It’s November in Southern California, and NFL coach Deland McCullough is waiting for the news that will change his life. More than four decades ago, Deland’s birth mother gave him up to be raised by another family. Now, the files containing her name have finally arrived – but they lead to a revelation more staggering than anyone could have imagined.
By the time that Deland’s adoption papers arrived in late 2017, he was working at the University of Southern California, where he coached the football team’s running backs. With a wife, four children and a fulfilling career, his life had been a success by anyone’s definition. However, his path had sometimes been a rocky one.
Deland was born Jon Briggs in December 1972 at a home for mothers and babies in Pennsylvania. His mom, 16-year-old Carol Briggs, had fallen pregnant after a fling and hadn’t told Jon’s father about his existence. Instead, she decided that adoption was the best way to provide their child with the opportunities that she could not.
At just six weeks old, Jon was introduced to Adelle Comer and A.C. McCullough, a couple living in Youngstown, Ohio. And by March 1973 the child, now known as Deland, was officially their son. But even though the family enjoyed a comfortable domestic life at first, things began to go downhill after Adelle’s father fell ill and moved into their home. Eventually, the resulting tension took its toll on the couple’s relationship.
Only two years of age at the time, Deland once more found himself without a father figure. But despite the challenges of being a single mother, Adelle was determined to give the boy and his brother Damon the best possible start in life. To that end, she encouraged them to work hard at school and to participate in faith-based and sporting activities.
From a young age, Deland nurtured a passion for football. And while Adelle sometimes found it tough to make ends meet, the field offered him an escape from the challenges of home life. “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,” he told ESPN in September 2018.
By his senior year of high school, Deland was playing as running back – and his skills soon brought college recruiters calling. Among them was Sherman Smith, a coach at Miami University in Ohio. And the former NFL player charmed both the aspiring footballer and his mom.
Soon, Deland had agreed to play for Sherman’s school. And even though the other coaches there pressured Deland into changing positions, he agreed to take a redshirt year in order to play running back. Over time, the two men developed a father-son relationship, with Deland coming to rely on Sherman for companionship and advice.
Although Sherman eventually moved on from Miami University, he remained in contact with Deland. Proudly, the older man witnessed his protégé excelling in his performances. Eventually, Deland took a position with the Cincinnati Bengals, before suffering a knee injury that would blight his career. And even though he did return to professional football, Deland retired permanently in 2001.
With his football-playing days now behind him, Deland, who by this point had a wife and a son, found work as a teacher and coach at a school in Cincinnati, OH. Finding a role on the sidelines to his liking, he subsequently returned to Miami University as a member of staff. Meanwhile, Sherman had begun coaching professional football and offered Deland advice on his formative career.
Eventually, Deland became a coach at Indiana University, remaining on good terms with his former mentor. However, behind the scenes he was preoccupied by a desire to find out who his birth parents were. Apparently, the mystery hadn’t bothered him during his younger days. But as he became older and had children of his own, he began to wonder more about his roots.
In late 2016 Deland took advantage of a change in state law that allowed new access to adoption records. But after completing the necessary forms, it would be over a year before the files eventually arrived on his doorstep. Finally, he discovered his birth name – along with that of his biological mom.
Within weeks, Deland had reached out to Carol on Facebook. And soon, they arranged to speak on the telephone. But even though their conversation was comfortable and friendly, it was full of revelations for the estranged pair. For instance, Deland had grown up a few miles from Carol in Youngstown, not with a doctor’s family in Columbus, OH, as she had believed.
But the biggest shock by far was yet to come. When Deland asked Carol about the rest of his biological family, her response left him reeling. “Your father’s name is Sherman Smith,” she told him. Amazingly, the two men had known each other for 28 years, with neither ever suspecting the true nature of their relationship.
In fact, Sherman – who by this point had been married for more than four decades – had no idea that his teenage fling, Carol, had fallen pregnant, let alone given a son up for adoption all those years ago. Nevertheless, Deland decided that he had to tell his former mentor the truth.
The very next day, Deland called Sherman and told him that Carol had named Sherman as his biological father. Apparently, the older man’s first reaction was one of guilt, feeling as if he had let both Deland and his mother down. But after a friendly conversation with his former fling, Sherman began to feel better about things.
Apparently, many who knew Deland and Sherman had made comments over the years about how similar the two men were. “Man, you and Coach Smith look alike,” Deland recalled people saying. “Man, you all walk alike.” And as he waited for the results of a DNA test, Sherman began to see it, too.
Weeks later, tests confirmed what both men already suspected – they were indeed father and son. And soon, the pair reunited in Nashville, Tennessee, where Sherman was now living with his wife. The older man met Deland with a paternal embrace. And thankfully, there was no animosity between any of the people involved.
In July 2018 Deland, Sherman, Carol and Adelle all gathered for an extended family reunion, marveling over the twist of fate that had at last united them. “She did what I couldn’t do,” Carol said gratefully when asked about Adelle’s role in raising her son. “She gave him all the tools that he needed in growing up to be the successful man that he is right now.”