Notre Dame running backs coach shares unexpected bond with coach, mentor

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ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. - Notre Dame running backs coach Deland McCullough grew up in Youngstown, Ohio.

He was raised by his adoptive mother, Adele Comer.

His adoptive father left when he was two years old. Deland never knew his birth parents.

A standout on the football field, sports gave him the opportunity for life outside of Youngstown

That's how he met Sherman Smith, an assistant coach at Miami University of Ohio.

"It was this little skinny running back, you know, at Campbell Moore High School," said Smith. "And I just remember first watching film, just how hard he ran, just how determined he ran. You know, he was a little guy that ran like a big man that runs with attitude."

"He was a coach from Miami, Ohio," said McCullough. "And he came into my school that I remember, remember when he came in, how just seeing him and just, you know, his stature and just, you know, good looking guy, well spoken, put together successful, college degree, played in the NFL, I mean, all those things I hadn't Youngstown out, you don't just see that walking around all the time, let alone walk into your school to recruit you."

Sherman also grew up in Youngstown and was a star athlete. He was a running back at Miami of Ohio and in the NFL, accumulating nearly 6,000 all-purpose yards and 28 touchdowns for the Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers.

The two just hit it off, an instant connection.

"Just the way he carried himself from just the disposition that he had, it was, you know, was something that you were drawn to so immediately, just because of his character, and just his presence, I was drawn to him," said McCullough.

"I always looked at every guy that I recruited, I would always say, you may not be looking for a father, but I'm gonna treat you like you're my son," said Smith. "But he needed someone, you know, I came in, I was just a father figure. I talked to him, just like I did with my own kids."

Smith would ascend the ranks, winning a Super Bowl as the Seahawks running backs coach.

McCullough's career took off as well, from Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year to the NFL and his own rise up the coaching ranks. He won Super Bowl LIV as the running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs.

All the while, Smith and McCullough remained close and talked often.

"I always ask, 'Why do you want to be a head coach, you know, why do you want to coach? Why do you coach and so understanding your why impacts how you do it,'" said Smith. "So I was always just trying to get to the reason why he wants to do what he's doing. And then you know, his motivation behind it and just making sure that he stays focused on."

"He definitely was, you know, a mentor slash father figure for me, because I always knew what I was getting with him, which was a high-level person," said McCullough.

While McCullough experienced success, both professionally and personally, there was always something missing.

"Yes, I had a phenomenal family, adoptive family and everything. That's my family," he said. "And what you always want to like, okay, my deep voice, and that is just things you always wondered about, like, where did it come from?"

In 2017, state adoption records law changed, allowing McCullough access to his birth certificate where he discovered his biological mother.

"I found out when I finally got what's called my original birth record was sent to me from the state of Pennsylvania," he said. And I had my mom's name on there, didn't have a dad. So I ended up tracking my mom that night and I said, you know, do I got any brothers and sisters. She said, 'no, I never had any more kids, never got married.'"

Carol Briggs was just 16 years old when she found out she was pregnant.

She was also from Youngstown but was sent to the Zoar Home for Mothers, Babies and Convalescents in Pennsylvania.

She delivered her baby boy, Jon Kenneth Briggs, and immediately put him up for adoption to give him the life she could not provide.

She never told the father, a young athlete, who was about to head off to college

"And then I said, shoot, who's my dad? And there's no way I expect her to say what she says. She said, your dad is a man named Sherman Smith," said McCullough. "And I just was like, super emotional. I was blown away, completely blown away."

The man who had been a father-figure, mentor and friend for the past 30 years was McCullough's biological father all along.

"It hit me like a bomb went off," said Smith. "And so, you know, it was, it was great news. But at the same time, it was a shock to me, because I didn't expect that, like I said, Deland, Deland knew that he was looking for his biological parents. And so he was in search of something. And I was the guy that didn't know that I had a son. And so I was taken aback by surprise, by the whole conversation."

Smith was now married with two adult children.

McCullough was also married with children of his own.

After the shock wore off, reality set in.

"When I told Sharon, you know, there was no processing for her," Smith said. "Her first comment was, 'well, our family just got bigger. And I want to go meet my grandkids.' So our family, the three people that I was concerned about the most, they embraced it with open arms, they were they were excited about it. And you know, and we haven't looked back since."

"Very emotional and surreal. All at the same time," said McCullough. "My dad says it was a God thing, you know, just the timing of and how everything came together. But, you know, the fact that he was always involved in my life…so right now we just, you know, enjoying it. You know how all the families have come together and just bonded around this and just continuing to build a relationship."

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