the role of the opposition’s offense for upcoming games, a largely unsung task.

“Whenever I would be on the scout team, he would always treat us just like any of the other players, and he just loved on us constantly,” Woodlee said. “After he tackled us, he’d bring us up and talk to us. He was special in that he treated everybody the exact same no matter who you were and no matter how high or low you were on the totem pole.”

Thomas Swafford, who was a classmate of Adams’ from seventh grade through senior year, also remembered routinely getting brought down in practice by Adams.

“You’re talking about a man who probably weighed 150 pounds more than me and was somehow more agile and faster than me,” Swafford said.

And when Adams brought him down, Swafford said he was upset over failing on the play, but Adams picked him off the ground, put him on his feet and asked him, “You good, ‘Swaff?’ ” Swafford recalled.

Swafford shared his agony that Adams was so close to achieving his dream of playing in the NFL and helping support his family.

“That’s just what was so sad,” Swafford said. “He was one year away from a dream he’d been chasing for years.”

Swafford also recalled Adams’ faith — “he was a man of God well beyond his years” — and his ability to make friends across the social groups at the school.

“I could say there were probably 120-plus students in our graduation class and you could ask every single one of us to do this interview and every single one would have a real relationship to share about Brandon,” Swafford said. “He somehow wasn’t stretched thin by that. He somehow had the time and the heart to really reach that many people on such a genuine level.”

Stephen Burris was Adams’ defensive-line coach at Brentwood Academy. In an e-mail, he remembered his radiant smile. He shared that Adams came back to the school to help coach the defensive line during spring practice and also in the summer for camps for youngsters. Adams was a favorite for the younger children, who often climbed on his back. Burris recalled that the last time they spoke, Adams shared with Burris about how close he was to achieving his NFL dreams, and also told Burris how excited he was to see the coach’s eight-month-old son.

“It gets said a lot, but he was a true teddy bear,” Burris wrote.

Shepherd, the theater director, credited Adams for helping lay down paths for more athletes to participate in theater. She remembered, too, that “he always had a hug for you and a smile. I’m sure you’ve read a lot about his smile. It’s really true. He could light up a room. Never once saw him in a bad mood. Never. For teenagers, that’s amazing, but just for human beings, that’s amazing.”

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