Joanne Atkins-Ingram recently stepped off the same flight as her son — New Jersey to Dallas to Garden City — six months after he first came to Garden City in early August 2018.
Braeden Bradforth had left his New Jersey home to play collegiate football, and after one day of practice at Garden City Community College, he was dead at 19.
Bradforth, who Atkins-Ingram called "Tubby," died of exertional heat stroke after an evening football practice, according to an autopsy report.
Ever since, Atkins-Ingram has been looking for answers as to what happened to her son that night, and she says she has received few.
“I just want to know what really happened with my son,” Atkins-Ingram said in a recent interview while in Garden City. “You just don’t go from perfectly healthy to you go some place and two days later you’re no longer here.”
Atkins-Ingram and her lawyer, Jill Greene, also a longtime friend of the family, spoke with several witnesses during and after their recent visit to Garden City, Greene said. From those interactions, and after reviewing copies of medical reports, they have received somewhat of a bigger picture of what happened that night, but no answers have come from the college itself.
Former GCCC football player Kirby Grigsby told The Telegram that Bradforth was yelled at the night he died while participating in a conditioning drill that consisted of at least 20 50-yard sprints. Grigsby added that getting water would be punished by the GCCC coaching staff.
Another former player, Kahari Foy-Walton, says that water was entirely withheld from players.
The Telegram obtained a copy of Bradforth's autopsy report, and Greene provided copies of the coroner’s report, the emergency medical services report on the incident and the hospital report. Those reports provide some context as to how and what led to Bradforth's death.
An “intense” practice on Aug. 1 ended at 9:15 p.m., and the team had a meeting immediately after, but Bradforth, “instead of walking towards the meeting, started to walk towards his dorm room … refusing to answer the athletic trainer," the coroner's report said. About 9:45, Bradforth was found unresponsive outside of the GCCC dorms, having thrown up. It took another 25 minutes for an ambulance to arrive on scene.
He was then transported to St. Catherine Hospital at 10:36 p.m., about an hour after the end of practice. He was pronounced dead at 11:06 p.m., according to multiple reports.
Grigsby said he was one of the first GCCC players to find Bradforth in distress, and he said he poured water on Bradforth and into his mouth, “because I thought he was dehydrated.”
Soon after, Grigsby said, the players called over assistant coach Caleb Young, who then called over a trainer. Grigsby could not recall which GCCC trainer. Grigsby said he then left the scene and took a shower, and when he got out, the ambulance had just arrived.
Attempts to reach Young for comment were unsuccessful.
The EMS report states that unnamed GCCC coaches also wet Bradforth with a hose to see if he would respond, before an ambulance was dispatched at 10:04 p.m. and got to GCCC five minutes later.
“There is a block of time between when he left the football field and a meeting went on that he did not attend, and then he’s found collapsed …,” Greene said. “What happened during that time?”
Greene and Atkins-Ingram also want to know why the trainer wasn't concerned when Bradforth did not respond right after practice ended.
“That in and of itself should have been a red flag for the trainer, for the staff,” Greene said.
And why, Green said, didn't anybody look for Bradforth when he didn’t attend the meeting?
“If Braeden’s found a quarter to 10, why did the call to EMS only come at 10:04? If you see a child, and he’s non-responsive, something is clearly wrong,” Greene said.
GCCC remains silent
GCCC previously issued a statement saying it conducted a review of Bradforth’s death, but that the review will not be made public.
“The review was conducted at my request and is considered attorney work product,” GCCC attorney Randy Grisell said in an email to The Telegram on Feb. 15, suggesting the report is not accessible to the public and exempt from open records laws. “Right now, I do not intend to make the entirety of the review public."
Grisell said Monday it has not been determined what, if any, of the review will be made public.
The college first announced the review in December in a press release that stated then-interim President Ryan Ruda ordered the review.
“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,” the release stated.
But since, the college has not released any details from the review to the public, or to Bradforth’s family.
“Braeden’s mother has publicly stated she intends to sue the college, and her attorney has served a KSA 12-105b Notice of Claim on the college, so I am treating the matter as an adversarial claim,” Grisell said, explaining the decision to not make the review public.
Kansas code requires a notice of claim be filed prior to the beginning of a lawsuit, but the notice of claim does not guarantee a lawsuit will be filed.
Atkins-Ingram had said in an interview with NJ Advance Media after the release of the autopsy report that she planned to sue. But she told The Telegram later that she wished she would have been more measured in her response.
“It’s not just about Braeden,” she said. “It’s about the entire team. And it’s for the adults to be held accountable.”
If college employees made a mistake, Atkins-Ingram said, she wants to know that those mistakes will be avoided in the future, and how GCCC is addressing that.
Atkins-Ingram said she had one conversation with Ruda in September or October, but has not been able to reach him since.
“ … due to the KSA filing, all communication is limited to being between legal representation,” GCCC Director of Public Relations Ashley Salazar said when The Telegram asked Ruda for comment.
Former GCCC football coach Jeff Sims declined to comment, saying he had been advised by both GCCC and his new school, Missouri Southern State University, to not comment.
Greene and Atkins-Ingram say they want to see an outside, independent review conducted.
New Jersey Sen. Vin Gopal requested in January that Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt open an independent investigation into the death of Bradforth, who was a New Jersey resident, as is Greene and Atkins-Ingram.
Schmidt’s office declined the request, saying “the circumstances surrounding Braeden’s death are not within the civil investigative purview of the Kansas Attorney General,” CJ Grover, public information officer for the AG's office, told The Telegram on Feb. 25.
The EMS report states that an unnamed teammate of Bradforth and unnamed GCCC coaches described Bradforth going through an “intense workout” before he collapsed.
According to Grigsby, the practice that evening consisted of mainly conditioning drills. He said that all players were instructed to run 50-yard sprints with 30 seconds rest in between.
Greene said she’s been told by witnesses, who she would not disclose, that players were instructed to run 36 50-yard sprints. Grigsby said it was at least 20 to 30.
That was enough for Bradforth to build up a tremendous amount of heat, according to a former team physician for the University of Oklahoma, Randy Eichner.
Eichner, also a professor emeritus of medicine at Oklahoma and a co-chair of an NCAA task force researching deaths of football players, has been providing his expertise to Atkins-Ingram and Greene.
Eichner said Bradforth’s size (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) meant he had an increased likelihood of exertional heat stroke, and that the temperature of that evening — somewhere in the mid-80s, depending on when Bradforth’s group was running, and the jump in altitude from Bradforth’s home of Neptune, N.J., and Garden City (an increase of 2,800 feet) just increased those chances.
“The tragic death of Braeden Bradforth — which could and should have been avoided — raises serious questions about GCCC football, and maybe even raises the question of reckless endangerment, led by head coach Jeff Sims,” Eichner told The Telegram in December.
At least two players have claimed that the coaching staff denied players water during conditioning drills, and another said water was available but players would be chastised and potentially punished for drinking.
According to an article by KCUR, former GCCC player Johnny Jean said that water was withheld from players during the practice. Foy-Walton said the same in an interview with The Telegram.
“When we first started, I thought they were crazy. I ain’t never been at practice when they said we couldn’t get water,” Jean told KCUR. “During the whole summer, we weren’t allowed to get water during practice, then we started drinking water during fall camp when you start playing games.”
A direct message to Jean seeking further comment was unreturned. Foy-Walton confirmed the players were denied water during workouts and condition, “but it was for the best of us and to make us better and more conditioned,” he said in a Twitter direct message.
Grigsby said that water was not explicitly withheld from players, but if players drank water then the perception was they would be punished for it.
“Water was available, but if you got water, you were considered done,” he said. “If you got water, it was basically over and you had to do your conditioning all over again the next morning.”
For Eichner, denying water "reflects how brutal the coach is," and is a dangerous tactic.
"The main cause of (exertional heat stroke) in this setting is the irrational intensity of a repeat-sprint drill like this, a do-or-die drill, which causes huge guys like Braeden to build body heat very fast. With or without a few sips of water, this extreme kind of drill, which is irrelevant to the play of football by a defensive lineman, is reckless endangerment," Eichner said. "Fatal EHS should never occur in college football."
Contact J. Levi Burnfin at email@example.com.