EASLEY, S.C. — Former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden probably gets his storytelling ability from his father, so no wonder he had the masses packed into Rock Springs Baptist Church on the edge of their pews.
The son of former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden was recalling how his Tigers were on the verge of losing to Wake Forest in 2006, the Demon Deacons lining up for a field goal that likely would have iced the game.
But in stepped Gaines Adams to save the day and, perhaps, much more. The defensive end smothered the attempted kick and returned the ball for a touchdown that gave Clemson the win.
"He probably added a couple years to my contract with that play versus Wake Forest," Bowden said. "He outran the whole Wake Forest team. I think the only one who beat him to the end zone was me. I hugged him; I kissed him. I would have kissed him on the lips but he moved his head twice."
This was no funeral. This was a "celebration," as it was commonly referred to by the parade of speakers.
Family, friends and plain ol' fans came from far and wide Friday to pay tribute to Adams, who died suddenly Sunday at age 26. His death was attributed to cardiac arrest brought on by an enlarged heart.
The former Bucs and Bears lineman was often criticized for his on-field performance but that clearly didn't matter to those packed into this cavernous church. Adams, traded to the Bears in October, was mourned by two sets of teammates, with both clubs flying in Friday morning and attending en masse.
There were moments when the service hit somber notes, such as when Adams' close friend and college teammate, Ray Ray McElrathbey, looked Adams' mother in the eyes and told her he didn't just "love Gaines like a brother … He is my brother." But everything from Bowden's light-hearted eulogy to a video montage that showed Adams at family functions and receiving his degree from Clemson was part of an effort to remember Adams the way his loved ones believed he would have liked.
Among the other speakers were Bears coach Lovie Smith, Bucs defensive line coach Todd Wash and current Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Nearly all made some mention of Adams' permanent smile, a trait that made him so approachable.
Everyone who spoke, rather than concentrate on the tremendous loss, seemed to dwell more on Adams' character.
Wash remembered that before Adams became a starter midway through his rookie season in 2007 after being drafted No. 4 overall, he didn't pout. Conversely, he was the first player on the bench to congratulate a fellow defender after a sack.
Smith recounted how, in his first conversation with Adams the night he was traded, their brief chat wasn't about how things didn't work out in Tampa Bay. They chatted instead about Adams' family and children and how big a role they played in his life.
"He talked about his two children and how proud he was to be their father," Smith said.
McElrathbey talked about having to suddenly take in his younger brother, Fahmarr, and how Adams was there to offer much-needed help — unsolicited. Nothing was beneath him. Adams did everything from buying things for the child to picking him up from school.
But everything always came back to that smile, which was present both at times of pain and pleasure.
"He smiled going to practice; He smiled at practice," Bowden joked. "I thought something was wrong with him."
It was that smile that captivated everyone Adams came in contact with, particularly his teammates. It's why nearly half of Tampa Bay's players showed up to pay respects to someone who no longer was on the same team. That meant a great deal to general manager Mark Dominik.
"We're very thankful for the players who attended and for the owners who gave us the ability to come here," he said. "It was important."
He then briefly reflected on Adams' career and the intense scrutiny he endured for most of his time in Tampa Bay. Suddenly, his football ability seemed so trivial.
"It's difficult," Dominik said. "We realize how hard we can be on a person. But in the end, you realize he's just a person."
Adams was described by some as coachable, and his parents likely would concur. It was the counsel of Gaines III and Linda Adams that led their son to return for his senior season in 2006 after he flirted with the idea of turning pro early. They wanted him to get his degree and postpone entering the NFL despite the family's modest financial resources. Bowden cites Adams' decision as the reason numerous other Clemson players have followed suit in recent seasons.
Adams' best friend, Bowden said, was his father.
"You could see how special the relationship was," Bowden said. "You could see why Gaines made the decisions that he did."
The graduation was a landmark event for the family. On Friday, Adams had another graduation of sorts.
"Today," his friend, McElrathbey, said, "he graduated from life — with honors."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.