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Tanner feels loss of teen
Community recalls his devotion to his school

By Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2438

TANNER — Thomas Forrest Adams spent the last day of his life doing mostly what he had done the four years his family lived here — giving his all to Tanner High School.

Thomas Forrest Adams
Courtesy Photo
Thomas Forrest Adams
In the same stadium where his funeral will be
According to his brother, George, he began work on the Rattlers' baseball field at 10 a.m. Saturday. He died Saturday night in a single-vehicle accident while returning home from Elkmont, where he helped cheer Tanner's boys and girls basketball teams to Limestone County championships.

Also at the game, Thomas Adams received the Tanner Spirit Award.

Counselors and ministers spent Monday at the school, comforting grieving students. Today at 3:30 p.m., at Rip Swanner Stadium, Tanner's football field, they will lead the community in a farewell to the 17-year-old senior student athlete, who excelled in football, baseball and academics.

"It's chaos here," school secretary Marjorie Hays said Monday morning. "The students are so upset. Everyone is."

Melody Etheredge, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade English and serves the school as yearbook sponsor, set the tone for the day as students filed into her room.

"We'll worry about the yearbook another day, when we can get our heads together," she said. "Today, we'll worry about fixing ourselves, fixing each other. Write a memory of Thomas if you'd like."

Students' memories

There were a lot of memories to share.

"He's from California, and we call him 'Sunshine,' " said sophomore Hope Meals. "But he's always smiling, never frowning."

Meals said Adams made everyone feel special.

"He talked to all the little people," she said. "By that, I mean the kids no one else talked to much. No one noticed them. But Thomas did."

Junior Tiffany Burchfield recalls her father, Bill, taking students on an airplane ride Aug. 7, the day after school started.

"We had a blast. Thomas screamed when we took off."

Senior Rachel Kennedy called Adams "awesome, one of the best people you'd ever want to meet."

Tiffany Burchfield's brother, senior Joseph Burchfield, stood in a hallway near two long tables holding large yellow banners students signed.

"There's also one in the gym. They're messages to the family," he said. "We're signing his locker, too."

He remembers Adams as being a persuasive person, "not with his words, but with his actions."

Kennedy said he would talk about something "and use big words to confuse you, but he'd confuse himself at the same time."

Joseph Burchfield added, "Seniors voted him Most Athletic and Most Gullible."

Senior Lana Atkinson said she didn't believe that there was ever a moment that Adams wasn't happy. Another senior, Daly Dunavant, said he was always "up to something. I'd have my feet propped up, and he'd take my Birkenstocks. He'd eventually give them back to me, after a little argument."

Sophomore brother

George Adams, 16, a sophomore, was only a ninth-grader last season when he was varsity baseball catcher for many games his brother pitched.

"As catcher, I was supposed to be running the team, but he'd call time out and tell me what to do, because he was more experienced. He'd also shake off my signs, until he got the pitch he wanted," he said. "He was so dedicated to the game, to the school and to his teammates. He hated to lose."

He said that during the county tournament Saturday night, a Limestone County sheriff's deputy "had to instruct Thomas to back up. He was coming too far out onto the court to yell at players and protest calls. He had so much fun at that game."

George Adams also remembers his brother being aggravated at the number of interviews that his football teammates at the skilled positions got in comparison to linemen like himself. He played center on offense and tackle on defense.

"They get all the interviews while linemen butt heads, do all the hard work and get nothing," George Adams said. "He was proud to be a lineman. He wanted to be a symbol for all of them."

Head Coach Laron White said Thomas Adams always worked hard and was determined to be something in life.

"I wrote a letter of recommendation Thursday on behalf of Thomas, why he deserved to win the spirit award for Limestone County," White said. "I said that if my 2-year-old son, KaRon, has some of the qualities Thomas had, he'll be a great kid."

White said that Adams was the cornerstone of this year's team.

"There's usually always one player you can turn to, to pick up the team, but that player also has a lot of pressure on him," White said. "One day in practice, Thomas became so upset because he didn't feel his teammates were giving their best efforts. He wanted to whip all of them. I pulled him aside and said, 'Thomas, there's a way to lead, but sometimes it's a fine line.' He found it. He'll be missed, but he left a lasting impression."

Football offers

White said Alabama A&M University talked to him late, only last week, about a football scholarship.

"Although signing day is Wednesday, he planned to visit the school later," White said. "When A&M found out about his grades, the school was going to offer him a full academic scholarship. The coaches recruited him to play center."

Adams was selected for the DECATURDAILY Class 1A-3A All-Area Football Teams for 2003 and 2004.

Martha Chandler taught Adams four years in subjects ranging from humanities to English 12. She recommended him for the Bryant-Jordan Scholar-Athlete Award. She wrote, in part:

"When I recently asked his football coach if any colleges were interested in giving Thomas a scholarship, Coach White informed me that most of the bigger schools said that he was too small. I replied, 'It's too bad that they can't see the size of his heart.' He is an outstanding example of what we want our athletes, our students, our sons to be."

Chandler said that Adams' "drive and work ethic are so rare in a teenager. Thomas is always early and stays late at practice ... he is a leader; all of our students look up to him because he leads by example."

She lauded the student's "keen mind, grasping difficult concepts or analyzing literary selections or writing wonderfully crafted essays, but all the while telling me, 'You know, English isn't my subject.' "

His parents, Richard and Susie Adams, were in Atlanta attending a seminar when the accident happened. A friend, Sharon McMeans, called them from the accident site.

"We were iced in, and we had to wait for the thaw before we could leave for home," Susie Adams said. "We already knew about Thomas' death. It was such a long, hard ride. What a comfort to have our other children. We felt so broken."

She said it touches her to see the outpouring of kindness the community has shown. She said someone anonymously donated her son's burial plot in Limestone Memorial Gardens.

Susie Adams requests that instead of flowers, people who want to honor her son do so by sending donations to the Tanner High football team.

The family, which includes eight children, came to Tanner from Hollister, Calif.

"Thomas didn't want to move here," she said. "He thought he had everything all figured out. But he hit it off with Rip Swanner, who took him to his first Alabama game."

She said her son once told her, "I'm just glad we came. If we hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten to know him."

Swanner, a Tanner football star in the 1950s, who became volunteer coach and groundskeeper for the Rattlers, died Feb. 21, 2004, at age 67. His funeral also was at the stadium named for him.

"Thomas died Jan. 29," Susie Adams said. "Rip's birthday was Jan. 30."

Swanner tribute

Chandler recalls "the most moving tribute to Swanner" that Thomas Adams wrote.

"With more than one pause to regain his composure, he delivered it in front of the entire student body," she said. "There were not many dry eyes at that assembly — not just because we loved Rip, but we were so moved that this teenager appreciated what Rip had tried to do for all of them and wasn't ashamed to share his feelings."

Swanner's son, Mike, said he did not know of any family who has "come in and blended so well. And the impact Thomas made on so many people is a reflection on his parents."

George Adams said Rip Swanner was a grandfather figure to his brother.

"Thomas spent a lot of time with him," he said. "They put in the sprinkler system two summers ago for the new practice field. Thomas was always ashamed that Rip could outwork him."

He said his brother "always wanted to be just like Rip. He's kind of happy now. No telling what they're doing, but they're having fun, and they're wearing green (Tanner's color)."

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