APP Article on Bill Named after Braeden'How do I talk about the worst day of my life?' Mother of NJ football player mourning one year after his death
By Stephen Edelman APP Writer -
I never knew Braeden Bradforth, but I wish I had.
And as I stood on Pop Warner field where his football career began, exactly one year after his life tragically ended nearly 2,000 miles away, I felt an incredibly strong connection to the gentle giant, having chronicled this relentless crusade for answers and accountability locally, and the inexplicable inaction by a Kansas junior college.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Braeden would have thought about the scene late Thursday afternoon. Family and friends, coaches and teammates, gathered to both celebrate his legacy on the anniversary of his passing due to exertional heatstroke at Garden City Community College, and insure this never happens to another community.
His mom, Joanne Atkins-Ingram, surrounded by hundreds of supporters who have followed her in the quest for justice, cried for the 366th straight day. Her tenacious lawyer, Jill Greene, made it clear that the fight continues in his name. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said he is proposing a new law that seeks to protect athletes from heatstroke as a way of honoring Braeden's memory. And Tarig Holman, his old coach at Neptune High School, spoke passionately about a kid with a big appetite, and an even bigger dream.
"It’s so bittersweet," Atkins-Ingram told me. "Exactly one year ago I was in the same building sitting at the same desk looking at the same phone that I received the phone call I would never, ever imagine getting. So in a year a lot happens for people, but for me time has stood still. Because I was in the very same place I was exactly one year ago today, For me, the world went dark, and my heart was ripped out of my body. It is just unbearable, because the pain is just indescribable."
These are strong people, whose actions over the past 12 months in the face of a senseless tragedy have rekindled my faith in the power of the human spirit, while showing everyone that action locally can resonate nationally.
I still find it incomprehensible what they’ve had to overcome.
Garden City failed to protect a 6-4, 315-pound young man in its care before exhibiting a stunning lack of transparency in the months that followed, from failing to preserve campus security video from that evening to refusing to release the results of an internal investigation into Braeden’s death. In between, the Kansas Attorney General’s office refused to look into the matter, while the school president reneged on an offer to sit down with the family and share information on the case.
Yet in May, they finally got the school to blink when it agreed to spend $100,000 on an independent investigation, to be conducted by Dr. Rod Walters, who handed the case of Jordan McNair, who died of heatstroke at the University of Maryland last year. The report he produced led to changes at the school to protect athletes, and ultimately the ouster of head coach DJ Durkin.
And then there’s Jeff Sims, the Garden City head coach last season who has since moved on to become the leader at Missouri Southern. In the aftermath of Braeden’s death he said publicly he was told it was the result of a blood clot — the autopsy debunked that — and an act of God.
‘’It’s unfortunate what happened, but God has a plan," Sims said last week when pressed by television station KCUR during the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Conference football media day in Kansas City. "We’ve had two investigations, and everybody knows what happened that day. It didn’t happen at football practice; it happened after football practice.”
Some fact-checking so we’re crystal clear on all this:
There’s only been one investigation completed, with the school exonerating itself from any wrongdoing. Sims is one of the few who knows what actually happened. And had Braeden been at the library that night, not running 50-yard sprints 36 times, with several of his former teammates confirming they were denied access to water, he would not have died of heatstroke later that evening.
"When I talk about him I still get that sinking feeling in my stomach," Holman said. "I’m still fighting back tears, and since I found out the cause of Braeden’s untimely death, some of those tears have turned to anger and frustration because I know that heatstroke can be prevented. It can be prevented by adults that are caring for children who care enough to just pay attention. It’s our responsibility as parents, coaches and community members to care enough to pay attention. And we lost a great one, and it hurts."
There will be litigation, which could be the only way to get answers at this point, although they’re waiting to see what the school’s latest attempt to uncover what really happened that night turns up. The results of that investigation are expected sometime in October.
Journalists are often simply bystanders, detached from the everyday realities of stories they cover. But I’ve felt an emotional connection to this one, having learned more than I ever could have imagined. Lessons about how strong this community is, and how an issue involving one of their own can unite, energize and mobilize.
The resiliency, character and courage everyone involved has shown has been nothing short of inspiring.
Stephen Edelson is a USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey sports columnist who has been covering athletics in the state and at the Jersey Shore for nearly 35 years. He’s passionate about the area’s rich sports history, and the history being made today.