Student Found Dead Clutching Grass in Horrific Way, Cops Say Staff's Decision on 'Punishment Hill' Caused It


Editor’s Note: Our readers responded strongly to this story when it originally ran; we’re reposting it here in case you missed it.

Two years ago, 20-year-old Grant Brace died following the first day of conditioning for the wrestling team at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky. An ongoing investigation from a local news station has uncovered disturbing new details about the incident.

According to WKRC-TV, Brace died from heatstroke on Aug. 31, 2020, but his death might have been preventable.

Around 3 p.m. on that day, the wrestling team moved its practice outside from the gym, police told the outlet. Coaches reportedly instructed team members to “throw their water bottles on the fence and not touch them.”

With this demand, the coaches allegedly ignored a special exemption Brace had been granted, the report said. He was diagnosed with narcolepsy, and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics allowed him to take Adderall, which is usually banned for athletes competing in NAIA events.

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Adderall is a stimulant, which means it increases a person’s heart rate and body temperature, longtime college athletic trainer Aaron Himmler told WKRC. For that reason, dehydration can be a common side effect.

Brace’s parents said the doctor’s exemption approved by the NAIA was supposed to grant him unlimited access to water because he was taking the drug.

On the day of his death, the coaches had athletes running sprints up a 200-foot hill with a 35 percent incline — nicknamed “punishment hill” — because one of them didn’t meet a fundraising goal, WKRC reported, citing court documents.

Brace fell behind during the drills, and coaches eventually told him to “leave the hill and clean out his locker.” He briefly returned to the locker room before going back to the hill and telling coaches he wanted to prove himself.

Are the coaches to blame for Brace's death?

According to WKRC, Williamsburg Police Chief Wayne Bird wrote in a report that witnesses had described the ensuing moments to him.

“Some witnesses describe a lot of verbal abuse by the coaches and even teammates as Grant continued to attempt sprints up the hill,” Bird wrote. “Witnesses describe a short team meeting on the hill after the sprints when Grant was holding on to a small tree limb, swaying back and forth, saying, ‘I can’t stand.'”

Brace continually asked for water after the conclusion of the practice and eventually laid down on a mat in exhaustion, according to WKRC. The coaches reportedly had no mercy on him.

“At one point witnesses state Grant opened a cooler full of ice that was provided by the trainer and began to immerse himself in the ice and began splashing ice on his body,” Bird wrote. “Witnesses state at times Grant would say, ‘Guys, I need water. Get me some water.’ And at one point some witnesses hear Grant state his pupils were twitching and he couldn’t see.

“One witness attempted to wrap ice in a towel and place it on Grant when he was stopped by the coach because Grant didn’t perform well on the hill.”

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Brace’s condition deteriorated to the point that he began speaking gibberish and tackled a teammate before running out of the gym, WKRC said. In the report, Bird wrote that Brace was seen on security footage from another building in the area.

“He ran to a nearby building and attempted to pull open a locked door. When he could not get the door open, he kicked the door [and] ran off out the view of the camera,” Bird wrote. “In the video, Grant appeared to be in panic or what I would describe as fight or flight.”

Brace was not seen again until about two hours later, the police report said, according to WKRC. A passer-by called 911 and said he found Brace unconscious outside the school’s Grace Crum Rollins Fine Arts Center.

According to WKRC, the center is one of three buildings facing the only fountain on the University of the Cumberlands campus. Brace was found clutching the grass just a few yards away from that fountain, which had no water in it at the time.

By the time the person called 911, it was too late. The Kentucky Medical Examiner’s office ruled that Brace died of exertional heat stroke.

Brian Gossett, who was Brace’s high school wrestling coach, told WKRC he struggled to come to terms with Brace’s tragic death.

“It’s almost unimaginable to me,” he said. “For him to die alone is the part that — is the part that I just can’t come to grips with, that he struggled in the last minutes of his life for just somebody to help him.

“That’s the part that I just can’t get over. It’s just unimaginable to me that somebody would just let him die without helping him.”

Jordan Countryman was serving as the University of the Cumberlands’ head wrestling coach at the time of Brace’s death, but he resigned in April 2021, WKRC reported.

He was named in a wrongful death lawsuit relating to the incident. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, the family’s lawsuit also names the university, the Cumberland Foundation, University President Larry Cockrum, Cumberland Athletic Properties, Athletics Director Chris Kraftick and assistant coach Jake Sinkovics.

The Williamsburg Police Department said the investigation into Brace’s death remains open and active.

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Grant is a graduate of Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He has five years of writing experience with various outlets and enjoys covering politics and sports.
Grant is a graduate of Virginia Tech with a bachelor's degree in journalism. He has five years of writing experience with various outlets and enjoys covering politics and sports.