Deland McCullough spent his entire life knowing that he wasn’t biologically related to his family. Yes, he still had a mother and brother who supported him in everything he did, but Deland still felt like a piece of him was always missing. His adoptive mother didn’t know where Deland came from, where he was born, or what his biological parents’ names were.
But with the birth of his fourth child, and Ohio announcing the release of previously sealed family records, Deland finally decided it was time to find out where he came from. After years of wondering, Deland found his family in the most unexpected of places and was finally given the chance to know the parents he never knew.
This is Deland’s story…
A Sense of Mystery
Kansas City Chiefs running backs coach, Deland McCullough, knew from a very young age that he was adopted, but it wasn’t until he started having a family of his own that he began the search for his biological parents. Already 44 years old, Deland realized that it was about time he started asking questions about his biological family’s background, even if his adoptive parents didn’t know where he came from.
Deland couldn’t help but wonder where he got his deep voice and height from, and from which parent he inherited his introverted personality. As his own family grew, he wondered which family member passed on their muscular build onto his son Dason, or who else in his biological family had glasses like his other son, Daeh.
From the Beginning
Up until now, the only mother that Deland ever knew was Adelle Comer. She, along with her then-husband A.C. McCullough, adopted Deland when he was only six weeks old. At the time, Adelle was living in a three-bedroom house in Youngstown, Ohio, with her husband, a popular radio host at the time, and their young son, Damon.
The couple had just tragically lost their second son, Alex, to an intestinal birth defect at just 28 days when they received a call from an adoption agency in Pennsylvania. The couple had been serving as foster parents for some time now, and after the death of their newborn son, Adelle and A.C. were ready to adopt. The adoption agency informed the couple of a six-week-old baby that was looking for a new home.
Love at First Sight
Adelle still remembers the first time she met Deland, who was named Jon at the time. It was January 1973, and baby Deland was sound asleep in a bassinet. But when the adoption agency worker put him into Adelle’s arms, he immediately woke up and locked eyes with his new mom. “It was an instant connection,” Adelle told ESPN in an interview. “Love. Mother-son love.”
Just two months after their first meeting, Deland was living with his new parents, Adelle and A.C. At first, life at home was great for the McCullough’s. They visited church frequently, went to BBQs, and hosted parties at their house. Adelle and A.C. were working together to create a great family home for their children. Sadly, this didn’t last.
A Rocky Past
Deland had been a member of his adoptive family for only two years when his parents’ marriage began to fall apart. Adelle’s father had a stroke, and she brought him to live with the family, even though A.C. objected to the idea. A.C. thought it would be better for both Adelle’s dad and his own family if his father-in-law was put into a nursing home.
Adelle didn’t listen and brought him to live with them anyways. Soon, their marriage began to deteriorate, and A.C. moved out, leaving Adelle to care for her dad and two young children alone. When Adelle reflects on this time in her family’s lives, she said that her two sons went through a particularly difficult time.
A.C. moving out was really hard for Deland, especially when he started elementary school. One day, Adelle came home from work and found that Deland had cut up a couch that she had just spent the past two years paying off on layaway. The other kids at school had been teasing Deland about his dad walking out on his family and about being adopted.
They would tell Deland that his mother didn’t love him or that she loved him less than her biological son, Damon. As a young boy, Deland was devastated. He went to his mother and asked her if she loved him less than his brother. Adelle explained to Deland that she loved both boys differently. She loved Damon because he came from her belly, and she loved Deland because she chose him.
Rocking the Boat
Deland said that after he asked Adele about which son she loved more, he never really brought up the adoption again, and soon, Deland was acting out in school again. The stress of his father walking out, combined with being adopted, was starting to get to him. But then something else added to Deland’s emotional turmoil. Ever since A.C., she started having relationships with other men, many of whom were abusive.
In a few incidences, his brother Damon would have to physically protect their mother, but when he left for college, Deland felt hopeless. He didn’t know how to defend himself or process what he was feeling at the time. The only thing Deland knew how to do was to keep his head down, tune out the violence, and focus on getting out of Youngstown.
Adelle saw a change of behavior in her boys and decided to take them to therapy, hoping that this will make things calmer at home. But sadly, it didn’t. As a single mom, Adelle was forced to work multiple jobs to support her family. She became a waitress, switchboard operator, social worker, and a short-order cook at the local bowling alley.
The McCullough’s were forced to move around a lot, making it hard for Deland and Damon to make friends. Adelle also struggled to make rent and pay the bills. It got so bad that at one point, Adelle was forced to choose between electricity and a working phone. Needless to say, life at home was really hard for Deland.
Hard at Work
With a single mother’s salary, Adelle couldn’t provide much, but it was still important to her that she provide her boys with the best childhood she could. This started with their education. Even though she was juggling multiple jobs, Adelle still found time to check Deland and Damon’s homework every night to make sure they were taking school seriously.
The single mother of two also used her monthly child support money for Sunday school and made her kids donate to the church every week. Adelle also somehow found time to take her sons to extracurricular activities, from acting and theater programs, to basketball and track practices. Although he focused on these activities a little bit, Deland still needed something to distract him from the drama going on at home.
Love at First Whistle
After trying almost every extra-curricular activity and sport imaginable, it was football that really stuck with Deland more than anything else. Deland said that his passion for football started at a young age when his mother signed him up for a pee-wee league. The first time he heard the announcer say his name on the loudspeaker, a light went off in his head. Young Deland was in love.
From that day on, the future Kansas City Chiefs running backs coach carried a football with him everywhere he went. At that point in his life, football was more of an escape than anything else. When Deland was out on the field, he didn’t think about his mother’s newest boyfriend or the electricity getting shut off.
Sound of Glory
As Deland got older, his love for football grew. In an interview with ESPN, Deland explained, “You didn’t even think about anything… You were just out there balling, doing your thing, and competing and bonding with your friends.” Soon Deland began dedicating all of his time to football, earning him a significant amount of playing time. Adelle noticed how important football was for her son and she quickly became a one-woman cheering section.
She would bring signs and run up and down the sidelines, yelling out his nickname, “D-MACK! D-MACK!” One time, her ride didn’t show up, so she took her son’s motorcycle to the game. Still wearing her helmet, Adelle ran into the stands and started cheering for Deland.
A Change of Pace
As Deland neared the end of high school, he needed to start thinking about what was next. Deland had two options: join the Navy or play football for a small college. But then, one day, everything changed. At the start of his senior year, Deland was given the opportunity to try out for his high school’s running back position.
Deland not only got the position, but he gained the attention and respect of many college recruiters. Almost immediately, the head coaches from Youngstown State, Kansas State, and Miami of Ohio began actively pursuing Deland. Finally, Deland had options. He just needed to decide which school he wanted to play for, not knowing at the time that this decision would completely change his life.
Ticket to Ride
The now 48-year-old still remembers the first time he met Sherman Smith, the running backs coach at Miami University. He was looking out of the window during his high school English class when a bright red Mercedes pulled up in front of the school. The man driving the car got out and walked towards the school’s entrance.
A few minutes later, Deland was called down to the office where the man was waiting for him. He had a deep voice, broad shoulders, and muscular arms. As soon as Sherman saw Deland, he smiled, put out his hand for a handshake, and introduced himself. Maybe it was the car or the lack of a father figure, but Deland knew one thing for sure: he was drawn to Sherman.
A Star Is Born
Sherman, who played for the Seattle Seahawks before retiring and becoming the coach, came to convince Deland to play for his team in Miami. Even though he had just met Sherman, Deland knew that he wanted to come and play for him. “He had things that I hadn’t seen out of a man or mentor,” Deland told ESPN. “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.”
Sherman, who was also from Youngstown, knew that recruits from the area were good, but coaches told him that Deland was special. After not much convincing, Deland signed with the University of Miami, and Sherman became his new mentor.
A Place to Turn
It was important to Sherman that all of his players knew they could count on him for anything. He would tell players that even if they weren’t looking for a father, he was going to treat them all as if they were his sons. Sherman wanted to be a good influence on all of his players’ lives, which was exactly what Deland needed at the time.
There was just a certain type of energy that Sherman had, and the whole room would just gravitate towards him. But sadly, Sherman left the University of Miami after Deland’s first season. Although he went on to coach at a different school, his and Deland’s bond remained strong and the two kept in touch.
A Change of Pace
After Sherman and Deland parted ways, Deland went on to have a very successful college career where he even made it into the hall of fame. He was eventually signed to the Cincinnati Bengals, and then to a few teams in Canada before a knee injury put his professional football career on hold indefinitely.
Although his career as a football player never really took off, his love for football remained as strong as ever. After Deland got married and began to grow his family, he decided that he too, wanted to become a football coach. But as he started his coaching career, unanswered questions about his biological family took over his mind. Deland needed to find out where he came from.
A Haunting Past
It was actually the birth of Deland’s fourth child that really pushed him to find out who his biological family was. Each time he and his wife, Darnell, welcomed another baby into their family, the couple could only provide a medical history for Darnell’s side of the family. Deland, who didn’t speak about his adoption, was reminded every time that something from his life was missing.
Deland found himself at 44 years old with a wife, four kids, and a promising football coaching career, but he still had no idea who he was or where he came from. But then in 2015, Ohio and Pennsylvania finally opened adoption records, giving Deland hope he was one step closer to finding his parents.
A New Hope
By now, Deland couldn’t get the idea of finding his biological parents out of his head. Deland already had a loving and supportive mother at home, but now that he was a parent himself, Deland felt the void of not knowing his family history deepening. This motivated him to fill out all of the necessary paperwork to obtain his adoption records.
Then in 2017, more than a year after he submitted his request, Deland received his adoption papers in the mail. The moment of truth was finally here. After years of waiting, he was finally going to figure out who he really was. Deland opened the envelope, and for the first time in his life, he saw his original birth certificate.
One Name Missing
Anxiety took over Deland as he read his birth certificate. It was complete with his original name, Jon Kenneth Briggs, and the name of his mother, Carol Denise Briggs. There was, however, no information about his father. Deland reread all of his adoption papers over and over again, hoping that he missed his father’s name the first time through.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t find his father’s information anywhere. So Deland decided to do what any of us would do in that situation and reach out to his birth mother, Carol. He wasn’t sure how she would react to him reaching out, but it was Deland’s only choice. She was his only link between him and the rest of his biological family history.
Through the unsealed adoption papers, Deland discovered that Carol was also from the same Ohio town, but he still wasn’t sure how to contact her. Should he send a letter? Go and visit her face to face? In the end, Deland went with the modern route and sent her a Facebook message. A few days before Thanksgiving, Deland sent a one-sentence message asking Carol if she had given birth to a baby boy in 1972 in Allegheny County.
He pressed send and anxiously waited for her response. It was in her hands at this point. If Carol wanted to be found, she would answer. If she didn’t, then Deland would have to just carry on with his life the same way he had before. But to his surprise, Carol answered him right away.
Carol Briggs had just gotten home from work when she sat down and opened her Facebook. To her surprise, she had a message from an unfamiliar man asking her if she had given a baby up for adoption in 1972. Carol was shocked, to say the least. She thought of that baby every day since she had given birth 44 years prior.
Speechless, Carol immediately called her older brother, who was the only other person alive that knew about her secret pregnancy, to tell him the news. Her brother was skeptical of the message and warned Carol that it could be a scam or extortion, but she responded to Deland anyways. After a few back and forth messages, Carol agreed to speak with Deland on the phone.
Filling In the Blanks
In the days that followed, Carol Googled Deland’s name numerous times and read any and every article she could find about him. Carol learned that she and Deland actually lived just a few miles from each other all throughout his childhood. Her thoughts began to race as she realized that the two most likely shopped at the same grocery stores. They may have walked by one another on the sidewalk without knowing who the other one was.
Carol’s father, who was now deceased, was a huge football fan and most likely read about his own grandson’s high school football achievements without knowing the two were related. When the day finally came for Carol and Deland to speak, Deland got right to the chase. Almost immediately, he asked her who is father was.
A Past Revisited
Carol was only 16 years old when she found out she was pregnant. At the time, teens and unmarried women were sent to give birth in secret homes, far away from their families. Carol was ultimately sent to the Zoar Home for Mothers, Babies, and Convalescents in Pennsylvania, where she stayed until she gave birth in the middle of the night during a snowstorm in December 1972.
Her parents and brother drove in that day to be with her at the hospital, but as soon as she was discharged from the hospital, they took her back to her life as a “normal” 16-year-old high school honors student. Other than her immediate family, no one else knew about Carol’s secret pregnancy, not even the father of the baby.
Taking the Blame
Carol never thought of sharing the news with the father of her baby until she was filling out the adoption papers, but she ultimately decided against it. The two had a summer fling before he went off to college and she didn’t want to burden him with the news of her pregnancy.
Carol felt as if it was her fault she got pregnant, and she didn’t want to ruin the baby’s father’s chance at finishing school and making something of himself. Carol still felt like a kid herself and was in no position to raise a child. She thought that putting her baby up for adoption was the best option for everyone, including her unborn baby.
Will He Come Back?
Carol was told by the adoption agency that her baby was going to be sent to a doctor and his wife in Ohio, but little did she know that was not the case. That was Carol’s last interaction with the adoption agency, but it was not the last time she thought of her baby. She frequently searched adoption agency websites for her baby’s name and wished him a “Happy Birthday” on her Facebook every year.
Carol never married or had other children and would often joke with her family that her baby was going to show up at her door one day and find her dancing around the house alone like a crazy person. Now, she was on the phone speaking with her child for the first time, and he was asking who his father was.
The Truth Revealed
Carol took a deep breath. She hadn’t spoken his name in decades, and only two or three people knew he was the father of her baby. If he was ever going to find out he was a father, it was going to come from Carol, not through the grapevine. She hesitated for a moment, but finally told Deland, “Your father’s name is Sherman Smith.”
Deland, who was leaning up against the wall while he spoke on the phone, felt as if he was going to fall face-flat onto the floor. Memories flashed back like a movie reel of the times working with him during his first year at the University of Miami and the countless times he called him for advice. The only question remained: Did Sherman know?
Is He or Isn’t He?
That next morning, Deland called Sherman to break the news, but Deland didn’t know how or where to start. After fumbling over his words, Deland just spat it out and told Sherman that he was Deland’s father. Sherman instantly became silent. He hadn’t thought about Carol since their fling before he went off to college.
At 63 years old, Sherman was happily married to his girlfriend from college for 42 years, and the couple shared a son and daughter. The news came as a shock and Sherman needed some time to process everything. He asked Deland if he could call him back in a few days because there were some things he needed to figure out. Was Carol lying? Was there proof? How was he going to tell his family?
Even though he only found out about Deland just now, Sherman felt guilty about not being there for Carol 45 years ago. His whole career was about making a difference in young mens’ lives and teaching them about responsibility and accountability. How could his athletes look up to him when Sherman himself didn’t practice what he preached?
The 63-year-old found himself even hoping that a paternity test would prove that he wasn’t the father, which made him feel even guiltier. After thinking everything over, Sherman decided that he wanted to speak with Carol. He may not have all the answers now, but Sherman hoped that speaking with Carol would soothe some of his anxiety about the situation. So, after not speaking for 45 years, Sherman called Carol.
A Game of Catch Up
Carol was dreading this conversation with Sherman. She was embarrassed and ashamed that she hadn’t told him about his son all those years ago, and she didn’t know how Sherman would react. But there was no need to worry. Sherman was calm and the two spent a long time catching up before they even got to the subject of Deland.
When the topic was finally brought up, Carol apologized and explained why she kept the pregnancy a secret. Sherman understood and explained to Carol that their son was a good man, and she had nothing to worry about. After the conversation, both Carol and Sherman felt a sense of relief. Finally, Sherman was ready to speak to his family.
Like Father, Like Son
Sherman sat down with his family and told them the news. He explained how Sherman recruited Deland all those years ago and how the two shared a special bond on and off the field. He explained how everyone on the team would tease the two, laughing that Sherman and Deland looked and acted like the same person.
He also showed his family pictures and news articles about Deland while everyone sat there in awe. The resemblance between the two was uncanny. After speaking with his family, Sherman realized that he really cared for Deland and felt bad for what he went through. In a complete 180-degree turn, Sherman hoped that the paternity test would prove that he was Deland’s father. He wanted to be there for him.
Long Time Coming
The paternity test results came in a few weeks later, confirming Carol’s story. Sherman was indeed Deland’s father. Sherman, who recently relocated to Nashville, invited Deland over to the house to celebrate.
Deland had visited Sherman countless times, but this was the first time he was coming over as a family.
When the two embraced for the first time as father and son, Deland said that he finally felt whole again. Fast forward two years and Sherman is still a huge part of Deland’s life. “When I look at Deland, the type of guy he is, it was a gift to us,” Sherman told ESPN. “And to think, Deland Felt we were a gift to him.”