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Kansas school denies wrongdoing in 'unfortunate' death of football player last summer

Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno
Facebook/Jayhawk Network

The family of Tirrell Williams is still searching for answers after the 19-year-old lineman collapsed during an August 2021 football practice at Ft. Scott Community College. Williams' death is similar to that of Braeden Bradforth, who died of exertional heat stroke at Garden City Community College in 2018.

For the second time in three years, a football player at a Kansas community college collapsed and died after a summer practice. Once again, the school denies it contributed to the teen’s death.

Tirrell Williams, of Gretna, Louisiana, died of heat stroke in August 2021 after practice at Fort Scott Community College, 80 miles south of Kansas City.

A death certificate provided to the family said he suffered a brain injury from lack of oxygen, septic shock and muscle tissue damage.

His death was uncannily similar to that of Braeden Bradforth, who died of exertional heat stroke at Garden City Community College in 2018. Both players were 19 years old, both were Black and both were 6-foot-3-inch linemen weighing more than 300 pounds.

And like Bradforth, Williams was beloved.

“I truly do not think he had any enemies,” his mother, Tasha Washington, said in an email. “He was everyone’s protector, from his family to his close friends!”

Among his close friends was teammate Donald Harper, who grew up in Fort Scott.

“This dude never stopped smiling. It could be raining, and he would be literal sunshine,” Harper said “There was no sadness in him. He was all joy.”

According to interviews with four players and the trainer at the time, Williams collapsed in the middle of what coaches called gassers — sprints back and forth across the practice field.

The sprints weren’t part of the planned pre-season workout. Harper said the team was being punished because Carson Hunter, the team’s lawyer-turned- head football coach, found a candy wrapper on the field.

“We were on gasser number eight or nine when Tirrell collapsed,” Harper told KCUR.

He said Hunter briefly stopped the workout but then resumed the gassers while Williams was passed out on the field.

At the time, there was no trainer at the practice and nothing on site to treat a possible heat collapse.

“I didn’t care for the way (Hunter) handled things when I wasn’t there,” said Tanner Forrest, who was the only trainer employed by Fort Scott Community College (FSCC) last August.

Tirrell Williams was a multisport athlete in Louisiana before coming to Kansas to play football for Fort Carson Community College.
Tirrell Williams was a multisport athlete in Louisiana before coming to Kansas to play football for Fort Carson Community College.

The college denies any culpability in Williams’ death.

“We could find nothing that we did that contributed to the young man's very unfortunate and tragic death,” FSCC President Alysia Johnston said at a board of trustees meeting in December.

Johnston also denied that Williams’ death had anything to do with the decision to abruptly end a 93-year-old football program in the middle of the season after the Greyhounds had won only three of their last 22 games.

“We simply do not have the resources to maintain a football team that would be competitive in the Jayhawk Conference,” FSCC said in a statement in November following the action by the board of trustees.

But while school officials expressed faith in head coach Carson Hunter even after ending the football program, former players described him as a mean and at times ruthless coach.

Hunter took an unusual path to coaching. After playing at the University of Memphis from 2002 to 2006, he enrolled in law school. According to his FSCC bio, he “worked in Nashville as a corporate defense attorney” after graduating law school. He coached high school football in Tennessee before getting a job as an assistant coach at Murray State University in Kentucky.

He was 38 when he landed the head coaching job on New Year’s Day 2020.

“We’re going to be a program that is values-based, not results-based,” he told KOAM-TV in Pittsburg, Kansas, soon after he was hired. “We’re going to be built on the relationships we can have with our players and their families.”

Hunter also prided himself on his Christian faith. In his FSCC bio, he described himself as an “Admitted and outspoken imperfect-but-devout Believer.”

But some Fort Scott players had a very different view of him. KCUR agreed to withhold the identities of three players who requested anonymity to be able to speak candidly without hurting future opportunities to play college football.

“Very selfish,” one player told KCUR. “Doesn’t care about anybody but himself.”

“I’m a Christian man,” another player recalled Hunter telling his mother in the family’s home during a recruiting visit. “I go to church every Sunday.”

After what happened to Tirrell Williams, this player said, “Ain’t no way that man’s a Christian.”

 Fort Scott Community College President Alysia Johnston talks during the school's December board meeting.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Fort Scott Community College President Alysia Johnston talks during the school's December board meeting.

Top FSCC officials disagree. When asked if she thought player safety was a priority for Hunter, college president Johnston didn’t hesitate.

“I do,” she said. “I believe that with all my heart.”

Athletic Director and Vice President of Student Affairs Tom Havron went further.

“He has a great future of coaching ahead of him moving on from here, I think he's going to do great things,” he told KCUR at the trustee meeting in December.

Hunter did not respond to multiple requests for comment from KCUR.

A lot about the Aug. 4, 2021, practice in which Williams died remains unknown. The family has hired a lawyer who is investigating, although no lawsuit has been filed. The college has hired an Overland Park law firm preparing to defend against a possible lawsuit. Players have told KCUR they’ve been interviewed by attorneys representing FSCC.

But interviews with players and the trainer provide a picture of what happened the day Williams collapsed.

At that summer practice, players say they were denied water — just like the practice in Garden City where 19-year-old lineman Braden Bradforth died. The college denies the players were denied water.

“Water is for the weak,” one of Williams’ teammates said Hunter repeatedly told his players.

The same player said Hunter called denying water during summer conditioning “paying dues.”

The candy wrapper punishment included both gassers and something called up-downs, where players drop to the ground and then pop back up. Before the sprints, players say, they were forced to do 300 up-downs.

A player told gmtm.com, a site that covers junior college athletics, that Hunter told Williams to “make sure your chest hits the ground on every rep.” A few minutes later, the player said, Hunter made the team start running gassers and Williams “collapsed and struggled to get back up” before “falling face-forward and lying unconscious on the dirt.”

The scene was confirmed to KCUR by former FSCC trainer Tanner Forrest, who now works at a southeast Kansas high school.

“He was on the ground when I got there, and he seemed to be having a seizure,” Forrest said.

Williams didn’t respond when two assistant coaches knelt to check on him.

The story was confirmed by Williams’ teammate Donald Harper.

“We can hear them, like, yelling his name,” Harper told KCUR. Players tried to give him water from their own water bottles. But “one of the coaches picked up the water and launched it onto the field,” Harper said.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

The college admits that on that August afternoon in Kansas, it was up to players to provide their own water.

“There was not water provided by the trainer, which is who usually provided it, but there was not denial of water,” FSCC President Johnston said.

Williams was taken to a local emergency clinic and then transferred to the University of Kansas Hospital, where he was in a coma for two weeks before he died.

The whole time, William’s mother said she was left in the dark.

“I was never told he was non-responsive,” Tasha Washington said. “I was told they were moving him to the bigger hospital for precautionary measures and to keep him for observation. It was 100% underplayed by the coaching staff,” she told KCUR.

It was a KU nurse who informed her how dire her son’s condition was and who felt so bad that she “paid out of her own pocket for me to fly up there,” Washington said.

Williams was far from the only football player to succumb to heat in 2021.

In a November 2021 column, “The Heat Is On: Exertional Heatstroke in Football,” in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports, former University of Oklahoma team doctor Randy Eichner wrote: “In a span of just 2 months last summer, from late June to late August, nine football players collapsed and died. All nine were linemen. All nine were at the mercy of demanding coaches in brutal heat. All nine were teenagers.”

Since retiring from OU, Eichner has been an outspoken critic of coaches who overwork players and deny water. Saying “water is for the weak,” “reflects caveman ignorance and reckless endangerment,” he told KCUR when asked about Hunter’s comment.

Eichner was also critical of working linemen the size of Williams so hard in the summer heat, especially as a form of punishment.

FSCC officials argue it was unusually cool for an August evening in Kansas. The high that day was 83 degrees. Eichner said that was still too hot for the kind of workout Hunter demanded.

“This punishment workout by this coach was a recipe for death in the sun,” Eichner said.

And it wasn’t just football players who had heat issues that August. A week after Williams died, three FSCC track athletes were rushed to the hospital with heat symptoms, according to former trainer Forrest.

“They got hot after a practice and we cared for them and they were okay. And they're fine today,” Athletic Director Havron said.

 Fort Scott Community College Athletic Director Tom Havron talks during a December board meeting at the school.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Fort Scott Community College Athletic Director Tom Havron talks during a December board meeting at the school.

While the college didn’t try to hide Williams’ death, it didn’t say much about it either.

“Our Greyhound family has suffered a devastating loss,” the school posted on Twitter on Aug. 20 after Williams died. “We send all our prayers, love and support to the family of Tirrell Williams.”

Three days after the tweet, there was a brief mention of Williams dying at the board of trustees meeting — but not until after a long discussion about new, artificial turf for the baseball field, the athletic department’s COVID protocols and the start of the volleyball season.

With only ten minutes left in the meeting, a hesitant Havron turned to President Johnston, seemingly unsure about whether to mention the death.

He got a nod from his boss.

“Last Friday, we did have a student athlete who was a football player who passed away,” he told the trustees. “He collapsed during a workout August 4th.” Havron added that they brought counselors on campus.

There was no reaction from the trustees — no offer of condolences, no discussion on how to memorialize the young man and no discussion on how to prevent something like this from happening again.

William’s mother said she has had minimal contact with the college since her son’s death.

“Mostly impersonal paperwork to the wrong address,” she said.

Washington says she is considering all options, “including legal action.”

As for Carson Hunter, he was on the payroll of FSCC until Jan. 31, 2021, according to online board of trustee documents. The college said he did not have a contract and made $53,800 a year.

KCUR emailed Hunter twice, left messages on his mobile phone twice and knocked on the front door of his home in Ft. Scott. He did not respond.

After Garden City Community College agreed to pay the family of Braedon Bradforth $500,000 for his death, the college planted a tree on campus as a remembrance.

To date, FSCC has made no plans to memorialize Tirrell Williams.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Sam grew up in Overland Park and was educated at the University of Kansas. After working in Philadelphia where he covered organized crime, politics and political corruption he moved on to TV news management jobs in Minneapolis and St. Louis. Sam came home in 2013 and covered health care and education at KCPT. He came to work at KCUR in 2014. Sam has a national news and documentary Emmy for an investigation into the federal Bureau of Prisons and how it puts unescorted inmates on Grayhound and Trailways buses to move them to different prisons. Sam has one son and is pretty good in the kitchen.