It was a tribute to Jordan McNair, the Maryland redshirt freshman offensive lineman who died in June two weeks after suffering exertional heatstroke during a team workout, thrusting the school into upheaval.
There were visible reminders of the turbulence on Saturday, even as Maryland held on for a 34-29 win over the 23rd-ranked Longhorns. University President Wallace D. Loh and Athletic Director Damon Evans, both of whom have come under heavy fire in the wake of McNair’s death, stood together on the sideline. Others were felt by their absence. Coach DJ Durkin, on administrative leave since Aug. 11 in the wake of separate investigations into McNair’s death and allegations of an abusive team culture, was nowhere to be found. Rick Court, who resigned as the team’s strength and conditioning coach as part of the fallout, wasn’t there to lead warm-ups as he had in years past. Head trainer Wes Robinson, who is also on leave, wasn’t there to treat injured players.
But Maryland’s players appeared galvanized by the memory of McNair from the onset. They had found a five-hour reprieve on Saturday.
They asked Maryland interim coach Matt Canada if they could start the game with 10 players on the field. Canada thanked Texas Coach Thom Herman for allowing the play and declining the penalty.
“They wanted to go out there and make sure that Jordan was remembered. We did that. Everything that we’ve done to honor Jordan is from our players,” Canada said. “It was special. It was emotional.”
Before kickoff, captains Taivon Jacobs and Brett Kulka carried McNair’s No. 79 jersey to midfield, and Ellis McKennie — who played with McNair at nearby McDonogh High School — waved a red flag emblazoned with McNair’s number on the sideline. The stadium announcer called for a moment of silence.
“Jordan will forever be a Terp,” the announcer bellowed at the end of the tribute. Minutes later, Hill stood on the field, his fist raised, after Texas had declined the delay-of-game penalty on the first play. His teammates followed.
“Everything that has happened this summer has brought us closer together,” Hill said.
The death of McNair and the subsequent fallout has rocked College Park in recent weeks, and it cast an eerie pall as the Terrapins warmed up on Saturday. Loh, donning sunglasses with a red shirt and khakis, stood near the sideline and pumped his fist as the school’s fight song played. Next to Loh was Evans, who wore black pants and a checkered shirt and made the rounds with athletic department staffers. Neither were made available for comment.
On the stadium concourse, Texas fans were out in droves. Burnt orange was the dominant color, with some fans donning cowboy hats and waving the Texas state flag as they made their way to their seats.
A Maryland merchandise vendor, stocked with red and black T-shirts, stuffed turtles and footballs emblazoned with the school’s logo, was unnoticed by most of the Terrapins faithful before kickoff. “Fear the Turtle?” one fan screamed at a group of Texas fans waiting in line at a concession stand.
“Where’s your coach?” one of the Longhorns fans responded.
Durkin has been absent from the program for the past three weeks, with Canada taking over as interim coach just eight months after he was hired to serve as the team’s offensive coordinator. Canada wore all black and was on the field for the duration of warm-ups on Saturday, directing the new-look Terrapins offense while also making the rounds with other units.
That’s part of his expanded responsibility now, and he made a point to hug several of his defenders during pregame stretches, including starting safety Antoine Brooks. It was Brooks who made the game-winning interception late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
“From the players, to the coaches, to the staff, everybody that packs our parachutes, we’ve just stuck together, and that’s the result of today,” Jacobs said.
Evans hugged Canada after the win, then moved on to embracing Brooks, Jacobs and the rest of the players as they came off the field. McKennie carried the No. 79 flag he had waved before the game. The last player off the field was senior offensive lineman Sean Christie, who held up McNair’s uniform for cameras and fans before he ran back to the locker room.
Once inside, Canada announced that the game ball from the victory would be placed in McNair’s glass-encased locker back on campus in College Park and given to McNair’s parents — who recently called for Durkin to be fired — on Senior Day. By then, the fate of Durkin and the rest of the administration — including the futures of Loh and Evans — will be decided. But for a few moments after Saturday’s win, Canada was focused on the memory of McNair.
“This was a win for Jordan,” Canada said. “We’re proud of our team, proud of our program.”