You can’t know who you are without knowing where you came from. So for those who have been adopted and know nothing about their past, there’s often a feeling that a piece of themselves is missing.
Despite being raised by a loving mother and getting opportunities that many only dream about, a former NFL player and coach couldn’t help but feel like something was missing in his life. After years of wondering, the coach finally decided to get some answers about his biological family. What he discovered, however, left him blindsided.
A Fast Delivery
At 2 a.m. on December 1, 1972, Carol Briggs woke up in her room at the Zoar Home for Mothers, Babies and Convalescents. The 16-year-old, who had spent the previous day sledding and playing in the snow with some friends, was in labor. Despite it being her first pregnancy, the baby was coming fast.
Taking in the Moment
Just 32 minutes later, Briggs was holding her baby boy, who she named Jon Kenneth Briggs. What struck her right away was how much the baby looked like his father, who had no idea she had even gotten pregnant. Sometime after the delivery, Briggs laid her newborn son down on a bed and took a mental note of the moment.
“In my mind,” Briggs told ESPN years later, “that was probably going to be the last time I ever saw him.” While pregnant, Briggs had decided to give her son up for adoption. While it wasn’t an easy decision, she knew it was the right one as she looked into her son’s eyes.
Not Fit to Raise a Baby
“My mother was still cleaning up my room for me once a week,” Briggs told ESPN. “I wasn’t in a position to be anybody’s mother. I thought this was best for him, that I allow him to be placed with some family that would be able to give him all the great things that I had coming up because I had a mother and a father. I just didn’t want him to get cheated out of anything.”
A Secret Pregnancy
The day after giving birth, Briggs and her family planned to pack up her things and return to her hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, where no one knew she had even been pregnant. According to Briggs, no one aside from her immediate family and a single cousin knew about the baby. But before she could return to her life as a 16-year-old honor student, she had to officially give baby Jon away.
A Difficult Decision
Just before signing the adoption papers, however, Briggs became conflicted. She knew she was doing the right thing for her baby, but she felt that his father had a right to know he had a son. Yet, the baby’s father was already away at college. Ultimately, Briggs decided not to tell the baby’s father since she didn’t want to derail his life. “He was a kid too,” Briggs explained. “He was off at college on a scholarship. I think I may have felt that I kind of got myself in this, I’m gonna do what I need to do to work my way through it.”
Briggs felt that a couple who was ready to raise a baby could give Jon all the things she couldn’t. So when she heard back from the adoption agency sometime after, she was relieved when they told her Jon had been adopted. According to Briggs, she was told Jon had been placed with a doctor and his wife in Columbus, Ohio. Yet that wasn’t exactly what happened. Instead of getting adopted by a doctor and his wife, Jon ended up being adopted by A.C. McCullough, a popular host on a local radio station, and his wife, Adelle Comer. The pair had a young son of their own but became foster parents after their second son died as an infant.
Love at First Sight
Comer agreed to go in and see Jon after a social worker reached out to see if she had any interest in meeting the 6-week-old infant. “He was asleep in a bassinet,” Comer told ESPN. “And she put him in my arms, and when he woke up, his eyes were looking straight at me. It was instant connection. Love. Mother-son.” Within a few months, the couple adopted Jon, brought him home, and renamed him Deland Scott McCullough.
A Loving Home
In the beginning, Deland was raised in a happy, loving home. “We were still in love, a good couple,” Comer told ESPN. “We went to church, partied, went to cookouts. We were working together and doing this together and wanting to make a home for our children. We knew that God’s hand was in it. Deland came so fast to us. We knew that it was meant to be. Both of us.”
Happy Times Are Over
However, that happiness and stability didn’t last. When Deland was just two years old, McCullough left Comer to raise their two young sons on her own. After the divorce, Comer struggled to provide for the family on her own. She also had a few relationships with other men, and some of those men were violent and abusive.
Escaping The Pain
On top of all the instability at home, Deland struggled with the knowledge that he had been adopted, a fact that the bullies at school used to tease him about. “The void was there,” Deland told ESPN. “I wish that it wasn’t, but I think I did a good job of hiding it.” During that time, Deland found solace on the football field. “It was an escape,” Deland explained. “When I was out there practicing, you didn’t think about the electric is off, you know? You didn’t even think about anything like that. You were just out there balling, doing your thing and competing and bonding with your friends.”
A Bright Future
During his senior year of high school, however, Deland started to see football not just as an escape but as a future. After switching to the running back position, Deland started attracting the attention of college recruiters. One of those recruiters was Sherman Smith, the running back coach at Miami University in Ohio. During Smith’s visit to meet Deland, the teenager was instantly drawn to the coach, who was the reason why Deland chose to attend and play football at Miami University.
A Father Figure
“It was just something about his personality,” Deland told ESPN. “The way he presented himself. He had things that I hadn’t seen out of a man or mentor. He was on top of his details. He was successful. He had played in the NFL. He got his degree. I wasn’t around that type of person.” The following school year, Deland showed up at the university and started training as a running back under Smith. “I would tell the players, ‘You may not be looking for a father, but I’m going to treat you like you’re my sons,'” Smith told ESPN. “And so I just looked at every guy like my son. I just wanted to be a positive role model for Deland and exemplify what I thought my father exemplified for me.”
Always in Touch
But before long, Smith and Deland went their separate ways. Smith moved on to coaching at the University of Illinois the following year, and Deland ended up joining the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals after a Hall of Fame career in college. But no matter where the pair went, they always stayed in touch.
During his time in the NFL, Deland suffered a knee injury, which he never fully recovered from. In 2001, Deland retired from the NFL and settled down with his wife and their first son in Cincinnati, where he worked as a teacher and a football coach. During that time, Deland fell in love with coaching and later got a job on the coaching staff at Miami University. A few years later, Smith and Deland reunited when Smith invited his former player as a coaching intern in Seattle for the Seahawks.
Searching For Answers
By 2017, Deland was a running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. Around that time, he and his wife gave birth to their fourth son and Deland signed on to coach at the University of Southern California. Despite all the successes, Deland still couldn’t shake the feeling that a part of his life was missing. So he decided to finally get some answers about his past that had been haunting him his entire life. In November 2017, Deland finally tracked down his original birth certificate, which featured his original name and the name of his mother, Carol Denise Briggs.
A Shocking Discovery
Deland tracked Briggs down on Facebook and the two agreed to talk on the phone. Briggs always hoped her son would reach out to her so she was thrilled to finally speak with him and get to know him. Within a few minutes, Deland couldn’t help but ask who his father was. “Your father’s name is Sherman Smith,” Briggs told him that day. Deland was blindsided. The man that had mentored him since he was 16 years old was actually his father.
A Dream Come True
In that moment, Deland couldn’t help but think about the countless times over the past 28 years that people joked about how similar he and Smith were. “A sense of pride that went through me, like, ‘Wow, that explains these things.’ And then I also start thinking about all the similarities of our path. That just blew me away,” Deland explained. “If you would have told me to pick who my father was, there’s no way I would have picked him because I might have thought I wasn’t worthy for him to be my father. I felt like my blessings came full circle because I’d always wanted to be somebody like him.”
Breaking The News
The next day, Deland told Smith he needed to talk to him about something important. After sitting down together, Deland explained how he had been searching for his biological parents and that he had found Briggs. He also told Smith that Briggs said he was his father. At first, Smith was shocked to learn he had a 42-year-old son and asked to have a paternity test taken, which came back positive. Smith felt overwhelmed and guilty that Briggs had to deal with everything on her own. He also felt guilty that Deland grew up without a father.
A True Blessing
After taking some time to process the news, however, Smith was amazed and filled with pride that Deland was his son. “I look at it, and I just say it’s a God thing. It’s grace. It’s undeserved. And that’s what’s made it great for Deland and for all of us, how everyone has embraced this and is excited about our new family,” Smith told ESPN. “Now I know who I am and where I’m from,” Deland said. “I got all of the pieces to the story. I got them all now.”