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Phillip Adams, NFL player who killed 6 in York County mass shooting, had CTE, experts say

A Boston University neurologist said Tuesday that former NFL player Phillip Adams had severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Adams’ brain was tested after he has believed to have killed six people — and later himself — in a mass shooting in York County, South Carolina, in April.

Adams played football for 20 years, including six in the NFL. He not only had diagnosed concussions but also a number of smaller hits to the head that could have also damaged his brain, said Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University.

The time Adams spent playing football “definitively ... gave rise” to a diagnosis of stage 2 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, McKee said.

Authorities have said that on April 7, Phillip Adams killed Rock Hill physician Robert Lesslie; his wife, Barbara; two of their grandchildren, 9-year-old Adah Lesslie and 5-year-old Noah Lesslie; and two HVAC technicians working at the Lesslie home, James Lewis and Robert Shook, both 38. Police later found Adams with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Adams' family agreed to have his brain examined. McKee diagnosed him with stage 2 CTE, with stage 4 being the most severe.

Phillip Adams, shown here in 2012 with the Raiders, shot and killed five people in Rock Hill, South Carolina, according to police.
June Rivera
Wikimedia Commons
Phillip Adams, shown here in 2012 with the Raiders, shot and killed five people in Rock Hill, South Carolina, according to police.

"Stage 2 CTE is associated with progressive cognitive and behavioral abnormalities, such as aggression, impulsivity, depression, paranoia, anxiety, poor executive function and memory loss," McKee said in a video call during a news conference with the York County coroner.

She says it’s unusual for someone so young — Adams was 32 — to have that much damage. She says people with stage 2 CTE will deteriorate further with age to stages 3 and 4.

"Mr. Adams' CTE pathology was different from the other young NFL players with CTE," McKee said. "It was different in that it was unusually severe in both frontal lobes. In its frontal lobe predominance, it was similar to that of another young NFL player, namely Aaron Hernandez."

Hernandez was a tight end who played three seasons in the NFL. He was convicted of murder in 2015 and then later found dead in his prison cell. Authorities say he killed himself.

Adams was a cornerback who played for six teams in six years.

CTE, which can only be diagnosed through an autopsy, has been found in former members of the military, football players, boxers and others who have been subjected to repeated head trauma. One recent study found signs of the debilitating disease in 110 of 111 NFL players whose brains were inspected.

Adams played in 78 NFL games for six teams over six seasons. He joined the San Francisco 49ers in 2010 as a seventh-round draft pick out of South Carolina State, and though he rarely started, he went on to play for New England, Seattle, Oakland and the New York Jets before finishing his career with the Atlanta Falcons in 2015.

As a rookie, Adams suffered a severe ankle injury and never played for the 49ers again. Later, with the Raiders, he had two concussions over three games in 2012. Because he didn't retire by 2014, he wouldn't have been eligible for testing as part of a broad settlement between the league and former players over long-lasting concussion-related injuries.

Adams’ sister told USA Today after the killings that her brother’s “mental health degraded fast and terribly bad” in recent years and that the family noticed “extremely concerning” signs of mental illness, including an escalating temper and personal hygiene neglect.

CTE is linked to head trauma and concussions that has been shown to cause a range of symptoms, including violent mood swings and memory loss.

“There were inklings that he was developing clear behavioral and cognitive issues,” McKee said. “I don’t think he snapped. It appeared to be a cumulative progressive impairment. He was getting increasingly paranoid, he was having increasing difficulties with his memory, and he was very likely having more and more impulsive behaviors. ... It may not have been recognized, but I doubt that this was entirely out of the blue.”

The Lesslie family said they appreciated the diagnosis.

“Even in the midst of crushing heartbreak, we are finding some comfort in the CTE results and the explanation they provide for the irrational behaviors pertaining to this tragedy," their family statement said.

The Adams family said they were not surprised that he had the disease, but were shocked to learn how severe his condition was.

“After going through medical records from his football career, we do know that he was desperately seeking help from the NFL but was denied all claims due to his inability to remember things and to handle seemingly simple tasks, such as traveling hours away to see doctors and going through extensive evaluations,” their statement said.

York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson emphasized that Adams' CTE diagnosis and the other findings so far may not provide a conclusive explanation behind Adams' alleged acts of violence.

“Sometimes we get to know the why, sometimes we don’t,” Tolson said. "There’s one individual that knows the why and he’s deceased. We may not know in this life, on this planet what the why is.”

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.
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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.