What An Athlete’s Death At Fort Scott Community College Means For College Football | GMTM
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What An Athlete’s Death At Fort Scott Community College Means For College Football

ByLeland Dutcher

Published on Thu Oct 21 2021


12 min read

What An Athlete’s Death At Fort Scott Community College Means For College Football

JUCO football has long been an incubator for some of the most recognizable talents in football. Aaron Rodgers. Jason Pierre-Paul. LaVonte David. Keyshawn Johnson. All of these stars overcame limited exposure in high school to eventually land in the NFL draft. Even Heisman trophy winners Mike Rozier and Cam Newton spent time at a JuCo before claiming college football’s ultimate individual award.

Athletes with stretched resources or limited opportunities can use junior colleges as a bridge between high school and four-year colleges and universities. They’ve become a necessary step in the maturation of some athletes, who can use an extra season of sports - and school - to gain acceptance into college or secure more college offers.

In the past few years, though, spurred by sensationalized television shows like Netflix's Last Chance U, junior college sports have gained a different type of reputation.

What was once widely seen as a breeding ground for under-recognized talent is portrayed in these shows as a last-ditch effort to get to the next level. And the coaches on the show - who are essentially TV characters - are seen running athletes into the ground physically and mentally with grueling workouts and punishments.

And while it certainly isn’t the norm for how a majority of junior college programs are run, these on-screen antics are reflected in other staffs pushing college athletes to their limits - and sometimes past them.

The most recent example of this is an incident at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, an NJCAA program playing in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference.

On August 4th, 2021, entering his second year as the Fort Scott Head Coach, Carson Hunter held a second practice for select players due to “misconduct”. The players were told to run twenty gassers - a sprint from one side of the field to the other - and 300 up-downs - where players continually chop their feet, then drop flat onto their chest and stand up.

During the practice, which was held on a 90-degree day in Fort Scott, KS, Hunter told a player who asked for water that "water is for the weak" and added, “make sure your chest hits the ground on every rep.”

That player was Tirrell Williams, who would later collapse in the middle of that practice.

Six teammates of Williams at Fort Scott agreed to share their experiences anonymously, fearing backlash from the coaching staff who could limit their playing time this season.

According to one of those teammates who was present on August 4th, Williams “collapsed and struggled to get back up” before “falling face-forward and lying unconscious on the dirt.”

It was almost a minute of Williams lying face-down on the ground before assistant coaches came to try to “shake him awake.” When their attempts didn’t work, they asked Hunter to stop the practice and sent the rest of the players inside, which would be the last time Williams’ teammates would see him.

Williams died two weeks later on August 20, 2021 after being removed from life support - a little over six months after he committed to Fort Scott Community College on February 3rd, 2021.

Tirrell Williams was certainly a unique story. A 6’4” Defensive Tackle from Fisher High School in Louisiana, Williams certainly had the ability and the drive to play college football and he chose Fort Scott as an avenue to make it further in his football career.

Unfortunately, the end of his life was a chapter that is not as unique and one that any long-term supporters of any program can draw parallels to. The challenge, though, in almost every case is knowing the full story and what we can learn from it.

The Greyhounds’ head coach running the practice, Carson Hunter, has since been accused of a laundry list of methods that have put his players at risk.

Anonymous players have come forward claiming Hunter “forced players who tested positive and were symptomatic with COVID-19 to practice with the team”. Other accusations include making players “do bear crawls in a parking lot at 4:30 in the morning until our hands bled" and forcing players to run in temperatures “deemed too hot to practice" by a school official without water or athletic trainers. The former led to the death of Tirrell Williams.

Among the laundry list of questionable decisions and team punishments, the most jarring thing in the eyes of some of his players was how Hunter handled the tragic death of Williams.

Hunter was accused of keeping the team in the dark about Williams’ condition, insisting their teammate’s condition was improving for two weeks while he was in on life-support in the hospital. One of Williams’ teammates, another freshman who was “just starting to get to know him” had no idea Tirrell was in a coma until after he passed away.

News of Williams passing was posted by the school to Instagram and then deleted after calls for an investigation. A press release was put out by the administration at Fort Scott on August 22nd that stated Williams died after collapsing at practice.

Allegations against Hunter from current Fort Scott athletes began surfacing on October 18th when details surrounding the tragedy were published by JUCO Football Frenzy. The details were published in a string of tweets referencing a brief report written by a current Fort Scott football player who was present at the practice on August 4th.

Unfortunately for the players that decided to speak out in the past few days, it seems like the details of the August practice weren’t the first red flags.

Things started to seem strange to the new arrivals in Fort Scott over the summer when the head coach didn't oversee summer workouts and told a player who asked why that "y'all aren't ready for me."

"My teammates and I, we took it as a joke because we really didn't know what he was talking about."

Players said they did nothing but run the first month of the summer.

"The first four weeks were just continuous running, no footballs were picked up. Most guys that were freshmen didn't really understand if that was the norm in college. We barely lift weights, we look a bit smaller than most the people that play in this conference."

That is definitely not the norm.

Following the summer workouts, practices began and Hunter was able to show what he had only alluded to players. According to members of the team, the circumstances that lead to Williams’ death were just a regular day at Fort Scott.

The team was berated and called "sorry dogs" and forced to do "four-thirties" if you were late to a team event. “Four-thirties” were a punishment that included doing bear crawls on the paved walking path at a nearby lake at 4:30 a.m.

"If you were late you got a four-thirty and that's what you were going to do. If you fell down you had to restart so you really didn't know how long you were gonna go... There were people that spent their whole mornings doing it."

Beyond the abuse, players took at practice and in off-the-field punishments, verbal disparagement was a persistent claim with every individual who came forward. One player said,

"He's unpredictable, you never know when's just going to lash out. I've seen him just lose it on kids for no reason.”

And another didn’t quite know how to sum it all up, saying,

"There's just so much that goes on it's just hard to all put into one. I wish there were people here to see what happens."

Players also reported that they felt a majority of the team had contracted COVID-19 in mid-August around the time of Williams’ death. Instead of steering clear of the team and the facilities, at least one player who had COVID-19 symptoms was told not to miss practices.

"He made one of my teammates practice with Covid. Runnin’ em."

Hunter insisted the infectious athlete practice with the team and use the same facilities. FSCC's guidance for symptomatic COVID cases is posted at the top of their website and states that "Individuals who are positive must isolate."

Hunter's biography on the Fort Scott’s Athletics website lists him as a University of Memphis graduate, where he played Linebacker and Special Teams from 2002 to 2006.

Prior to taking the job at Fort Scott, Hunter worked as a corporate defense attorney, coached high school football in western Tennessee, and worked four years at Division-I Murray State as an assistant coach and coordinator.

In late January of 2020, he was offered the position of Head Football Coach at Fort Scott and stated in an interview that

“Our program’s vision is to recruit, develop, and lead a family of faithful, honest, and fearless leaders to best represent Fort Scott and the community...”

FSCC isn’t known nationally for the football players they develop, though it is considered a destination for prospects from the Southeast. Two of their most widely-known are All-Pro defensive tackle Jason Pierre-Paul, who earned First-Team Little All-American honors at Fort Scott before committing to South Florida in 2009 - and All-Pro linebacker LaVonte David, who played a year at Fort Scott in 2009, before finishing his college career at Nebraska.

Fort Scott’s most notable alumnus is actually actor Jason Sudeikis, who coincidentally plays a compassionate and caring coach in the Emmy Winning TV show Ted Lasso.

Hunter was brought to Fort Scott in an effort to renew the success of the program, which last saw success in the 2009 season that ended in an NJCAA National Championship Game defeat. Athletic Director Tom Havron has been looking for that level of success since his tenure began in 2015.

In 2016, Kale Pick was hired as offensive coordinator and helped improve the Greyhounds from last place to first place in the conference. Pick then took over as head coach for the subsequent season.

He resigned in mid-January of 2020 citing there is "a new vision for the football program" and reiterated that he "leaves with no regrets" and his “utmost priority was always the well-being of the players and coaches."

Former Fort Scott Offensive Lineman Tychicus Tibbs talked about his experience with Pick's staff in a tweet. Image via @TibbsTychicus on Twitter.

Since Pick’s departure, it appears the program has headed in a new direction but not the one Havron may have been searching for.

In the 2021 season, Fort Scott has lost six of seven games and three of those games by at least 49 points.

While certain coaches don't work out no matter the situation, but it's inexcusable for athletes to feel uncomfortable and isolated in the midst of it. Athletes attend junior colleges for a number of reasons, but overall it should be a stepping stone, not an obstacle.

Fort Scott and NJCAA football is many athletes' last chance to create more film and find a larger college opportunity. Some athletes with the talent to play in a higher Division use the league as a way to fix a bad GPA or build better test scores. Others typically chose JuCo over higher tuition at a large school and the long shot of walking on at a four-year program.

No matter the reason, athletes are there to gain positive experience to propel them to something else. But recently at Fort Scott, players haven't found that type of experience, as one of Williams' teammates explained,

"Fort Scott was really my last opportunity and I got stuck coming here. He [Coach Hunter] seemed cool at first and then I started seeing how he treated everyone, he just belittles people. He made coaches quit and bullied them out of the program."

During the summer workouts, six months after Hunter was hired, incoming freshman at his practices thought these grueling workouts were typical for this higher level of football. That was until a transfer-student with experience at another program spoke out that Hunter's practices were far from normal,

"You've got some players that are freshman and I've been telling them that this ain't how football is because I've been at [redacted university name]... but you've got freshman and they don't really know how college goes so some of them don't even want to play football anymore."

According to one student-athlete, a few of his teammates began searching for opportunities elsewhere, but Hunter refused to authorize transfer papers.

"We had a few teammates come to him and ask him for transfer papers and he said no."

One player even claims he missed an opportunity to play for another college program that offered him after Hunter refused to sign his transfer authorization paper.

Those that have parted ways with the program - a few assistant coaches from Hunter's staff - jumped ship quickly. According to the players we spoke with, at least five of the assistant coaches have quit since Hunter took over. The staff directory published on the Fort Scott Athletics website now only lists two names remaining from a staff of eight that was posted in an older staff directory.  

While these players watch success stories on Last Chance U or keep tabs on other college football programs with social media, these players say majority feel like they are stuck at the school. And with limited options and a goal of gaining a scholarship somewhere else, most have decided to keep their heads down, get playing time and more film.

Many of them have contemplated quitting the sport altogether.

"He abused his power I think and he went overboard."

The players that came forward to address the situation at Fort Scott didn't do so without weighing those two options. Even by coming forward anonymously, they how it will impact them and their opportunities to continue their football career.

One freshman athlete chose to speak out in an effort to change the trajectory that he sees his football career taking while at Fort Scott.

"We all love the game too much we value every snap we get because we know we don't get infinite snaps..."

Former Fort Scott student athletes have also chimed in publicly about their experience under the last two coaching regimes, after allegations came from the current team.

The current players, especially those who have addressed the situation publicly, are hoping that enough attention may help to change the culture of the football program at Fort Scott.

"We want change. We want the program for the better... If he were to stay here, he's not going to release my [transfer] paper so I'd be stuck here for another year... If the season doesn't work out and my recruitment doesn't work out, he's just going to turn on us."

So, with players feeling they need to speak out anonymously against the culture of the football program, most would wonder "Where has the Fort Scott Athletic Director Tom Havron - or any other athletics administrator - been during all of this?

The players we spoke with say he has been present the entire time. According to teammates who were present, Havron was seen at the August 4th practice, but no serious measures have been taken to change the way the practices are run.

Players reported that Hunter's punishing practices and workouts have continued after the day of Williams' death. The AD Havron reportedly instructed the coach that he could not continue doing four-thirties anymore but players claim Hunter has continued use that punishment for players as recently as October 18th.

"A kid was late to practice and he made him bear crawl around the lake this morning which the AD told him he couldn't do it anymore."

Neither Tom Havron or Carson Hunter have not responded to requests for comment at this time.

While this story may not be that different from ones you've heard about a hard-nosed coach or a difficult fall camp, it is unique because it is happening now, in an age where very few positions can have power without checks and balances.

And players have more leverage than any time before.

For coaches and athletic directors in programs across every level and every sport, the chain of events at Fort Scott over the last five months is a teaching lesson about what can happen when a coach loses the respect - and in this case, the trust - of his team.

Now, in the advent of the NIL era and the age of the Transfer Portal, athletes are much more similar to employees than ever before. They have the ability find a new fit, chase a promotion or just be happier in their situation. They don't need the backing of a certain coach or college like they used to.

Coaches like the one Carson Hunter is accused of being have no place in college sports in 2021. There is room for tough love, we see it on the sidelines on any given Saturday, but those who believe they can build a career upon it are sorely mistaken.

The spotlight is in every office of every program - even if they don't choose your school for the next season of Last Chance U.

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