Jonathan Ferrell, the Randall Kerrick Case and a College Coach’s Remembrance
By Cory Collins
The Sporting News
On Sept.14, 2013, former Florida A&M football player Jonathan Ferrell lost his life on a Charlotte roadside. It’s a script that now sounds too familiar.
An unarmed Black man. An armed police officer. And now, a contentious trial started this week featuring two sides of the same story that always ends the same:
A life cut short. A life now recalled in twelve snapshots —one for every bullet fired toward Ferrell’s body:
I. Ferrell fit the profile. Big and physical enough to play linebacker. Fast enough to play safety. Instinctive enough to grab a key interception in the Florida state championship game. A Florida A&M University High graduate with high-level D-I talent, but homebody tendencies, his heart Tallahassee-bound.
So naturally, Florida A&M’s college football program and then-defensive coordinator Earl Holmes saw Ferrell. And they took a chance.
II. Sept. 14, 2013, in the dark hours past midnight:
Ferrell fit the profile from the panicked 911 call. A Black man. Bleeding. Big enough to have filled the doorframe of Sarah McCartney’s Charlotte home.
According to Randall Kerrick’s attorneys, he ignored repeated police demands to hit the ground. He advanced.
So naturally, Officer Kerrick saw Ferrell. And he took a shot. Then he took eleven more. Twelve bullets. Ten hit Ferrell’s body.
An officer shackled Ferrell’s wrists as he died.
III. “I believe in the justice system,” Coach Holmes told Sporting News, adamant that he cannot convict Kerrick, that he cannot know what happened from afar. “But the Jonathan Ferrell that I knew wasn’t violent, wasn’t none of those things that they make him out to be.”
Holmes remembers a quiet kid with comedic timing. A leader by example, never late for practice or conditioning. When teammates could not run and struggled to stand, Holmes recalled, Ferrell picked them up.
IV. Randall Kerrick currently stands trial for manslaughter, nearly two years since Ferrell fell.
Opposing portraits emerge. From Kerrick’s defense: Ferrell as an attempted burglary suspect, high on marijuana, out of control, disobedient and dangerous.
From Ferrell’s family and lawyer Chris Chestnut: Ferrell as a victim of circumstance, barefoot and battered from a car crash. Looking for help. In the dash cam footage, they claimed, Ferrell approached, hands out, unarmed. He lifts his jeans to show bare ankles. He’s met with silence. And when commands come, bullets follow quickly, leaving no time for the instinctive former safety to react.
The autopsy found no trace of marijuana in Ferrell’s system, according to The Charlotte Observer. His blood alcohol level remained under the limit.
V. Holmes, by then FAMU’s head coach, found out about Ferrell before that Saturday’s game against the Samford Bulldogs. A player, slumped at his locker, said simply, “Coach, Jonathan got shot.”
“When he said Jonathan, it never registered,” Holmes said. “Not Jonathan Ferrell. Because Jonathan never did anything like that … Whatever happened, I just knew Jonathan. And Jonathan wasn’t one of those guys that was going to do the wrong thing. He was a guy you could trust.”
VI. According to the Observer, Ferrell’s record includes no criminal convictions. He was once charged with misdemeanor battery for shoving a tow garage owner. He showed contrition. The charges were dropped.
VII. Holmes saw a change in Ferrell when Jonathan’s little brother, Willie, followed his footsteps to Florida A&M.
“He really became a leader,” Holmes said. Willie had the all-world talent. Jonathan had the wing under which Willie could learn. Together, as Holmes remembers it, they parlayed passionate play with infectious personalities that informed the spirit of the football program.
“(Jonathan) would just always know the right thing to say, the right thing to do,” said Holmes. “When other guys were doing wrong, Jonathan would put them in their place.”
VIII. Ferrell lost his father at 4 years old. On Christmas Eve. According to the Observer’s Michael Gordon, he told Willie then that he’d always protect him. He didn’t leave his brother behind until he went to Charlotte.
IX. Holmes has reasons he could question Ferrell’s life choices. Ferrell left FAMU football before his senior season to focus on his studies, then left the school altogether to follow his fiancée Caché Heidel to Charlotte when she got a good job in the Queen City. But Holmes harbors no feelings of a father figure abandoned. Quite the opposite.
“Those are the ones you’re proud of,” Holmes said. “They stayed away from trouble, they stayed away from shenanigans. They just stayed on the path and worked their way to become a productive citizen…”
“He was just one of those kids you thought, ‘He’s going to do something special.’ But he never got a chance to be that, do that.”
X. When Ferrell crashed on Reedy Creek Road, two hearts waited for him at home: Heidel, and a dog Ferrell had found abandoned in a box at the park.
He had no way to reach them. Ferrell’s phone fell in the accident. The doors on the totaled car wouldn’t open. He escaped through the back windshield. He lost his shoes. The city was asleep and he was almost 20 miles from home.
Ferrell knocked on McCartney’s door, and in the audio of her frantic phone call, the only intelligible word you hear from him is “Hello?” An ironic goodbye.
XI. There was a time when Coach Holmes thought fondly of Ferrell giving shots instead of taking them.
Ferrell announced his freshman arrival on a day when Holmes’ defense needed help. The offense was kicking his ass. “Jonathan, go out there,” the coach said.
A wide receiver came across the middle of the field. Ferrell laid him flat. And his role was cemented. Be it on the field with his physicality, or off the field with his personality, Ferrell was the spark, Holmes said.
“He did bring some life to us,” Holmes said. “This is a kid that came through the program and worked his butt off, put himself in position to be a contributor to the team, worked hard on and off the field. Competed every day. Never any problems. People loved him.
“And now he’s gone.”
XII. Ferrell’s final hour remains an unfinished, patchwork quilt of evidence:
McCartney calls the cops.
“Have you seen this person?” the dispatcher asks.
“Yes,” McCartney replies, fearing for her infant’s safety. “He’s a Black man.”
Eleven minutes later, Kerrick came with two fellow officers, both Black.
As many men have in recent months, in recent years, always, Ferrell fit the profile.
According to a police statement, Ferrell “immediately ran toward the officers.” One failed to tase Ferrell. George Laughrun, an attorney for Kerrick, would tell reporters that the dash cam footage showed Ferrell concealing a hand behind his back as he advanced, that Ferrell thrice received a command: “Get on the ground.”
And he didn’t. Until Officer Kerrick put him there.
That translation remains in dispute. The footage remains undisclosed. In the weeks ahead, it will surface as the trial proceeds. And everyone will see — no matter what the justice system decrees, no matter what the video displays — the same end:
A dozen shots. A life cut short.
A former safety and Black man — or a Black man’s safety — redefined.