FAMU tragedy ‘did not have to happen’

Florida A&M football coach Earl Holmes was preparing to face Samford on Sept. 14 when he heard the news that Jonathan Ferrell, a former FAMU safety, had been killed early that morning in a shooting involving Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) police.

According to reports, Ferrell had crashed his car around 2:30 a.m. and had gone to a nearby house searching for help. A frightened woman at the home called police, frantically claiming that Ferrell was trying to break into her house — you can listen to the call here — and officers arrived 11 minutes later.

After a Taser discharged by one of the three cops who responded to the call failed to stop the injured and unarmed 24-year-old from approaching, another officer, Randall Kerrick, fired 12 shots at Ferrell — without warning, according to attorney Christopher Chestnut — and hit him 10 times, authorities say. Ferrell died at the scene.

"I didn’t have any details, and I was hoping that all it was was a mistake," Holmes told FOXSports.com. "I just hoped it wasn’t really Jonathan."

Holmes was FAMU’s defensive coordinator while Ferrell was with the team in 2009 and 2010 and recruited Ferrell and his younger brother, Willie, from FAMU Developmental Research School in Tallahassee, Fla. He coached with a heavy heart in the Rattlers’ 27-20 loss to Samford that day, and after the game, he spoke to his team about Ferrell — a friend and former teammate to several players still in uniform.

"I don’t want to be biased to anyone, because I wasn’t there and I don’t know what the officer was thinking, but at the end of the day, I’m saddened that (this happened to) a kid who I coached, who I built a relationship with — it’s truly a tragedy," Holmes said.

"I shared with the kids that bad things happen to good people sometimes, and he was a real good person. I try not to read between the lines because I don’t know who was thinking what when it happened, but at the end of the day a parent lost a kid, and it hurts the heart."

Joe Taylor, Ferrell’s head coach during his two seasons Florida A&M, said he couldn’t fathom that the attack on Ferrell was warranted.

"To hear the news, I was so sad because he was really just a truly fine young man," said Taylor, who stepped down as the Rattlers coach last November. "He was very quiet, high character, and there’s no way you would ever think that something this tragic could have happened to him because of the kind of guy he was."

Then how did something like this happen?

"If I could answer that question, I’d probably be a millionaire," Taylor said. "There’s so many things going on today in our society that you just don’t have any answers for. It just leaves you very upset, it leaves you shocked, it leaves you wondering."

Police initially stated that Kerrick’s actions were "appropriate and lawful." However, the 27-year-old, who joined the force in 2011, was later charged with voluntary manslaughter after police determined that Kerrick was not within his rights to fire his weapon.

Kerrick’s arrest offers some consolation to those seeking accountability in what many believe to be a wrongful death, but it isn’t nearly enough for family and friends grieving the loss of a young man with a promising future.

“I want him back,” Ferrell’s mother, Georgia, said at a news conference in Charlotte last Monday. “That’s the main thing I want. I want my son to bury me. I don’t want to bury him.”

Efforts to reach Georgia Ferrell through her attorney, Chestnut, were not successful, but Ira Reynolds, a family friend and Ferrell’s high school coach at FAMU DRS, echoed the grieving mother’s statements.

"It broke my heart, man," Reynolds said. "I’m a Christian and I don’t like to judge people, but based on the evidence that’s been presented, this did not have to happen.

"There’s still some gray area, I don’t have all the facts, but I’m still upset because this young man was a biochemistry major, very intelligent, had two jobs to support himself through college — and his life is cut short because this officer was a little overzealous in his process."

Reynolds said Ferrell came from a family of FAMU supporters — the bathroom in his childhood home was painted orange and green, the school’s colors. And though he was recruited by LSU and other more prominent schools, according to Reynolds, he chose to stay in Tallahassee to be close to his mom, who raised her children by herself after the death of their father, Willie Ferrell Sr., when they were kids.

“Jonathan was a fine young man, just an upstanding, responsible type of student-athlete,” Reynolds said. “I never had any disciplinary issues with him, and I go back all the way to when he was born.

“His parents and I, we all went to high school together, so when I became head coach in 2003, he and his brother were here, and they played for me for all four years. I knew how his mom raised them, and they were all the same — very honorable young men.”

FAMU DRS will be retiring Ferrell’s No. 28 at its next home game, Oct. 17 against Port St. Joe — a tribute as much to Ferrell’s role on a 2006 state championship team as it is to his character off the field, Reynolds said.

"He was a leader around campus, definitely a force on the field, and I haven’t had anyone like him since," Reynolds said. "That alone, along with his other achievements, I thought it was noteworthy to retire his jersey."

Holmes and the Rattlers don’t have any plans to honor Ferrell at a game — FAMU’s next home game is Oct. 19 against Howard — but the university did host a prayer vigil in Ferrell’s honor before the team left for Saturday’s game against Ohio State.

"He was a soft-spoken kid, he didn’t talk as much," Holmes said. "He was one of those kids who brought his hard hat to practice each day and just worked.  . . . I’m stunned and I feel for the family, and we grieve with the family. We’re giving them privacy, but at the same time, it lets you know how precious life is."

Added Reynolds: "No parent should have to bury their children, and whenever that happens, regardless of the situation, it’s extremely sad. But to compound that with a violent death, it makes it all the more devastating."

As for Ferrell’s mother, she says she forgives the officer charged in the death of her son. If convicted, Kerrick could spend up to 17 years in prison.

“I do forgive him,” Georgia Ferrell told CBS. “I so forgive him — but I do want justice.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.