Sherman Smith and Deland McCullough

Sherman Smith and Deland McCullough

A story that garners wide acclaim, gets multiple plays across ESPN and draws tweets from Reese Witherspoon is not your everyday deadline fare. For most writers, it will never happen. But Sarah Spain experienced all of that with her first long-form narrative piece.

“Runs in the Family” was produced as a piece for the ESPN documentary program E:60 and a 5,000-word narrative published in September 2018 on ESPN.com. It centers on NFL running backs coach, Deland McCullough, who grew up as an adopted son in a tough neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio. McCullough never knew who his father was or had much fatherly influence in his life until, in his senior year of high school, he met a college football recruiter named Sherman Smith. The story weaves McCullough’s longing with the stories of his biological mother, a teenager who gave up her baby to adoption without telling the father she was pregnant; McCullough’s adoptive mother, who struggled with men and money but always supported her sons; and Smith, who becomes McCullough’s mentor for more than two decades, through college and into a coaching career. Smith becomes the father figure McCullough never had without either knowing … well, read the story and let Spain tell you.

Sarah Spain

Sarah Spain

Spain, 38, who has worked for ESPN since 2010 and writes for espnW, never expected McCullough’s story to touch people the way it has. She knew it was a good story, but she didn’t know it would reach people far beyond the sports world.

“We got crazy, crazy interest from some people,” she said. “Reese Witherspoon tweeted about it, Will Smith, Lee Daniels, 20th Century Fox, Channing Tatum’s production company – the best of the best are interested.

“That’s a long road though, and we’ll see what comes next. But there is a lot more to the story that wasn’t in this piece because of time and space constraints. It would be a fantastic movie.”

While Spain writes opinion pieces and other essays for ESPN, most of her time at the network is spent working on her national radio show, Spain and Fritz, and the podcast That’s What She Said. Narrative writing was not part of her portfolio. In fact, her original career goal was to make it in improv and work on Saturday Night Live. A graduate of Cornell University, where she was a heptathlete, she followed that dream after college.

“I moved to L.A. and I did that for a bit,” she said. “I found that I had a knack for sports reporting and I moved back to Chicago to cover my own teams, the teams I grew up watching, and I’ve just been here ever since.”

The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Johnson’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen. We start with a few set-up questions, then dive directly into the text of the story. 

 

How did you land this story? My friend Skip, who I met when I lived in L.A., played college football with Deland at Miami. So Deland told Skip and later, Skip told me that he knew this amazing story. Once we convinced Deland that we could tell this story and do it well, we had to convince him not to tell too many more people because we knew once it got out that this would be a story everyone would want to cover.  

How did you approach it and how long did it take to put it together?   Skip first told me about it in March or April. I told Connor Shell, who runs (ESPN’s) 30 for 30. It was passed on to the E:60 people and they grabbed on to it. They paired me with John Minton, this great producer, who was a real gift to me because this is first long-from feature for me. He was really fantastic with understanding how much time and effort and depth was needed for every interview. Deland was the first person we sat down with. We got a lot of the structure from him.

 

Was video always in the plan, or did that come in later? The video piece was the initial big focus. The focus of so many of our interviews was getting them right for the video piece. How did you separate the video and print stories? We thought do we want to make the written piece an accompaniment, a repeat of the story, or maybe more about the other people in his orbit? But when I sat down to write, I realized that it is really complicated and that it would need to be told chronologically. Instead of it being Deland’s story and this is how they all relate to him, it was their story and how they all relate to Deland.

 

Cover illustration of "Runs in the Family" by Sarah Spain

Cover illustration of "Runs in the Family" by Sarah Spain

Runs in the Family

By Sarah Spain, ESPN.com

Carol Briggs placed her newborn son on the bed and removed all of his clothes. She tried to find herself in his face, searching his mouth, his nose, his eyes. “Not yet,” she thought. She saw only his father. She looked him up and down, making a mental note of each of his 10 tiny toes, chubby legs, puffy belly and two little arms reaching up at her. “In my mind,” Briggs says, “that was probably going to be the last time I ever saw him.”

I love how you set up this opening scene, Carol with her baby, this puffy little kid that she is trying to find herself in. It is such a sweet, intimate and detailed passage. When you were talking to Carol did you know this was the lead of your story? No, not at all. I imagine that people who have been doing this forever, their brains start ticking on what the written piece is going to be like as they are interviewing, but I had not done this before. I have to tackle what is in front of me. So it was about getting the video right. But when I was talking to Carol … that line stood out to me because it was going to be the last time she was going to see her baby. What really helped guide me (in writing the piece) is that it is mostly chronological; that’s the way you let the story tell itself. You meet the baby and this mother, then you meet who the baby became all these years later. Then we shift back to telling the story in order again. I thought that was really effective because you got to where the story is going to lead and then you have to fill in the pieces the same way Deland did.

 

It was Dec. 1, 1972, and a big snowstorm had hit the greater Pittsburgh area that week. Briggs had gone sledding with some of the other girls the night before, dragging a cardboard box up and down a big hill that emptied out right at the Zoar Home for Mothers, Babies and Convalescents in Allison Park, Pennsylvania. She woke up in labor around 2 a.m., and just 32 minutes later, she was a mother. She named her baby Jon Kenneth Briggs.

Her parents and older brother drove the hour from her hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, to be with her at the hospital. After cleaning out her room at the maternity home and signing some papers, she was back in Ohio the next day, ready to resume her life as a 16-year-old high schooler and National Honor Society member.

No one outside of her immediate family and her cousin Robin knew about the baby. Only when she was preparing to sign the adoption papers did Briggs consider sharing the news with the father, a teenage fling who had gone off to college before she discovered she was pregnant. She ultimately decided against it.

“He was a kid too,” she says. “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.”

With her parents’ blessing, Briggs had decided that when the child was born, she would put him up for adoption.

“My mother was still cleaning up my room for me once a week,” she says. “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.”

In her last interaction with the adoption agency, Briggs was told that baby Jon had been placed with a doctor and his wife in Columbus, Ohio.

This is a story about a football player/coach, but also, at a deeper and more meaningful level it about hard choices. The topic of teen pregnancy, adoption, keeping the father in the dark – these are tough subjects, but the way you explain them gave the rest of the story a depth that it wouldn’t otherwise have had. Did you struggle at all with how to tell the more delicate side of Carol’s story? I’m empathetic to a fault. I warned John (Minton), the producer for E:60, when we started working on this one that I’m a crier. I cry when someone else cries. It’s a quality that can be problematic at times, but also helpful in a situation like this where you are dealing with really sensitive stuff. The great part about this story is that it is a happy ending for everyone; there is no standout villain and it worked out for all parties in really magical ways. But you have to address the parts that are difficult. I knew we needed to address the questions that people were going to have about why Carol didn’t tell Sherman right away, and why she made the decision to give up the baby; why Adelle struggled to find a partner who would stick around and be there for the boys. You couldn’t gloss over it; to leave it gray would give people the opportunity to think the worst of them. By being honest about everything, it allowed people to see that everyone was just trying to do their best.

 

IN EARLY 2017, now-Kansas City Chiefs running backs coach Deland McCullough signed on to coach the running backs at USC, having spent the previous six years in the same position at Indiana University.

A few months before making the move to southern California, he and his wife, Darnell, welcomed their fourth son into the world. For the fourth time, the couple provided doctors with Darnell’s medical history but couldn’t do the same for Deland’s side of the family. At 44 years old, McCullough knew nothing about where he came from.

Growing up in Youngstown, his adoptive mother, Adelle Comer, could tell him only that he was adopted at a very young age and that she had no information about his birth parents. For a long time, that was enough. McCullough wasn’t interested in finding them anyway. There was enough trouble in Youngstown those days, and he didn’t want to burden anyone who might have bigger things to worry about.

Things changed when he had his first child, and as his family grew, so too did his desire to know of his past. He wanted to know who gave him his deep voice and his muscular build and to whom he owed his pensive nature and quiet intensity. He wondered where son Dason got his height and which grandfather or uncle his bespectacled son, Daeh, might favor. He was so hungry for information that he never questioned whether the search might lead him to answers he couldn’t handle.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” McCullough says. “I didn’t know how people would receive things one way or another. I didn’t have a plan. I just knew I wanted to find out.”

New laws in Ohio and Pennsylvania had called for the unsealing of adoption records, giving McCullough new hope that he might find his birth parents. In November 2017, more than a year after filling out the requisite paperwork and years after his search began, he finally received his adoption files in the mail. For the first time, he saw his original birth certificate, complete with his name, Jon Kenneth Briggs, and the name of his mother, Carol Denise Briggs.

There was no information about his father.

One of my favorite writing tips is about scattering gold coins throughout a story to keep and reward a reader. How did you figure out where to scatter the coins? You need to tell them that something amazing is going to happen, but not what. So in this story, I think so much of what I did here was helped by limitations. I knew the piece was going to be long, but just to have it make sense meant there wasn’t room for flourishes. At first I worried about that because the writers that I love, the Wright Thompsons and Seth Wickershams, do these amazing stories in ESPN the Magazine. My focus was, let me get the story out, and I’ll go back and add a description and a flourish here and there –  but by the time I was done it was so big and meaty I didn’t need all of that and it would have made it harder to get people to stick with it. That also helped me to not be overly dramatic. I just wanted to put in moments to give a hint that there will be something more later without spelling it all out. You have to trust the intelligence of the reader.

 

ADELLE COMER WAS living in a three-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac in Youngstown with her husband, popular local radio host A.C. McCullough, and their young son, Damon, when she got the call. It was a social worker reaching out to see whether she and A.C. would come see an infant at an adoption agency in Pennsylvania. Not long after the tragic death of their second son, Alex, who died of an intestinal birth defect after just 28 days, the young couple had started serving as foster parents, and they were looking to adopt. In January 1973, they met 6-week-old baby Jon.

“He was asleep in a bassinet,” Comer says. “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.”

By March of that year, Jon Kenneth Briggs had been renamed Deland Scott McCullough, and he was living at home with his new parents, Adelle and A.C.

“We were still in love, a good couple,” Comer says. “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.”

But things changed quickly. Comer’s father had a stroke, and though A.C. wanted to put him in a nursing home, Comer brought her dad to live with the family in Youngstown. Their marriage deteriorated, and when Deland was just 2 years old, A.C. moved out.

“They went through a lot of hurt and disappointment, but they took it,” Comer says of her sons. “I said, ‘God gives you an example of what to be and what not to be. You have to make the choice.’ And that’s all I had to say, and they got it.”

When Deland was in elementary school, Comer came home to find that he had cut three gashes into the couch for which she had just finished two years of layaway payments. Kids at school had been teasing him about being adopted, and he accused Comer of loving him less than her birth son, Damon. She explained that she loved the two boys differently, one because he had been in her belly and the other because she had chosen him. After that, Deland McCullough rarely spoke of his adoption. He got good at pretending to be whole.

“The void was there,” he says. “I wish that it wasn’t, but I think I did a good job of hiding it.”

After the divorce, Comer had relationships with a few other men, some of whom were combative and abusive. “Some men don’t understand what respect is,” she says. “I’ve got two sons, and I’m not gonna allow my children to grow up with this type of lifestyle, this drama.”

Damon sometimes tried to physically defend her, but then he left for college, and Deland felt too small, physically and emotionally, to step in. His response to the violence was to try to tune it out, become emotionless, put blinders on and dream of a way out of the house and out of Youngstown.

Comer acknowledges that she contributed to the chaos in her own way as well.

“Biggest drama queen in the world, OK?” she says. “They called me Ma Barker because I’d shoot you and ask questions later.”

Adelle is a complicated character. What was she like to interview? Adelle was the most difficult to interview. She is very defensive of what she did for Deland as a mother and how he turned out in spite of some of the things that went wrong. I intentionally left in the part about how part of the reason that Carol gave up Deland was that she had this amazing nuclear family, so she imagined that if she gave him up that he would wind up with her idea of what he would need, so it matters that A.C. was only around for two years. She acknowledges her own role in it, she comes out and says that she was a giant drama queen, and there were times when she was defensive and she would say, if you want to know that, you call A.C. Or, why are you still asking about this? I think that was a natural defense, not wanting to go back and relive some of the stuff that was painful.   So, did you talk to A.C? No, we tried to. That is a place where we minimized stuff in the piece because we weren’t able to get him to comment; it didn’t feel fair and it wasn’t the crux of the story.

 

Comer took Deland with her to therapy for a while, hoping to make things at home a little less turbulent. New boyfriends came and went, but she mostly settled into life as a single mom, taking on multiple jobs to support her sons, including as a switchboard operator at the Cuyahoga County Department of Human Services, a waitress, a social worker and a short-order cook at the local bowling alley. She did her best to rear the boys on her own, but they moved a lot, and she struggled to pay the bills, sometimes having to choose between electricity and a working phone.

But Comer stressed the importance of an education, insisting that she see the boys’ homework to make sure they were taking it seriously. She taught them the value of a dollar and the importance of faith, demanding that they use a portion of their monthly child support for Sunday school and tithes at church. And she was always shuttling them to activities, from the theater program at the Youngstown Playhouse to football, basketball and track practices.

Deland was a bit of a late bloomer in terms of talent, but the passion for football was always there. Early on in pee wee, he heard his name over the loudspeaker and a light went off in his head. He fell in love with the game and started carrying a football with him everywhere he went, even to bed.

“It was an escape,” he says. “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.”

Comer was a one-woman cheer squad, bringing multiple signs to Deland’s games and running up and down the sideline rooting him on. One night when her ride didn’t show up, she took her son’s moped to the game. He looked up in the stands and saw her, still wearing his moped helmet, hollering and screaming for him: “D-MACK! D-MACK!”

As a junior defensive back, Deland saw himself playing football at a small school or enlisting in the Navy, but an opportunity to show his talent at the running back position his senior year drew the eye of college recruiters. Suddenly, he was being pursued by the likes of Jim Tressel, then the head coach at Youngstown State; Bob Stoops, then the defensive backs coach at Kansas State; and Sherman Smith, then the running backs coach at Miami of Ohio.

Did Adelle or Carol ask you how they were going to be portrayed? Carol was at peace with everything. To me she was very open and honest and secure in her decision. Adelle, I think, was concerned. I think she was worried because she is so proud of Deland (and her other son, Damon) and the job she did. She takes very seriously her role as a mom. She worried that the dramatic stuff would be the focus. Not knowing us, she didn’t know for sure, but when it came out she was super happy. I had even more about her as a mom and a fan. We took some of it out for timing and space and they wanted to take out more, but I argued to keep it in because I wanted people to see how dedicated she was and how much it mattered to her to be there. There was a line that didn’t make it about how she would stand in the end zone and yell at him, ‘Bring the ball right here!’ Those details were important to make sure people didn’t just judge her on the stuff that wasn’t perfect.

 

DELAND MCCULLOUGH LOOKED out the window of his third-period English class at Campbell Memorial High School and saw a tall man emerge from a candy apple red Mercedes-Benz with tan interior and tricked-out gold rims. A few minutes later, he got a pink slip message to leave class and go to the office, where the tall man stuck out his hand and said, with a firm handshake, “I’m Sherman Smith, the running backs coach at Miami University.”

A former star quarterback at Miami, Smith was a second-round draft pick at running back for the Seahawks and went on to play eight years in the NFL. He had a booming voice, thick arms and broad, square shoulders. He walked and talked and carried himself like a former pro; McCullough was immediately drawn to him.

“It was just something about his personality,” McCullough says. “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 Mercedes was nice, too, you know?” he laughed. “That was slick.”

I like this scene at the high school: Deland looks out of the window of his English class and sees this guy who he is instantly drawn to getting out of a this candy-apple red Mercedes. Where did you get the description of that scene? I’m bummed because this didn’t make it into the story: when Sherman bought that car, he found out that it used to be (rapper) Sir Mix-a-Lot’s, but they took it out because they felt like we didn’t need it. So when we first interviewed Deland, he mentioned this, remembering the first time he saw Sherman, and it was because of the car. Youngstown was a rough place and being a kid who sometimes does not have electricity or a telephone, and to see this guy, and Sherman has this swagger. I loved the idea of knowing the exact time he first saw and met his father. He remembered it so well. That was another part where I had to make sure I didn’t give too much away. We asked Sherman about it, too; he remembered it as well. .

As a Youngstown native himself, Smith thought guys from the area were tough, but the coaches told him McCullough was special – a thin kid, but when he couldn’t run around people, he’d go through them. McCullough was serious that day in the office, offering few smiles and answering with a lot of “Yes, sir” and “No, sir,” but he was also intelligent and expressive. Smith thought he’d very much like to work with him.

The feeling was mutual. Despite interest from other schools, the decision to attend Miami University was easy for McCullough, especially after the home visit, during which Smith charmed Comer as well.

“Well, Coach Smith was hard not to love,” Comer says, laughing. “I fell in love with him the first time. He was just a gentleman. And he was very attentive and respectful to me.”

Smith drove them to visit the school and was back at Campbell Memorial a few months later for signing day, when McCullough signed his letter of intent to play at Miami. When McCullough arrived on campus, the coaches tried to turn him into a wide receiver, but he pushed for an opportunity to work with Smith and the running backs, accepting a redshirt freshman year to pursue the position he believed he was meant to play.

“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 says. “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.”

“He was everything,” McCullough says. “If anything was going on, I was going to talk to Coach Smith. Everybody in that room gravitated towards Coach Smith just because that’s the type of person he was. What he’s about rubs off on you, so I always wanted to be around that.”

Smith left Miami University after that season to be the tight ends coach at the University of Illinois, but he and McCullough stayed in touch. He watched from afar as McCullough put together a Hall of Fame career in Oxford, rushing 36 touchdowns and setting a school record with 4,368 rushing yards. McCullough was surprised when his name wasn’t called in the 1996 draft, but he was invited to a few workouts and ended up signing with the Bengals. He was leading the NFL in preseason rushing before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Cincinnati’s final exhibition game. After a few more looks in the NFL, a couple of seasons in Canada, several more knee surgeries and a brief flirtation with the XFL, McCullough finally accepted in 2001 that the dream of pro football was over.

I was at Miami when Deland was there, he was an electric college player. He had a great career. You take his whole college and brief NFL experience and it’s one paragraph. I really like how you did this, acknowledging it, but condensing all of that so it isn’t the story. Tell me about the choice you made there. To me, and to someone covering straight sports, that feels like the story, because that’s what we usually talk about – the sports and the failure of the sports part of his life. As an athlete myself who is still frustrated about a high school state triple jump competition that didn’t go the way I wanted, I felt so bad for him. It’s heartbreaking, but it is not key to what we were getting at. I had a million more things I could go into there, but I just had to condense it.

 

A few years later, married and the father of one son, McCullough took a job teaching communications and coaching football at Harmony Community School in Cincinnati. Despite rising to the ranks of principal and making a good salary, his first taste of coaching gave him the itch to coach full time, and he reached out to his alma mater about an opportunity to join the staff.

Smith had followed a similar path, first teaching and coaching high schoolers, then working his way up the ranks from Miami University to the University of Illinois, the Houston Oilers, the Washington Redskins and, finally, the running backs coach for the Seahawks. He was with Seattle when he got a call from McCullough, asking for advice as he started his new job at Miami University.

By 2014, McCullough was coaching at Indiana University, and the two were reunited on the field, as Smith welcomed McCullough to Seattle for a coaching internship. He saw firsthand that his former player had a real future on the sideline. He had no idea that off the field, McCullough was consumed by the search for his family.

 

A FEW DAYS before Thanksgiving 2017, Carol Briggs got home from work, sat down on the couch and opened a Facebook message from an unfamiliar man: “Did you have a baby in 1972 in Allegheny County that you placed for adoption?”

“Luckily, I was already sitting,” she says.

Carol Briggs gets a Facebook message. Of course it’s Facebook. Would he have found her without Facebook? He would have. He would have gone some old school way, but Facebook made it a whole lot easier.  She was the second Carol Briggs he messaged, the first one didn’t respond.

 

Briggs had thought often of baby Jon. Every year, she wished him a “Happy Birthday” on her Facebook wall, and she regularly searched adoption websites to see if he might be looking for her. Briggs could still hear her mother’s voice, saying more and more often in the years before she died, “You need to find that boy.” Never married and without any other children, Briggs would joke to her cousin Robin that one day baby Jon might show up at her door and walk in to find her home alone, dancing around the house to Funkadelic.

She called her older brother, who warned her that the message might be from someone trying to bribe or extort her. She responded anyway, and after a few short messages, she agreed to speak to McCullough on the phone that night after he got out of practice. In the hours before the call, she Googled his name and read every article she could find. She stared at his pictures and tried to find herself in his face. It wasn’t hard to see it now: the mouth, the nose, the eyes.

A great detail here where Carol Googles Deland. She’s reading articles, looking at pictures, finding herself in his face. You took us right back to the beginning, tying it together. Tell me why you did that. It stood out to me that she couldn’t find herself in him when he was a baby, and you look at them now and you can see it. Obviously for Carol, she gets this Facebook message and she has a few hours to wait for the phone call, so she has time to kill, and she’s Googling up a storm, and it isn’t surprising that she’s looking at him to see who he turned out to be. I wanted people to understand what it was like to look at someone for the first time since they were a baby. That detail was important because it is a reminder that this is the first time she has looked at his face since he was born.

 

McCullough called Briggs from a hallway at USC as he awaited the start of a football family dinner.

They spoke as if they’d known each other for years, an easy back and forth as they shared where life had taken them in the 44 years since she’d laid him down on that bed and let him go. She learned that he had never gone to live with a doctor in Columbus, that in fact they had been just a few miles away from each other in Youngstown for all of McCullough’s childhood. She likely shopped at the same grocery store as Adelle Comer, perhaps even passing young McCullough in the aisles. She was certain that her sports-fanatic father, now deceased, had read about McCullough’s high school exploits in the paper.

McCullough was overjoyed to find his birth mother, though a mother had never been what he was missing.

“Within probably the first five or six minutes, he says, ‘Who is my father?'” Briggs says.

She took a breath. She had probably told only three people the man’s name. After making the decision to not tell the father all those years ago, she had been determined to never let him learn of the baby years later because of careless gossip.

She hesitated but decided McCullough had a right to know.

“Your father’s name is Sherman Smith,” Briggs told him.

This was the bomb for the story. How did you work through where this was going to go? It was the idea of faith in chronology and knowing that there was so much to tell after her reveal. This isn’t the story where they just live happily ever after. You have to get into what it means for all of the different parties. This is a part where my editor stepped in because you wanted to have that build-up, but that’s hard to do without filling just for the sake of filling. My editor wanted me to add just another beat in here before it’s revealed. That’s when I added how Carol didn’t want to tell anyone because of her fear of gossip, which I was going to put in after the reveal. So we moved it to before.

 

McCullough, leaning against a wall in the hallway, felt as though he might pass out.

He started flashing back to all of his memories with Smith and all the times people had joked about him being a carbon copy of his coach. Throughout college, when he returned to coach at Miami University, during his internship with the Seahawks.

“‘Man, you and Coach Smith look alike.’ ‘Man, you all walk alike.’ ‘Y’all this, y’all this,'” McCullough says. “There’s no reason to connect those dots because you weren’t even thinking about them. 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.”

Not only had he known his father for 28 years, but Smith was also his mentor, the man he had looked up to since he was 16 years old. McCullough thought of a photo of him and Smith at Campbell Memorial High, both beaming as he signed his letter of intent to play at Miami University. The same photo he had pinned to the corkboard that hung in his college dorm room. The same photo that was at that moment sitting in a Ziploc bag in the drawer of his nightside table, a bag that had traveled with him through every job and every move.

Tell me about this photo that Deland has always kept. It is a powerful detail. Who told you about it? I don’t think it was in the first draft. It was something that Deland’s wife brought up. Oddly enough, some of the original interview transcripts had holes in them, and I wanted to find out what was in those holes, and that was in a chunk that wasn’t transcribed right. Once I saw that, it was a tangible reminder of what Sherman had meant to Deland. It also stood out – and this didn’t make it into the story – because when Deland had the photo up in his college dorm room, people would come in and point to the photo and say, ‘Is that you and your dad?’

 

“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,” McCullough says. “I felt like my blessings came full circle because I’d always wanted to be somebody like him.”

“I could hear him take a big breath,” Briggs says. “And I could kind of hear him choke up a little. And finally he says, ‘Well, I’ve known Sherman my whole life.'”

 

THE NEXT MORNING, McCullough texted Smith asking if they could talk about something important. It was November, and Smith assumed that McCullough had gotten a coaching opportunity he wanted to discuss. Instead, McCullough began by talking about his search for his birth parents, how he had found his biological mother, and she was from Youngstown, just like them.

“Praise the Lord!” Smith recalls saying. “What a blessing!”

“And then he said, ‘I asked her who my biological father was, and she said you.'”

Did you write this in this hurried way because that is how Sherman experienced it? Yeah. And that’s how Sherman explained it. I didn’t want to give it another beat or paraphrase it. I wanted it to be those exact same words. Deland told it the same way.  The way they both described it, it felt like a moment that needed to be the same way in the story.

 

Smith was quiet. Sixty-three years old, he had been married to his college sweetheart for 42 years and had reared a grown son and a daughter. He hadn’t heard the name Carol Briggs in more than four decades. He never knew she was pregnant, never knew there was a baby. He knew he couldn’t deny the possibility that he was McCullough’s father, but he wanted proof. Even more, he wanted time to think. He asked McCullough if he could call him back later. Stunned and a little hurt, McCullough agreed.

Smith sat in his office. Guilt washed over him. Even though he hadn’t been told about the baby, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had let Briggs and McCullough down. He felt awful that he had left Briggs in such a difficult position and regretted all the years he had missed out on being a father to McCullough. He had built a life making a difference in young men’s lives. He had spoken to his athletes and his kids about being responsible, being accountable.

“Being irresponsible is not neutral,” Smith says. “When you’re irresponsible, someone becomes responsible for what you’ve been irresponsible for.”

The story could have had a fairytale ending, but here you are scattering the gold coins again. This exchange helps move the reader further into the story because it’s like, oh shit, this story isn’t over. I was thinking about, who is going to read this? And you don’t want to make it seem too simple. It’s complicated to come into someone’s life 45 years later and for that person to reassess who they have always been. Deland wanted that moment of acceptance, but he didn’t get it right away. It’s important to have that in there to help people understand the depth of emotions all of these people are going through.

 

He thought about what this would say about him as a man and found himself hoping that a paternity test would show that he wasn’t McCullough’s father. It was a thought that brought him only more guilt.

He asked to speak to Briggs.

Briggs cried her way through work the day she was set to talk to Smith. “I hadn’t talked to Sherman in 45 years. And after 45 years, this is probably not the icebreaker conversation that you want to have with the guy that you used to fool around with. ‘Hey, we’ve got a 45-year-old son. And how are you?’ So, no, I wasn’t looking forward to that at all. Not at all.”

There was no need to worry. Smith was calm and kind, and the two settled into a nice conversation, catching up for a long time before they even got to talking about McCullough. Smith apologized to her for her having to make such a difficult decision at such a young age, and Briggs explained why she had felt it was best to not tell Smith about the baby. She said that over the years, she just wanted to know that McCullough was OK, and Smith reassured her that her son was a good man.

Briggs hung up full of emotion but relieved that Smith wasn’t angry with her. Smith hung up feeling much more certain that McCullough was his son.

Smith talked to his wife, Sharon, and his brother, Vincent. He talked to his children, Sherman and Shavonne. He thought about McCullough’s coaching internship a few years earlier, how Seahawks assistant offensive line coach Pat Ruel hadn’t stopped cracking jokes about Smith and his protege acting like a father-son duo.

McCullough sent Smith an old article from his days in the CFL, and Smith couldn’t believe his eyes. “I’m looking at this thing and thinking, ‘I don’t remember taking this picture. I don’t remember doing this article,'” Smith says. “I’m looking at Deland, and I’m thinking it’s me. That got me.

“I called my aunt in Youngstown, and I told her about it. And she’d went on YouTube and pulled up some pictures of Deland, and she called me back. She said, ‘Nephew, I can save you the money on the DNA tests.'”

I love this quote from Sherman’s aunt in Youngstown. This is a somewhat heavy story. Tell me about the use of humor here to lift everything up. I just love that line. It was so matter of fact. And it showed that he was talking to his family and they were like, come on man, this is so clear. I also wanted to have a couple of steps along the path from ‘I don’t know if this is my son and how will I handle this,’ to being nervous, to coming around to the idea. The humor hints at the idea that things are going to work out. It is the turn where Sherman stops thinking about himself and starts thinking about what this means for Deland. It is sort of where a door opens and Sherman walks through and is in a different place.

 

The more Smith thought about it, the more he realized the story wasn’t about him and his guilt. It was about McCullough and what he had been through. It was about a life without a father, about the years McCullough had spent looking for his birth parents, hoping to fill a void, wanting to know where he’d come from.

“It was said that humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less,” Smith says. “I started thinking about Deland.”

Sometime in the weeks between that first phone call and the test results, Smith realized that he was hoping he was McCullough’s father. That, in fact, he would be devastated if the results came back otherwise. When the test came in, it showed a 99.99 percent chance that Smith was, indeed, McCullough’s father. Both were elated.

“I look at it, and I just say it’s a God thing,” Smith says. “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.”

McCullough understood why Smith had been so curt at first. McCullough had spent his whole life wondering about his birth parents. Briggs had spent her whole life wondering about her child. Smith had gone from zero to a 45-year-old son in one phone call; he needed time.

A few weeks after the paternity test came back, McCullough had a recruiting trip near Nashville, where Smith and his wife had relocated after his retirement. McCullough made a special trip to see the man he now knew as his father.

“I’m pretty sure he was nervous,” Smith says of that day. “I laugh because I’m looking out the window because I know he’s supposed to be coming. I’m standing there, and I see he parks at the corner down there. And he’s parked there for five minutes. I said, ‘What’s he doing?’ He finally pulls up and gets out the car.”

As McCullough walked up the steps to the house, Smith greeted him with open arms and said, “My son.” It was the first time in McCullough’s life that anyone had called him that.

“For so many years that I was around him, the embrace was, ‘Hey, Coach, how you doing?'” Smith says. “But this is, ‘Man, my son.’ Maybe I was doing it for me, to help me really, fully understand.”

“I know he was saying it from a place of ‘I’m proud. This is my son,'” McCullough says. “I’d never heard that. I’d never been referred to like that before — period. It really hit me hard emotionally. When I sit here at this point, and I’m looking at the things that I’ve done, I’m happy that I’m able to be somebody that he’s proud of.”

At first, McCullough was concerned that his adoptive mother might be upset by his relationships with his birth parents. But as soon as he heard that Briggs and Comer had hit it off in their first phone call, he knew everything would be fine.

“All I can say is, ‘Are you serious?’ Over and over again. ‘Are you serious?'” Comer says of McCullough’s journey leading to Smith. “It’s just a miracle that his birth father’s been in his life since he was 16, 17 years old. That’s my son, and I want nothing but 100 percent best for him. He needed that, and God gave it to him, and it’s in God’s time.”

Both Smith and Briggs are endlessly grateful to Comer for raising McCullough with the wisdom they didn’t yet have.

“She did what I couldn’t do,” Briggs says of Comer. “She was an adult, she was married at the time, so you know she brought him into a family structure. That was what I wanted for him. I wanted him to have what I had, and she gave him that. She gave him all the tools that he needed in growing up to be the successful man that he is right now.”

Never in the piece do you talk about race, or mention race. Was that something you talked about with the folks at ESPN. When Skip first mentioned it me to me, he introduced the themes in it: single parents, black fatherhood and role models; and everything else. It was always on our minds, but I don’t know that there were moments when race seemed to stand out as important enough to make it a part of the story. If his mentor of 30 years had been a white man, maybe. There is so much stereotyping around black fatherhood. If this becomes a book, which it might, there are more ways to get to if we want.

 

THIS PAST JUNE, the two Miami University Hall of Famers, Smith and McCullough, were back on campus to witness the verbal commitment of McCullough’s son, Deland McCullough II, to the RedHawks football team. The younger McCullough is a defensive back, just like Smith’s son, Sherman, who played the position at Miami as well.

In July, a huge family reunion in Youngstown brought McCullough, Briggs, Smith and Comer together for the first time. All of McCullough’s parents in one place, reflecting on nurture versus nature, what is inherited versus what is taught and the many different forms of parenthood. It was both the culmination of a journey and the start of something new for the families that the journey had introduced. A man found his parents, a mother found her child, and a father discovered a son he never knew he was missing. There is no jealousy, no resentment and no regret. There is just gratitude for the winding paths that brought them all together.

“When I look at Deland, the type of guy he is, it was a gift to us,” Smith says. “And to think — Deland felt we were a gift to him.”

“Now I know who I am and where I’m from,” McCullough says. “I got all of the pieces to the story. I got them all now.”

Was there ever a point when you weren’t sure you were going to get buy-in from one of the characters? For sure. We knew Deland was a great storyteller from the beginning. We were worried about Adelle and whether or not she would want to talk about the tough stuff. We were worried about Sherman; his first reaction was that we don’t need to tell people about this. But when he came to terms with it, he wanted to tell the story and became much more open. It was ideal in terms of people being open and honest. It was a struggle piecing together how people remember things differently. Deland and Adelle would remember things differently. [annotate color="red"]How did you work through that? If there was something they both remembered very differently, I kept it out because there was no way of knowing which was true. Other times, I just addressed it as he or she remembers it. At one point, Adelle said that thinks God erased some stuff from her mind to help her, so I felt that Deland was a more reliable narrator.

 

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