By John T. Wendt, J.D., M.A.
Grant Brace was a very good high school wrestler and football player in Alcoa, Tennessee. He went on to wrestle at the University of Cumberlands in Kentucky. In August of 2020, Grant’s third year, the wrestling team began pre-season workouts and according to a recently filed lawsuit, Grant passed from exertional heat-stroke.
Grant’s family sued. The complaint alleges negligence and gross negligence at the hands of his head coach Jordan Countryman and assistant coach Jake Sinkovics Both no longer work at Cumberlands.
According to the complaint, despite being diagnosed with ADHD and narcolepsy, Brace achieved both academic and athletic success. Not only was he a member of his high school’s National Honor Society, but had a wrestling record of 128-33 and played on three state championship football teams. The complaint also notes that every school that he attended made accommodations for Brace given his medical conditions.
A key point in the complaint was that Brace’s physicians prescribed Adderall to help Brace focus, and it was “critical” that he maintain hydration while using Adderall. And before attending Cumberlands, Brace and his family were assured by the administration, including Coach Countryman, that appropriate accommodations would be made regarding his medical condition and hydration needs.
The complaint alleges that the coaches Countryman and Sinkovics created a toxic atmosphere “of fear and intimidation… through emotional manipulation, emotional abuse, and physical abuse of student-athletes.” This allegedly included a constant refrain that “water is for the weak.” When Brace requested a water break, they refused and commented, “Do you think you are special and are allowed more water?”
The complaint goes on to allege that on August 31, 2021, after a summer break period of inactivity the wrestling team began with a track practice and the coaches forced the student-athletes to sprint and down a “punishment hill” seven times because a student-athlete failed a fundraising assignment. There is also an allegation that there was no athletic trainer present and that the coaches knew that the same “punishment hill” practice after inactivity had caused significant injuries to a different wrestler just one year ago.
The complaint continues to allege that while Brace completed several circuits, he eventually sat down exhausted whereupon Coach Countryman told Brace that he was off the team. While Brace ran to the top of the hill and said, “I’m done. I can’t do this anymore,” the coaches, despite objections and warnings about Brace’s health, kept pushing Brace to finish the punishment circuits. When they returned to the wrestling room, Brace allegedly laid on the mat and asked for water. The coaches refused to let the other players render aid and told Brace to “get the water himself,” according to the complaint.
The complaint alleges that Brace, suffering from heat stroke, continually asked for water, and begged, “[P]lease help me, you promised you would help me.” Yet, the coaches allegedly refused and failed to contact the trainer or emergency medical personnel. Even after Brace began to speak and act in a nonsensical manner, consistent with the recognizable signs of heat stroke, the coaches yelled him to leave the room. They did not follow Brace. Brace frantically looked for water but the buildings on campus were locked and the water fountains did not work, according to the complaint. He collapsed and died. After more than 45 minutes, the coaches began to look for Brace and found him dead.
The plaintiffs include Brace’s parents, Kyle Brace and Jacqueline Brace, his sister Kaylee Wagnon. The defendants include coach Countryman, Sinkovics, the university, The Cumberland Foundation, Cumberland Athletics Properties, Dr. Larry Cockrum (individually, and as President of the University), and Chris Kraftick (individually, and as Athletic Director). The complaint alleges that President Cockrum and A.D. Kraftick failed to provide appropriate funding to ensure that a trainer was physically present at all men’s wrestling practices as required by their policies and procedures. It is alleged that they also knew of the “punishment exercises” and that another student-athlete suffered a permanent brain injury on the same circumstances with the same coaches just a year earlier.
Cumberlands spokesman Andrew Powell said, “Earlier today, University of the Cumberlands received notice of the lawsuit filed by the attorneys for Grant Brace’s family. Grant’s death was a tragic loss for his family, his friends, the University community, and all who knew him. In the wake of this tragedy, the University has tried its best to be sympathetic and respectful to Grant’s family and to ensure that all of its athletic programs, including the wrestling program, were and are being operated in a safe manner. The University questions several of the allegations in the complaint and does not feel that the complaint is a fair reflection of its wrestling program. Out of respect for all concerned and for the legal process, the University will not address individual allegations publicly but will instead present its defenses to the claims through the legal proceeding.”
When Countryman resigned from the University, AD Chris Kraftick said, “Jordan has made a big impact on the wrestling program and Patriots athletics in his time at UC…We wish him the best of luck on the next chapter ahead.” Countryman is now serving as a wrestling coach at Saraland High School in Alabama. Aaron Milner, the superintendent of Saraland said, “Saraland City Schools prioritizes safety in all endeavors both in and out of the classroom. Every employment decision made in Saraland City Schools is solely based on my recommendation as the superintendent and follows a vetting process that includes criminal background clearance through the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) working in partnership with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA).”
Recognizing the sensitivity of the claims and respecting those personally involved, I will continue to monitor the Kentucky case and respond as facts pertinent to the operation of Saraland City Schools are communicated by the legal authorities directly connected to the Kentucky lawsuit. Finally, according to his LinkedIn page, Jake Sinkovics is now the Director of Coaches/ Head Wrestling Coach at Midwest Xtreme Wrestling Club in Indiana.
 Brace v. Cumberlands, No. 21-CI-429 (Whitley Cir. Ct. Court, Ky.)
 Erin Cox, University of the Cumberlands sued for wrestler’s death, The Times-Tribune.com (2021), https://www.thetimestribune.com/news/local_news/university-of-the-cumberlands-sued-for-wrestlers-death/article_6945c063-1bcb-5061-b5ba-85376189577a.html (last visited Aug 26, 2021).
 Victory Sports Network, Countryman Resigns As Cumberlands (KY) Wrestling Coach (2021), http://www.victorysportsnetwork.com/Clip/news/countryman-resigns-as-cumberlands-ky-wrestling-coach.htm (last visited Aug 30, 2021).
 Tyler Fingert, Saraland High School wrestling coach named in Kentucky wrongful death lawsuit, FOX10 News (2021), https://www.fox10tv.com/news/mobile_county/saraland-high-school-wrestling-coach-named-in-kentucky-wrongful-death-lawsuit/article_9b23fb92-06c3-11ec-b260-a7dcdecadc3f.html (last visited Aug 27, 2021).