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."
It was December 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.
Adelle Comer adopted her son Deland McCullough in 1973 when he
was 6 weeks old. 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. Carol Briggs, far left,
was a 16-year-old high school student when she gave birth to her
son, Deland McCullough.
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."
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. 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
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.
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. 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. McCullough called
Briggs from a hallway at USC as he awaited the start of a football
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
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.
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.
"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.'"
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."
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
"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.'" 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
"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
"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."
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 Red Hawks 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."