“There’s no question about it, he’s the number one fan at the University of Maryland and has been for many years,” says Bobby Ross, the former head football coach. “He probably always will be, too.”
“Every sporting event I’ve ever been to, he’s been at,” says Justin Gibert, a senior offensive lineman.
“He dresses like a Terp, he looks a little bit like a turtle. He’s so charismatically consistent, he stays so loyal,” said field hockey Coach Missy Meharg, the school’s longest-tenured athletics coach.
“If you ever saw him get a cut, Maryland would bleed out,” said Mark Duffner, another ex-football coach. “That’s the truth.”
Joel is allowed inside the Terps’ football practice because Joel has always been allowed in. This is his 30th year around Maryland athletics. He attends as many games and as many practices as time — and the Metro bus schedule — allow. Around College Park, no one seems to know Joel’s last name, his age, what he does for a living or what his exact condition is. They just know that while hundreds of coaches, thousands of student-athletes and even more Terps fans have passed through in the past three decades, there has been only one Joel.
Every year, former players and attentive alums return to College Park and spot the familiar face. His thin moustache has a bit more salt mixed in with the pepper, but he is still soft-spoken and always smiling. He’s slightly bent at the shoulders and as always, hurriedly walks like he’s late for an appointment, bus schedules poking from his pockets.
“Is that Joel?” they’ll ask Kevin Glover, the former Maryland football star who’s now an associate athletic director at the school. “He’s still here?”
“Yep,” Glover tells them. “Every day.”
‘Something in there’
The newcomers always get a history lesson. Randy Edsall is midway through his second season as head football coach. They didn’t tell him about Joel during the job interviews, but like the five coaches who preceded him, Edsall learned pretty quickly.
On Edsall’s first day of practice in 2011, Joel got off the bus and speed-walked to the practice field, where the new coach had left strict instructions at the gate: No one gets in. Joel was stuck outside. Glover found him there, “visibly upset.” When practice ended, Glover took the Terps fan to meet Edsall, knowing the Maryland coach simply needed to learn about Joel for himself.
The roots of Joel’s story stretch back more than 50 years. Shortly after he was born, doctors told his mother, Susan Ryerson, something wasn’t right. They eventually settled on a diagnosis of hydrocephalus, the accumulation of fluid inside the skull that leads to brain swelling. It left Joel with brain damage.