GREENWOOD, S.C. — On tree-lined Dublin Avenue in this quiet Southern town, family and friends of Gaines Adams IV filtered in and out of a modest white house into the evening on Sunday.
They wore stunned expressions, and there was no wondering why. Their vibrant, young brother, nephew, cousin and friend had passed unexpectedly, and the shock was a long way from wearing off.
Adams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2007 first-round draft pick, died suddenly Sunday morning. Adams went into cardiac arrest and later died after being taken to Self Regional Hospital, the local coroner's office said. He was 26.
An autopsy performed later in the day showed Adams had an enlarged heart, Greenwood County chief deputy coroner Marcia Kelley-Clark told the St. Petersburg Times. She said the results of toxicology tests were necessary to officially rule out drug use as a factor, but Kelley-Clark said she had no reason to suspect that.
At the home Adams shared with his girlfriend, bewildered relatives couldn't muster the strength to grant interviews, saying it was too soon to talk. Across town, at another home where members of the family live, a woman who identified herself as Adams' aunt said his parents and some immediate family members left town earlier in the day to be alone.
No one seemed aware of any medical condition in the 6-foot-5, 258-pound defensive end.
Adams was no longer playing for the Buccaneers, having been traded in October to the Chicago Bears. While in Tampa, Adams was considered to have played below the immense expectations that come with being the fourth overall pick in the NFL draft and a college All-American at nearby Clemson University.
Bucs fans associated Adams with his on-field performance. His 13 1/2 career sacks drew the ire of fans.
But away from the field, Adams had many layers. He was a father. He occasionally rode a water scooter. He loved Michael Jackson's music. And he rarely stopped talking about his son and daughter.
"Gaines was a great teammate and an even better friend," Bucs center Jeff Faine said. "He had a great sense of humor and would go out of his way to help people and befriend people. I am honored to have been able to know him and to have been his teammate. A truly bright soul."
Veteran defensive tackle Chris Hovan developed a mentor-student relationship with Adams when Adams entered the league. Hovan was among those who struggled to cope with Sunday's news.
"When he came to Tampa I took Gaines under my wing; I considered him my little brother, and that's how I will always remember him," Hovan said. "This is all so unreal, and it hasn't really hit me yet."
Off the field, Adams was regarded as humble despite signing a contract that exceeded $40 million. He was close to his family. His parents, Gaines III and Linda Adams, almost never missed a Bucs game, both home and away.
In a 2007 interview with the Times, Adams talked about longing for Sunday dinners back home.
"Everybody will usually come to our house," he said. "We would have everything. All the good Southern food: fried chicken, mac and cheese, some ham, some greens — the good stuff. Man, you're making me hungry. And some fresh corn, too. I do miss that."
In the same interview, he joked about his son, saying: "He's back home getting spoiled. It just continues when he comes (to Tampa). He has this little bad attitude. He's talking back to his mom. … We're definitely in the terrible 2s and 3s."
His disappointing on-field results notwithstanding, Adams was considered a phenomenal athlete. That was largely the reason for his rapid rise from playing eight-man football at a small local private high school to becoming the defensive player of the year in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2006. He went on to become the highest-drafted player to come out of tradition-rich Clemson.
But on Sunday, even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell remembered Adams the man, not Adams the player.
"He was a terrific young man," Goodell told reporters in San Diego. "I met him at the draft when he came in, and he stood out. He was a very caring individual. … He seemed like a very genuine, nice man. He seemed focused on being a good person, not just an NFL player. I was always taken with him."
Times staff writer Rick Stroud and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]