A mid-August California road swing brought the Minnesota Twins into the Angels' and Dodgers' ballparks and brought Charles Adams III face to face with a tragedy.
Adams serves as the Twins' director of team security. He also coaches the Minneapolis North football team, a program in mourning since February when sophomore quarterback Deshaun Hill Jr. was killed after a random encounter near a bus stop on the North Side.
A film crew documenting the Polars' 2021 season made the 15-year-old Hill a major part of the story. So producer Charles Box invited Adams to screen parts of the footage in Los Angeles.
"He asked, 'Are you ready?'" Adams said. "I said, 'I'm good.'"
The video opened with a shot of the Hill home from the outside, followed by a scene in the living room.
"It's Deshaun and his parents, and I smile because I'm like, 'There goes my boy,'" Adams said. Then Hill's mother, Tuesday Sheppard, spoke.
"She says, 'He's our ticket out of here,'" Adams said. "And then she said, exactly like this, 'The only thing that worries me is when he's walking home from the bus stop.'
"I was done," Adams said. "It hadn't been two minutes, and I'm bawling my eyes out."
Days later, fall practices began. Adams, a 1999 North High graduate in his 13th season as head football coach, wrestled with a new challenge. Never had he lost a current player. His focus was two-fold.
"I wanted to make sure that whatever we're doing with dedicating the season to D-Hill and his family, it had to be player- and team-led," Adams said. "And I did not want to lose sight of the other 99 kids I have. We're remembering him, but we're also moving forward. I think that's been easier for our healing process."
A new season
North, 3-0 and ranked second in Class 2A, plays Friday against the St. Paul Academy/Minnehaha Academy/Blake Wolfpack. A year ago, Hill threw for 186 yards and two touchdowns in a 44-6 blowout victory. This year, a sticker of Hill is attached to the back of his former teammates' helmets. He is also on their hearts and minds.
Junior linebacker Kahlil Brown and junior lineman Lamarcus Osborne were two of Hill's closest friends. They remember Hill as a laid-back young man with a goofy side. And as an honor roll student who lifted teammates through his actions.
Brown was given permission to wear jersey No. 9, the number Hill wore, in tribute at practice.
"I wanted to have him always with me on the field," Brown said. "I know he'd want me to keep going, just like he would if he was here. Any time I have had doubts or thought it was getting hard, I would think about what he would do, and he wouldn't stop."
Brown praised Hill for having the "heart of a warrior" after a postseason medical examination revealed Hill played a portion of the season with a broken bone in his leg.
Adams found a similar resolve since Hill's death.
"The day of the funeral, I gained more strength being there for the boys," Adams said. "Watching them grieve, I said, 'All right, Lord. Now I understand. I definitely have to lead these boys. I have to be a level up now. I have to continue to lead and be strong.'
"I just try to create an atmosphere where these kids look forward to opportunities in the future. And it just saddens me that D-Hill didn't get the opportunity to take advantage of that. But I will continue to push every other kid."
Hill was shot on Feb. 9, and on the day of his funeral Cody L. Fohrenkam was charged in Hennepin County District Court with second-degree intentional murder. A Nov. 7 trial date is set.
The same day Hill was shot, many North High students walked out in protest of the shooting death of Amir Locke by police. Adams says he carries some grief for not being there. A Minneapolis police officer for 20 years, he lost his full-time job as a school resource officer at North High just days after George Floyd's murder in 2020, when Minneapolis Public Schools ended a longstanding relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department.
"I think personally that if I would have still been the SRO, that he may still be alive," Adams said. "I'm not blaming anyone for it. But I know me, and he probably wouldn't have left that building if I was still working there at the school. I would have definitely been waiting at that front door. If they wanted another place to go, I would have probably brought them to the weight room."
The 2021 season documentary is scheduled for a January release on Showtime. After seeing Adams' reaction to the first episode, Box skipped ahead to the fourth and final episode. Once again, Hill filled the screen.
"It hits you right in the face," Adams said, "because you see him on a date, being a kid, goofing off and whatever with his friends and then — boom, we're at the funeral."
A poster of Hill hangs inside the main gate at North's football stadium, just blocks from the school. Adams calls the field "sacred ground" but knows trouble lurks outside the gates.
Before last Friday's home game, some nonvarsity football players walking to the stadium were threatened with a gun by a group of people in a car. "It's everyday life for our kids," Adams said. "And it's people they know. It's remarkable how these kids can function with so many distractions."
Adams urges players to strive for something greater.
"I tell my kids, 'You don't have to play for me at all,'" Adams said. "'But there has to be someone that you're playing for. Find that person and dedicate yourself to being the best you can be for that person.'"
For many North players, D-Hill is that person. After warmups in practice earlier this week, players repeatedly shouted the call-and-response creed that makes clear their motivation.
"Who is this for? Nine."