Searching for Justice After the Death of Football Player Braeden Bradforth

Braeden Bradforth, a high-school football player from Neptune City, New Jersey, died last August during practice at Garden City Community College in Garden City, Kansas. Eight months after his death, Bradforth’s mother is still looking for answers as to what happened to her 19-year-old son. There have been town meetings and rallies in New Jersey as well as an online petition that has garnered thousands of signatures in an effort to find out the truth.

According to several of his teammates, Bradforth was denied water during practice as he showed signs of great duress. Instead of calling 911, the coach called the athletic trainer. As reported by Stephen Edelson for the Asbury Park Press, “Bradforth was clearly in distress during a conditioning drill that involved running 36 sprints of 50 yards each in less than 10 seconds, with 30 seconds between sprints, while water was withheld from the players. Bradforth, an offensive lineman who arrived at the school just two days earlier, missed a team meeting after practice and was found by players collapsed on campus. He died at a local hospital a short time later.”

Garden City Community College deleted surveillance video of Bradforth during the practice, saying that they erase all footage after 14 days. The family says they have been denied access to the school’s internal investigation until recently. The coach, Jeff Sims, who now coaches at Missouri Southern State University, told the family that Bradforth died of a “blood clot.” Yet a November autopsy confirmed that Bradforth had died because of an “exertional heatstroke.”

I asked Jill Elaine Greene, the attorney for Bradforth’s mother, Joanne Atkins-Ingram, if litigation against Garden City was inevitable. She said, “If you had asked me a week ago, I would have told you emphatically yes because we’ve been stonewalled. However we learned [Thursday] night that we will now be meeting with [GCCC President] Ryan Ruda so perhaps Joanne will get the answers she deserves. She wants to know what happened to her son. If things change and we get the answers that we are looking for, then we’ll see. If not, then litigation is inevitable.”

Green and Atkins-Ingram, frustrated by their inability to get a response from the school, traveled to Kansas to find “the answers they were looking for.” Greene said to me, “We interviewed players and they said water was denied to everyone. My understanding is that it wasn’t just that practice.”

I phoned Garden City football sports information and they declined to give a comment “at this time” on Bradforth’s death.

Joanne Atkins-Ingram’s heroically stubborn refusal to be ignored by Garden City is a story unto itself. She has spoken at rallies and press conferences, calling on Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt to launch an investigation. She has involved political leaders and the community. She has refused to be silent in the face of the school’s ghosting of her pleas. Jill Elaine Greene, told the Asbury Park Press, “The worse it gets, the more you think, alright, they’re hiding something, they’re hiding something. Now I’m wondering, is there really something criminal going on here that they’re hiding? I mean, why else?”

Now, thanks to their efforts, longtime New Jersey Republican Congressman Chris Smith is demanding an independent inquiry by Kansas officials into Bradforth’s death. His request comes after Democratic State Senator Vin Gopal had his own request to the Kansas Attorney General’s office rejected. In other words, the pressure for answers is ramping up. Yet even Smith’s letter was initially met with a brush off, with his request for an investigation referred to the school’s insurance carrier. In Rep. Smith’s letter, he referenced the case of Jordan McNair at the University of Maryland who died in football drills last Spring. Like Bradforth, Jordan McNair died of heatstroke and denied immediate medical care. There is something particularly outrageous, given the scrutiny that McNair’s death had received, that the Garden City coaches could act so recklessly in regard to the lives of their players.

The community and political pressure is not going anywhere, Atkins-Ingram said at a rally held on Thursday at Friendship Baptist Church as reported by the Asbury Park Press, “You guys don’t know what it means to me and my immediate family, extended family, my work family. It’s just amazing to see everyone is so invested in making sure we find out what happened to Braeden. He meant something to a lot of people, not just us.’’

There could be also legislation on the horizon to ensure against these kinds of unnecessary deaths are prevented. Representative Smith said at Thursday’s gathering, “We know in talking to experts this is one are a lot of coaches don’t take seriously, what can happen to their athletes on the field with heatstroke. We need to convene the top minds. I’m putting together a bill to establish a commission to look at this issue, and I’m also asking the Trump administration to do it administratively—they can do it with the stroke of a pen—so that this does not ever happen again.”

Jill Elaine Greene told the church, “A child from New Jersey was sent to your college and while under your watch he died a tragic and untimely death. He didn’t have to die. Now we want answers. Now we want justice for Braeden. So Kansas, if you can’t hear me, we’re going to speak louder. We’re going to make a lot of noise.’’

The noise is not going anywhere. Yes, the Garden City president will be meeting with Braeden Bradforth’s mother. But it will take more than meetings. It will take an actual investigation and a measure of accountability to truly receive justice for Braeden.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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