An Adopted NFL Coach Searched For His Biological Parents. His Former Coach Turned Out To Be His Real Father

The Vivid Faces of the Vanished
Deland McCullough and Sherman SmithPhoto byFacebook

On December 1, 1972, 16-year-old Carol Briggs enjoyed sledding in the snow with some of the other girls from the Zoar Home for Mothers, Babies and Convalescents in Allison Park, Pennsylvania. Around 2:30 am, Carol woke up in labor. Before 3 am, she had become a young mother of a baby boy. She named him Jon Kenneth Briggs. No one outside of her immediate family knew about her pregnancy, not even Jon's father.

"He was a kid too," Carol told ESPN. "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."

Her parents gave Carol their blessing on her decision to adopt the baby and after Jon was born, she signed the papers and went back home to Youngstown, Ohio where she was a National Honor Society member.

"My mother was still cleaning up my room for me once a week," Carol told ESPN. "I wasn't in a position to be anybody's mother. I thought this was best for him, that I allow him to be placed with some family that would be able to give him all the great things that I had coming up because I had a mother and a father. I just didn't want him to get cheated out of anything."

Adelle Comer her husband, AC McCullough, and their son, Damon, lived in a three-bedroom house on a quiet cul-de-sac in Youngstown. The couple lost a son, Alex, who died of an intestinal birth defect at 28 days old. In January 1973, they adopted a 6-week-old baby boy they named Deland Scott McCullough.

"He was asleep in a bassinet," Adelle told ESPN. "And she put him in my arms, and when he woke up, his eyes were looking straight at me. It was instant connection. Love. Mother-son."

They were a happy family.

"We were still in love, a good couple," Adelle told ESPN. "We went to church, partied, went to cookouts. We were working together and doing this together and wanting to make a home for our children. We knew that God's hand was in it. Deland came so fast to us. We knew that it was meant to be. Both of us."

Unfortunately, things quickly changed. Adelle's father suffered a stroke and came to live with the family, against the wishes of her husband, AC. Their relationship ended and AC moved out when Deland was 2 years old.

Growing up, Adelle told Deland the truth about his adoption. Deland had no interest in finding his biological parents and Adelle was unable to provide any information about them anyway.

Adelle took on her role as a single mother. Although they struggled at times and moved often, she always pushed the importance of their education and shuttled them to various activities around the city. She worked multiple jobs but found the time to be on the sidelines with signs cheering Deland on at his football games. "D-MACK! D-MACK," ESPN reported.

Deland held the running back position his senior year and caught the attention of multiple coaches, including Sherman Smith, then the running back coach for Miami University in Ohio. Sitting in class at Campbell Memorial High School one afternoon, he was called into the office where he was greeted by a tall, broad-shouldered man with a bold voice.

"I'm Sherman Smith, the running backs coach at Miami University," he said, firmly shaking Deland's hand. Deland immediately sensed something about Sherman.

"It was just something about his personality," Deland told ESPN. "The way he presented himself. He had things that I hadn't seen out of a man or mentor. He was on top of his details. He was successful. He had played in the NFL. He got his degree. I wasn't around that type of person."

The pair formed a relationship and Deland signed to play at Miami.

"Well, Coach Smith was hard not to love," Adelle told ESPN. "I fell in love with him the first time. He was just a gentleman. And he was very attentive and respectful to me."

Deland has an immense amount of respect and admiration for Coach Smith.

"I would tell the players, 'You may not be looking for a father, but I'm going to treat you like you're my sons,'" Smith 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."

Although Deland left Miami after a season to play for the University of Illinois, the two stayed closely in touch.

"He was everything," Deland told ESPN. "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."

Deland went on to play in the NFL and later to coach at Miami University. Before starting his new job, he called Coach Smith, who was working for Seattle, for some advice. In 2014, Deland was coaching for Indiana University. By then he had married his beautiful wife, Darnell, and started a family of his own. The couple has four sons. It was after the births of his own children, that Deland began to wonder about his biological parents. By the time he and Coach Smith were reunited on the field in 2014, Deland was searching for his family.

In 2017, Deland was able to locate the name Carol Briggs as the name of his mother. He got on Facebook and found a woman named Carol Briggs who lived in Youngstown and decided to send her a message.

"Did you have a baby in 1972 in Allegheny County that you placed for adoption," the message read?

"Yes," she responded.

"What did you name him," he messaged back.

"Not Deland," she responded.

Deland chuckled to himself.

"What did you name him," he sent again.

"Jon," she responded.

Carol Briggs could not believe her blessing. She immediately Googled his name and read all the stories she could on Deland. She stared at his pictures and the details of his face.

Deland called his mother. After 44 years, he had finally found her. The two talked as if they had always known each other. The mother and son realized that during his childhood they lived within a few miles of each other in Youngstown, something Carol was unaware of as she thought he was adopted by a doctor and his wife in Columbus, Ohio. Carol and Adelle probably shopped at some of the same stores in the area.

Then, Deland asked her the question, "Who is my father?"

"Your father's name is Sherman Smith," Carol said, ESPN reports.

Deland almost passed out. Carol could hear the gasp in his voice and the emotion through the phone.

"Do you know him," she asked.

"Oh, yeah. I know him. I know him very well," Deland responded.

"I could hear him take a big breath," Carol told ESPN. "And I could kind of hear him choke up a little. And finally, he says, 'Well, I've known Sherman my whole life.'"

Deland McCullough had known his biological father, Sherman Smith, for 28 years and neither one had any idea.

The following day, Deland called Sherman and told him he had found his biological parents.

"Praise the Lord!" Sherman told Deland. "What a blessing!"

"I asked her who my biological father was, and she said you," Deland told Sherman.

For the first time since Deland had known him, Coach Sherman Smith was quiet.

Yes, he knew Carol Briggs. Yes, he knew her in "that way." No, he never knew she was pregnant. Coach Smith had been married to his college sweetheart for 42 years and had an adult son and daughter, and he was just- in shock. He told Deland he needed time to think.

Coach Sherman Smith is a great man. He is a man of God, an excellent father, husband, and role model. After the shock, the second emotion he felt was guilt. He has always stressed the importance of fatherhood, accountability, and responsibility to his players, and his life was built around making their lives better. He felt he failed Carol and Deland.

"Being irresponsible is not neutral," Sherman Smith told ESPN. "When you're irresponsible, someone becomes responsible for what you've been irresponsible for."

Sherman requested to speak with Carol. Something Carol cried about before it happened.

"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."

They two had a remarkable conversation. Carol explained her decision to hide her pregnancy and Sherman apologized for her having to make that decision on her own.

Sherman told his wife, Sharon, and children, Sherman and Shavonne. They were happy and supportive.

"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,'" Sherman told ESPN.

The DNA test came back 99.99% that Coach Sherman Smith and Deland McCullough were father and son.

Deland was in Nashville and stopped to see Sherman for the first time since they got the results.

"I'm pretty sure he was nervous," Sherman told ESPN. "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."

When Deland walked up the steps to the home, Sherman opened his arms and said, "My son."

"For so many years that I was around him, the embrace was, 'Hey, Coach, how you doing?'" Deland told ESPN. "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. 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."

Both Carol and Sherman are forever grateful to Adelle Comer.

"She did what I couldn't do," Carol told ESPN. "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."

Carol Briggs's social media is full of love for her son, grandchildren, and family. This family is blessed with a group of truly remarkable people.

"Now I know who I am and where I'm from," Deland told ESPN. "I got all of the pieces to the story. I got them all now."

Deland McCullough and Sherman Smith tell their story in the new film, "Show Me The Father," a must-watch for everyone of all ages.

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