Kansas City Chiefs coach Deland McCullough always knew he was adopted as a child but had no idea when he finally began searching for his biological father last year that the path would lead to a fellow coach he’d known for decades.
Speaking to ESPN about his recent decision to track down his biological father, the NFL coach admitted that deep down he’d always wanted to know the true stories of his origins, even if he didn’t bother to start digging until his own four children started asking questions. “The void was there," McCullough told ESPN. "I wish that it wasn't, but I think I did a good job of hiding it,” he said.
The void prompted him to reach out to his birth mother, Carol Denise Briggs, last year after new laws in Pennsylvania called for the unsealing of decades-old adoption records. Briggs had been only 16 at the time she gave McCullough, born as Jon Kenneth Briggs in 1972, up for adoption. She told ESPN she’d never informed his birth father that she was pregnant because he “was a kid too.”
Fast forward 35 years and McCullough, the son Briggs had never forgotten, contacted her on Facebook to ask where he came from. The answer, McCullough says, almost made him pass out. In a mind-blowing coincidence, McCullough’s father turned out to be none other than Sherman Smith, the former running backs coach for the Seattle Seahawks and a man McCullough had known since high school. The two were even from the same neighborhood.
“If you would have told me to pick who my father was, there's no way I would have picked him because I might have thought I wasn't worthy for him to be my father,” he told ESPN. “I felt like my blessings came full circle because I'd always wanted to be somebody like him,” he said.
Smith had first come into McCullough’s life when he was a 16-year-old high school student and in-demand athlete. Smith recruited him to play for Miami University at that time, and though Smith himself later left to coach at the University of Illinois, the two stayed in touch over the years.
Upon discovering Smith was his father last year, McCullough still had a photo of the two of them together sitting in his nightstand. He recalled the father-son bond the two had shared decades before they realized they really were father and son.
“‘Man, you and Coach Smith look alike.’ ‘Man, you all walk alike.’ ‘Y'all this, y'all this,’” he recalled other players telling him. “There’s no reason to connect those dots because you weren't even thinking about them. A sense of pride that went through me, like, ‘Wow, that explains these things,’” he said.
After getting the paternity results and learning his long-time mentee was actually his son, Smith said he learned to look at it all as “a God thing.” “When I look at Deland, the type of guy he is, it was a gift to us,” Smith says. “And to think—Deland felt we were a gift to him,” he told ESPN.
Months after the uncanny discovery, Smith, McCullough, and Briggs, as well as McCullough’s adoptive mother, Adelle Comer, gathered together for a long-overdue family reunion in Youngstown in July.