On April 29, members of both sides of Rodney Adams’ family gathered at his grandma’s place in St. Petersburg, Fla., to watch the final four rounds of the NFL draft.
Among them were the father who when Adams was a kid sometimes woke him up at 5 a.m. to run laps and routes at the neighborhood park and the grandmother who helped keep the speedy wide receiver forging ahead when tragedy struck.
And while Adams’ heart still aches from the untimely death of his mother 3 ½ years ago, the thought of her flashed into his mind seconds after the letters “M’’ and “N’’ popped up on his caller ID that Saturday afternoon, near the end of the fifth round of the draft.
His family hushed when Adams answered the call. On the other line was Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who had a question for Michelle Conway Scott’s son.
“When I said, ‘Yes sir, Coach, I’m ready to be a Viking,’ that’s when everybody just lost it. I couldn’t hear a thing on the phone,” Adams said Friday. “When the Vikings called me, it was like everything had paid off. There was a lot of emotion. Everyone was crying, saying that my mom would be proud. It was amazing.”
Adams, who turned heads over the weekend during the team’s rookie minicamp at Winter Park, agrees that his mother would be beaming now, after he transferred from Toledo and starred in South Florida. But if she still were alive, she would remind him that his story is far from complete.
That fateful morning
The morning of Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, Adams walked out of his dormitory room at Toledo to find his position coach, Jason Candle, sitting there waiting for him.
“Do you know what happened?” Candle, now Toledo’s head coach, asked him.
The previous night, Toledo had thumped Eastern Michigan. Adams, who was starting to play his way into the mix, had one catch for 10 yards and carried the ball once for 5 yards.
Afterward, some teammates went out to celebrate. But he said he stayed in. Adams and his mother, who watched the game on TV, spoke on the phone. She playfully ribbed him for getting rocked on a kickoff return. But the music was too loud where she was and she promised to call him back later.
Still, even though that call never came, Adams assumed the following morning that he was in trouble for something as Candle led him to meet Matt Campbell, Toledo’s head coach at the time, who somberly told the 19-year-old to take a seat.
“They told me that my mom passed away at 3:30 in a car accident. And I just lost it. I blacked out,” said Adams, who attempted to smash the windows in the room.
Early that morning outside of Atlanta, Adams’ mother was a passenger in a car that reportedly lost control, slammed another vehicle from behind and careened into a ditch. She was killed and his cousin was charged with drunken driving and first-degree vehicular homicide.
Adams returned to Florida for the funeral and wasn’t sure if he wanted to go back to Toledo. But his family, notably his maternal grandmother, Ruth Cooper, encouraged him to finish out the semester.
“My grandma told me that I couldn’t quit, that I had to go back up and finish. She said, ‘We don’t quit in this family,’ ” he said. “My family gave me strength.”
Help from a mentor
In the wake of his mother’s death, the NCAA granted him a hardship waiver, enabling Adams to transfer without penalty. He chose South Florida because its campus is only 45 minutes from St. Petersburg and his younger brother, Antonio Blount, of whom he is now legal guardian.
His new position coach was Ron Dugans, who was a third-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2000 before getting into coaching. He taught Adams what it took to be a pro, pushing him to put in extra work after practice and scour game film.
More important, Dugans, who himself had endured a heartbreaking tragedy five years earlier, helped the grieving youngster heal.
In September 2008, when Dugans coached receivers at Georgia Southern, his 8-year-old daughter boarded her bus after school. The bus was hit by a cement truck whose driver had fallen asleep. His daughter was killed.
“Him going through it and knowing how to deal with it, he taught me how to set my feelings aside when I’m on the field and just let football take over,” said Adams, who said Dugans is not only his mentor but one of his best friends. “He just got me through a time when I really needed him, when I was thinking about my mom.”
During his first season at South Florida, as a sophomore, Adams caught 23 passes and scored a pair of touchdowns. He also returned six kickoffs. He became a starter in 2015, and the Bulls used the dynamic Adams as their “jester,” lining him up all over the field. Over his junior and senior seasons, Adams caught 111 passes for 1,638 yards and 14 touchdowns, while adding 323 yards and six more TDs on the ground.
Adams also made an impact as a kickoff returner. His 29.1-yards-per-return average in 2015 was tops in the American Athletic Conference.
Becoming a Viking
The Vikings need a new kickoff returner after they let Cordarrelle Patterson, arguably the league’s best, leave in free agency. Fellow receiver Charles Johnson also departed, thinning out the depth chart.
The Vikings maintained an interest in Adams throughout the draft process. At the scouting combine in Indianapolis, Adams ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds. He also raised $3,000 for children who have lost parents by seeking out donations tied to his combine performance in the vertical jump, when he reached 29 ½ inches.
The Vikings then invited the 6-1, 189-pound pass-catcher to Winter Park with one of their 30 official visits. A few weeks later, they dialed Adams’ number in the fifth round.
Last Friday, Adams pulled on a purple practice jersey for the first time and stood out as he pulled away from undrafted defensive backs, some of them there on a tryout basis, with sharp routes and easy speed. After the hot afternoon workout, he was all smiles as he ducked inside of a climate-controlled room next to the locker room.
“There’s never a point when I don’t have a smile on my face — unless I’m dead tired,” said Adams, laughing when it was suggested that he shouldn’t let his new coaches know that.
Adams can’t hide it. He is his mother’s son, after all. Michelle Conway Scott, who as a social worker helped children escape bad environments, always had a big grin, always made friends and strangers laugh, he said. And he is the same way.
Next week, Adams and his fellow rookies will join Vikings veterans on the field during offseason workouts. Then his climb up the depth chart begins.
“My mom would be really proud for me to get to this point, but she would tell me that it doesn’t stop now,” Adams said. “I’ve got to keep going. Just keep rising.”