'My whole community lost my son': Mother wants answers for NJ football player death

NCPA blasts colleges' instinct to cover up after community college refuses to inform mother about details of her son's death following football workout. Braeden Bradforth's mom deserves answers!

Stephen Edelson
February 20, 2019

When Neptune High School standout Braeden Bradforth enrolled in a Kansas junior college to play football, it was with the hope of transferring to a four-year college and fulfilling a dream of someday playing in the NFL.

So there was a lot of stake for the 19-year-old Garden City Community College freshman as he desperately tried to keep up with teammates on the first day of practice on a hot, humid evening last summer.

Players ran 50-yard sprints as many as 36 times as part of a conditioning drill.

Neptune native Braeden Bradforth died of heat stroke following a football practice at Garden City (Kan.) Community College on Aug. 1, 2018.

Neptune native Braeden Bradforth died of heat stroke following a football practice at Garden City (Kan.) Community College on Aug. 1, 2018. (Photo: Joanne Atkins-Ingram)

The 6-4, 305-pound athlete was clearly in distress during the workout, according to players interviewed by USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey.

Teammate Kirby Grigsby described Braeden as “struggling a lot … he was bending over, trying to catch his breath.’’

Braeden's life ended not long after he left the practice field. After falling ill on the way back to the players' dorm, Braeden was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The autopsy pointed to "exertion heat stroke" as a probable cause.

Ever since the tragedy last Aug. 1, Braeden's mother, Joanne Atkins-Ingram, has sought answers in the hope that no parent has to experience the same anguish.

The school has completed an internal investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death, but Atkins-Ingram doesn't know what it says. The report hasn't been made public.

"I just want to know exactly what happened to my son," said Atkins-Ingram, who recently traveled to Garden City for the first time, seeking information and closure.

"I haven’t spoken to any of the coaches. No one has reached out to me to say 'We’re sorry' or anything. It’s just like my son just died and that was it. Nobody looked back or cared, except us here. And it wasn’t just me losing Braeden, my whole community lost my son."

Freedom of Information Act requests by USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey seeking the school's internal investigation have been denied.

"I requested that college staff review the matter for me so that I could analyze liability issues, if any, and provide an appropriate defense should litigation ensue," said Randall Grisell, an attorney representing both the school and the town of Garden City, in an email. "As such, the records and information provided to me as a result of the requested review is considered attorney work product, at this point. K.S.A. 45-221(a)(25) provides attorney work product need not be produced as an open record under the Kansas Open Records Act."

The FOIA requests also indicate that no investigative reports were generated by either the campus police or the Garden City Police Department relating to Braeden's death.

The football team's head coach in 2018, Jeff Sims, is now at Missouri Southern State University. An interview request through that school was declined.

"I can't help but think they really have something to hide here," said Avon attorney Jill Greene, who represents Atkins-Ingram. "This is a mother’s worst nightmare, not to know what happened. What were those last moments like for him? What transpired for him between the time he left the field and he died? What happened?

Former Neptune football player Braeden Bradforth died playing at a junior college in Kansas last summer. Braeden's mother, JoAnne Atkins-Ingram, and Avon attorney Jill Greene have recently returned from Kansas, after being stonewalled since last summer by the school and local authorities.    Avon-By-The-Sea, NJWednesday, February 13, 2019

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Former Neptune football player Braeden Bradforth died playing at a junior college in Kansas last summer. Braeden's mother, JoAnne Atkins-Ingram, and Avon attorney Jill Greene have recently returned from Kansas, after being stonewalled since last summer by the school and local authorities. Avon-By-The-Sea, NJ Wednesday, February 13, 2019  (Photo: Doug Hood )

"If someone had a dog chained up in extreme heat the authorities would come and investigate, and that person would be charged for cruelty to animals. The police didn’t even do an investigation into Braeden’s case. Are you telling me he has less rights? He doesn’t matter as much as a dog? That’s how it feels," Greene said.

Life or death situation

C.J. Anthony, a wide receiver from Atlanta, said he bonded with Braeden on his first full day at Garden City, inviting him into his dorm room, where the two played video games and talked.

"I could tell, from the moment we met, he had a good heart," Anthony said.

Details from government documents and witness interviews by USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey paint a picture of a young man desperate to succeed.

During the early evening conditioning test on Aug. 1, Anthony — the only player to complete all 36 of the 50 yard sprints in the required time: six seconds per sprint for skill position players, eight seconds for linemen — found himself focused on Braeden as he labored on the field.

RELATED: Kansas school withholds security video in football player's death

"I remember everything about it," Anthony said. "The pain in his face. He couldn't breathe. The coaches were telling him he was just being dramatic, to stand up, chewing him out, doing all kinds of stuff. I could tell he was out of whack. By the tenth one or so he wanted to stop and the coaches started chewing him up.

"(Head) coach (Jeff) Sims was saying all kinds of stuff you never say in front of other players: 'Your dad says you work hard, but you don't.' Stuff no one wants to hear. You could see the pain in his eyes, like he wanted to cry, but instead of doing that he just sucked it up and kept going.

"I felt like I was going to die, and I was in the best shape of anyone there."

RELATED: A doctor's guide to avoiding heatstroke

Kirby Grigsby, a running back who came to Garden City from across the state at Shawnee Mission West High School outside Kansas City, said he also saw Braeden's struggles in the late-day heat, with the temperature still above 80 degrees, according to Weather Underground.

"Braeden was kind of jogging through it and you could tell he was struggling a lot because he was bending over, trying to catch his breath, things like that," Grigsby said. "He kind of forced himself to do it, but it was not easy. The coaches were all over him because they were expecting a lot out of him. But you can’t really expect a lot out of someone who just got there and they didn’t really know what they had conditioning-wise."

Former Neptune football player Braeden Bradforth during a 2017 game.

Former Neptune football player Braeden Bradforth during a 2017 game. (Photo: Jillian Clohosey)

According to the coroner's report, practice ended around 9:15 p.m. Instead of going to a meeting with the rest of his teammates, Braeden started walking toward the dorms, refusing to respond to an athletic trainer.

The meeting ended around 9:30 p.m. Braeden was found in distress at around 9:45 p.m., slumped in a corner outside, his head against a wall near the players' dorm.

"He was in bad shape," said Grigsby, one of the players who found Braeden. "He was trying to breathe. He was making like a humming noise as he was trying to breathe and I could tell he was not able to breathe like he wanted to. His eyes were closed, his tongue was sticking out.

"It was a sight I’ve never seen before in my life and will never forget."

"I actually poured water on Braeden and poured it in his mouth, too, because I thought he was dehydrated or whatever, so I did my best to help," Grigsby said. "Then the trainer came and it took a while for the ambulance to come. They finally did come, but it took longer than it should have."

The EMS report obtained by the Asbury Park Press notes that the ambulance crew was notified of the situation at 10:04 p.m., arriving on the scene at 10:09 p.m. The report's narrative states that Braeden did not show up for the post-practice meeting, and that the coaches were unable to locate him after the meeting. It also indicates that a coach said they tried to wet Braeden with a hose to see if he would respond, before calling EMS.

Braeden's heart rate was 169 beats per minute at 10:24 p.m. The ambulance departed the scene at 10:29 p.m. to make the 1.6-mile trip to St. Catherine Hospital, with the hospital report noting Braeden’s arrival in the emergency room at 10:36 p.m.

Braeden Bradforth was pronounced dead at 11:06 p.m.

Sims and then-school president Herbert Swender were present at the hospital.

'It's a recipe for disaster'

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In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Sims in several media reports said Braeden’s death was due to a blood clot, while the Garden City Telegram reported Simms saying that the tragedy had nothing to do with football practice.

"Sims said an emergency room physician told him Bradforth suffered from an existing medical issue, possibly unbeknownst to the player and unrelated to athletics or the day’s physical activity,'' the Garden City Telegram story said.

Dr. Randy Eichner, an expert in the field of non-traumatic football deaths who has testified in heatstroke cases, said Braeden's death appears to be a "classic case" of heatstroke, which the autopsy subsequently confirmed.

Eichner said it happens all too often.

"It’s the coaches who are killing our kids from heatstroke. From reckless drills," Eichner said, referring to a trend of deaths attributed to college football workouts.

At least 30 players have died as a result of college football workouts since 2000, according to an investigation by HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.

Eichner said documents and witness interviews that indicated after the workout Braeden "(wandered) away in the wrong direction afterward ... sure sound like heatstroke. They are sometimes able to walk off the field but not walking and thinking normally. Korey Stringer did it in the NFL in his heatstroke. Eraste Autin did it in his heatstroke at the University of Florida. In fact, he was seen jogging down the stadium drive after he was clearly in heatstroke.''

Stringer died of heatstroke in 2001 while playing for the Minnesota Vikings, while Autin was a freshman football player at Florida who died of heatstroke in 2001.

"Their brain is confused, but it's probably telling them that safety is away from the coaches."

Neptune's Braeden Bradforth (center) poses with teammates after the 2018 Gridiron Classic All-Star Game.

Neptune's Braeden Bradforth (center) poses with teammates after the 2018 Gridiron Classic All-Star Game. (Photo: Joanne Atkins-Ingram)

Eichner noted that there should have been a gradual acclimation to the local altitude for Braeden over at least a five-day period before being asked to take the conditioning test.

"They shouldn't take a 300-pound man who has just arrived by plane 36 hours before and try to make him run 36 50-yard sprints. That's over a mile. It’s a recipe for disaster," Eichner said.

Garden City Community College is a member of the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference for two-year schools. The conference is part of the National Junior College Athletic Association. In the NJCAA's 330-page "Official Handbook and Casebook" covering different protocols for sports, preventing heat stroke is not specifically addressed. "It is the responsibility of each member institution to develop procedures and follow practices that reflect the current standards of student-athlete care," the document says.

Since founding the National College Athletes Players Association, an advocacy group that fights for the rights of college athletes, Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player, said he's repeatedly seen a lack of transparency from school and government officials after such tragedies.

"We've seen schools cover up their negligence, their athletic staff’s abusive behavior, and that’s the instinct of schools by and large," Huma said.

He added that Garden City was making a mistake by not being more forthcoming, making the same missteps as Michigan State University, widely faulted for failing to take steps to protect athletes from Lawrence Nassar, the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and MSU osteopathic physician accused of sexually assaulting several hundred young athletes over decades.

He was sentenced to hundreds of years in prison after pleading guilty to a series of sex charges.

"Some of the stuff that unfolded in the Larry Nassar Michigan State sexual assault scandal, it seems like Michigan State did not take the proper steps to truly address it. It seems the actions were more to cover things up and protect its brand and in matters of serious injury, abuse, death, it has no place," Huma said.

No accountability

Garden City Community College indicated after receiving the autopsy results on Nov. 29 that it would conduct an internal review, noting that, "the ongoing review is intended to ensure that the college can transparently inform the community, the media, and — most importantly — Braeden’s family of the accurate facts and circumstances surrounding Braeden’s death.’’

State Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, said an outside, independent investigation is needed. In a Jan. 27 letter, Gopal asked Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, to launch a separate probe.

"This matter needs the force, authority, and expertise that only the Kansas Attorney General’s Office can provide," Gopal wrote.

Schmidt said his office doesn't have authority to investigate what it considers a civil matter.