Just a few hours short of the second anniversary of his death, the family of a New Jersey teenager settled with Garden City Community College. The settlement ended a long, bitter and exasperating two years for the family of 19-year-old Braeden Bradforth.
"I'm sad every morning when I wake up, I'm grateful every night I lay my head on the pillow," Bradforth's mother Joanne Atkins-Ingram said, thinking about her son's memory.
While the settlement puts the legal fight behind her, there is no real closure when a teenager dies. "It's a physical pain," Atkins-Ingram said. "You feel it in your throat. You feel it in your stomach."
Bradforth died of exertional heatstroke Aug. 1, 2018, after being forced to run 36, 50-yard sprints at an elevation and temperature he wasn't acclimated to.
An investigation paid for by GCCC laid the blame squarely at the feet of former head coach Jeff Sims and the college administration. "The lack of oversight set off a series of events that ended with the death of Braeden Bradforth," the report last year said. There was, the investigation found, "a striking lack of leadership" by GCCC.
The college settled for $500,000. Qualified immunity protected GCCC from a larger settlement.
The Kansas lawyer for Atkins-Ingram said even though former head coach Jeff Sims forced Bradforth to run sprints that a heatstroke expert called a "do or die" drill, Sims was operating within the scope of his job.
"She's always said to me since day one, this isn't about money. This is about making change. This is about Braeden's memory," New Jersey lawyer and family Jill Greene told KCUR.
GCCC announced the settlement late Friday night in a news release. There was no mention of the amount or that qualified immunity limited the damages.
"To honor Braeden’s life and his memory, a memorial tree, with a plaque at its base, is planned for a yet-to-be-determined location on campus later this fall," GCCC President Ryan Ruda said in a statement.
"I don't know whether they care," Greene said. "Their statement indicates that they care, but again, everything that we went through, every roadblock that we faced, every turn we took was another battle."
GCCC conducted an internal investigation that it refused to release. It only paid for the independent review after pressure from the New Jersey congressional delegation and media coverage.
Sims, who now is the head coach at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, said just hours after Bradforth died that the cause was a blood clot. An autopsy later revealed the it was exertional heatstroke.
Even a year after the young man's death, Sims refused to take any responsibility.
“It’s unfortunate what happened, but God has a plan," Sims told KCUR last August. "It didn’t happen at football practice; it happened after football practice,” he said.
Atkins-Ingram says her son's death touched hundreds of people in her Jersey shore town and beyond.
She never deactivated Bradforth's phone. "People still text his phone," she said. "People still hold him near and dear."
The money will be used to start a foundation to work for safer practices and to remind coaches hydration is crucial, Atkins-Ingram said.
"I can see clearly this is where I need to be." She now even keeps bottled water in her car just in case she sees someone working outside who looks thirsty.
Bradforth's death did compel GCCC to make some changes. The school said in its news release that an additional trainer has been added, all coaches are now trained in first aid and CPR, and it now has a protocol for heat-related illness.
Earlier this year, Atkins-Ingram went to Capitol Hill to find support for bill H.R. 4145, Braeden’s Commission, the legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, that seeks to establish a panel to prevent exertional heatstroke among high school and college athletes by developing best practices for prevention, recognition and treatment.
“The closure will be when we get the law passed and there’s a mandate,” she told the Asbury Park Press. “The closure will be when I know there is safety for everyone, for Division 1 and Division 3 athletes, athletes in the south and the west. Everyone.
“It’s always been about them accepting responsibility for what happened to my son and then moving forward to make sure this didn’t happen to any other kids.”