OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Marty McNair and Tonya Wilson had not been on the McDonogh School football field since their son, Jordan, celebrated Senior Day back in the fall of 2016. They returned Friday night for a somber occasion that would have been beyond their imagination when their son was here two years ago. They bundled up and made their way to the sideline, where a microphone waited. A light drizzle fell. The crowd fell silent as Marty McNair stepped to the lectern to memorialize his son as the team retired his No. 70 jersey.
He did not bring up McNair’s short career at the University of Maryland. He did not mention the fateful workout of May 29 in College Park, where he suffered heatstroke and died 15 days later. Instead, he began his speech by going back to Senior Day in 2016.
“We were full of expectations, with a life full of potential. Things happen,” he said. “However, Tonya and I are proud to be a part of the McDonogh family. And this was an excellent, excellent launchpad for success in Jordan’s life.”
Before McDonogh played suburban Philadelphia’s Malvern Prep on Friday night, Eagles players presented the McNairs with a framed orange uniform, engraved with a quote referencing devotional song “On Eagle’s Wings”: “And He will raise him up on eagle’s wings.”
There were reminders of McNair all over the stadium — from the players’ helmet stickers, emblazoned with the No. 70, to the concession stand, which was stocked with 300 free helpings of McNair’s favorite snack, banana pudding.
It was his mother’s recipe, and Wilson shared much more Friday night. She shook every hand she could and smiled. She wiped away a few tears during the ceremony and embraced Benita Meadow, who lost her son, Marquese. The former Morgan State football player, like McNair, died after suffering heatstroke during a team workout in 2014.
On a fence near the lectern where Marty McNair spoke, six signs honored his son. “We miss you,” one read. Marty McNair spoke about turning his pain into purpose by starting the Jordan McNair Foundation.
“Hey,” he said before pausing for a few moments. “An excellent opportunity to honor our son. He was a great young man. He did a lot in his 19 years.”
The school also framed McNair’s gray, road jersey, and it will hang inside the athletic center. The team will wear the No. 70 helmet stickers throughout this season and possibly beyond, Coach Hakeem Sule said.
This year, McDonogh has a young team, and just a few players had a close relationship with McNair. (He was a senior in high school when this season’s seniors were sophomores.) But even those who didn’t know McNair well, Sule said, “knew the type of impact he had on this community.”
“It gives us purpose,” Sule said earlier in the week. “It makes us go out there and say, ‘At the end of the day, whether you’re the best athlete in the world or you’re just on the team, you’re playing for a purpose.’ ”
Maryland has four players from McDonogh on its 2018 roster, one of whom, offensive lineman Ellis McKennie, tweeted that he planned to attend Friday’s ceremony.
Sule, a math teacher, taught McNair in algebra I, and he also tutored McNair in geometry and algebra II. Sule became McDonogh’s head coach this season; he previously was an assistant coaching running backs and linebackers. As a freshman, Sule said McNair was still learning how to use his body, so he played on the JV team. Sule remembered how Spencer Folau, the team’s offensive line coach and a former NFL player, would say McNair always had the size to succeed, but his work ethic was what led him to receive college scholarship offers.
The day after McNair died, McDonogh held a memorial service at the school’s chapel. It featured powerful periods of silence and storytelling, in an open-forum setting, from those who knew McNair well.
“This is something that our athletic director shared with all our students — not just the football players. You don’t want to take life for granted,” said Sule, who played football at McDonogh and Maryland. “While you’re out there representing McDonogh, have fun and enjoy this experience and moment. It puts things in perspective, what really matters in life. That’s something that has really brought us together as a football team.”
In August, McKennie and fellow lineman Johnny Jordan, one of McNair’s close friends and roommates, announced that Maryland planned to honor McNair in similar ways. His Maryland jersey, No. 79, will be retired through the end of his eligibility in 2021. The Terrapins will wear No, 79 stickers on their helmets and will name their offensive line meeting room after McNair and encase his locker in glass. The team has brought McNair’s jersey and a No. 79 flag to both games so far this year.
The Terrapins’ home opener against Temple on Saturday will include a moment of silence for McNair, just as the team did in its season opener vs. Texas.
Marty McNair met with the McDonogh players Thursday. He said he asked whether the death of his son had brought the team closer together, before adding, “What a wonderful way to honor our son.” Many Maryland players also have said the loss made the team closer.
“Jordan was everybody’s son,” Marty McNair said. “He was everybody’s brother. He was everybody’s teammate.”
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