Christian University Settles for $14M with Family of Student Athlete Who Died Begging for Water

By Josh Shepherd
grant brace water
University of the Cumberlands has agreed to pay $14 million to the family of student athlete Grant Brace, who died from exertional heat stroke in August 2020. (Courtesy Photo)

A Christian university has agreed to pay $14 million to the family of a student athlete who died from heat stroke after begging for water from coaches during an outdoor “punishment practice.”

Founded by a group of Baptist ministers in 1888, University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky., has historic ties to the Kentucky Baptist Convention (KBC), a statewide voluntary fellowship of churches which is linked to the Southern Baptist Convention. (In 2018, KBC dissolved formal association with the university.)

The school settled last week with the family of deceased athlete Grant Brace. Brace was 20 at the time of his death on the university’s campus on August 31, 2020. University of the Cumberlands and other defendants, including two coaches since fired, agreed to pay $14,121,699, which is in part to honor Brace’s birthdate of Dec. 16, 1999.

“It is important to the family that the amount of this settlement be known so that coaches and educational institutions understand the weight of ignoring heat-related illnesses,” stated family attorney James Moncus.

Diagnosed with ADHD and narcolepsy from a young age, Brace took medication that increased his need for hydration. His high school had accommodated his needs, and he participated in several state wrestling tournaments. According to the lawsuit, the university, which participates in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, had committed to accommodate him. 

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cumberlands
University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky. (Courtesy Photo)

Brace died during his team’s first practice of the semester in 2020. Coaches reportedly forced students to run up and down “punishment hill,” and Brace sat down after a few circuits. He begged for water but his coaches reportedly replied that “water is for the weak.” When Brace walked away in search of water, coaches told him he was cut from the team.  

Attorney Moncus described that Brace “was found dead with his hands and face in the dirt a few hundred yards from the wrestling room.” He added: “Grant’s death was the result of untreated exertional heat stroke. It is inexcusable that the University and its coaches allowed Grant to die.”

The university’s wrestling coaches, Jordan Countryman and Jake Sinkovics, were fired. 

In a statement to the media, University of the Cumberlands Chancellor Jerry Jackson said the community “continues to mourn his untimely loss . . . Grant was a talented, well-liked young man entering his junior year with a bright future ahead of him.” 

The school settled the suit out of court, foregoing a potentially lengthy and costly legal process. “We sincerely hope that resolving this matter early in the legal process will offer the Brace family a measure of peace and healing,” said Jackson. 

In honor of their son, Brace’s parents, Kyle and Jackie Brace partnered with the Korey Stringer Institute to develop what is termed The B.R.A.C.E. Protocol, a five-step method to prevent exertional heat stroke.

University of the Cumberlands has committed to implement this protocol, which will also be promoted at schools across the nation.

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately state the university’s historic ties with Southern Baptist associations.

Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.

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7 thoughts on “Christian University Settles for $14M with Family of Student Athlete Who Died Begging for Water”

  1. This death is heartbreaking and inexcusable. If the school “committed to accomodate him” the coaches should be held accountable, beyond simply losing their jobs.

    1. Although the article doesn’t go into detail, it does state the coaches were defendants in the lawsuit. Again, the article doesn’t go into detail on the settlement.

      As you wrote, this is heartbreaking and inexcusable.

      1. “Water makes you weak” is a line from a football movie (1970s timeline). It was common until the late 70s to deny water to toughen athletes. It didn’t help at all, and actually killed some. The guy who was quoted, might have been (probably was) mimicking the movie line. It’s doubtful that anybody still practiced this arcane rule. I played pee wee in 75-76. Our coach was brutal, but he allowed water at break time. Should have done it throughout the practice.

  2. This is incredibly sad and almost unbelievable. Coaches withholding water from athletes?? That’s 20th century nonsense.

    At least those responsible were held accountable.

    Withholding water from athletes is incredibly antiquated. Unbelievable!

  3. The school’s website is still glorifying the coach, Jordan Countryman, although it does say he was replaced, with replaced being misspelled. Good grief!

  4. Wrestling gets a lot of scrutiny for the dangers of cutting (making) weight leading up to matches. I think this kind of unending hell week mentality is a bigger danger, though weight management is intertwined.

    When I wrestled in HS in the 90s, the role model we were always told to emulate was Dan Gable, a US wrestler famous for his obsessive compulsive conditioning. The stories abounded of him up early in the morning, running the day after winning championships. Of him not being around to accept an award for the Olympic trials because he was in the “hot room” doing pushups.

    This fixation on the idea that there is no amount of conditioning is enough leads to widespread abuse, both verbal and physical.

  5. Whenever I read stories like this it seems like the outcome is a cash payment made to the family to go away, usually with an agreement that neither admits nor denies responsibility. I am not an expert on the legal issues involved but it would seem that these coaches who are supposed to be experts in their field would be charged with involuntary manslaughter or a similar charge since they should know the implications of denying water to a dehydrated athlete yet made a conscious decision to deny him water. Cash payments, much of which is probably covered by insurance, seems like such as easy out for those responsible in situations like this. It will be interesting to see of these coaches are hired as coaches by another school.

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