The Thursday-morning tradition of Jordan shouting, “Guess what day it is?” with McNair responding, “It’s Chipotle Thursday!” no longer exists. Neither do the weekly meals the two players shared. When a former player visited Maryland earlier this season, offensive lineman Ellis McKennie wanted to tell McNair. Then, McKennie, who also played with McNair at McDonogh, thought, “Oh, s---, he’s not here.” And as McKennie, Jordan and a handful of their Maryland teammates pray before each game, they now touch McNair’s locker instead of his hands.
“We say, ‘Johnny, how are you doing today?’” Jordan’s mom, Rebecca, said. “And if he's having a bad day, he'll say, ‘Well you know, I walk into that apartment every single day knowing that Jordan is never coming back.’ It hits him in the face, I think, every single time he walks through the door.”
For these athletes, two of McNair’s closest friends, the last five months have been filled with intense grief that has galvanized into an equally strong commitment to honor their lost teammate. For them, that’s all this has ever been about.
“There’s no getting over it,” McKennie said of losing his longtime friend. “There’s no getting past it.”
‘Falling apart in their own way’
A group of McNair’s friends, including five Maryland offensive linemen and two tight ends, carried McNair’s casket from the church to the hearse and then to the gravesite on June 20.
On Tuesday, three of those players — McKennie, tight end Avery Edwards and offensive lineman Brendan Moore — walked out of Durkin’s first team meeting following the coach’s reinstatement.
They all wore Maryland football gloves at the burial, and as their teammate was lowered into the earth, rain began to pour. The pallbearers, all no more than a few years out of high school, stood still.
“That is when those o-linemen lost it,” Jordan’s mom said. “These are the big, strong boys. … They just started, one by one, falling apart in their own way. You just knew they needed to release this.”
The Maryland players each left one glove in McNair’s grave and kept the other. McKennie’s mom framed her son’s glove along with a newspaper article about the funeral, a wristband and stickers that spelled the words, “Until we meet again.” Jordan simply wrote the date of the funeral on a bag that holds his glove and hung that to the wall in the apartment he and McNair once shared.
Both McKennie and Jordan spoke at McNair’s funeral. Jordan met McNair at football camps while they were in high school. They arrived in College Park in 2017 and often sat near each other in the team meeting room. Now that spot on the fifth row, between Anthony McFarland and Marcus Minor, stays empty. The seating chart on the wall has McNair’s square blacked out.
McKennie and McNair grew up on the same street in Randallstown, northwest of Baltimore, and the two played sports together. McNair vastly preferred basketball to baseball and took the picking-flowers-in-the-outfield approach when he was on the Little League team. McKennie laughs thinking about McNair’s baseball days and said he was definitely more of a hooper.
McKennie helped recruit McNair, who was a year younger, to McDonogh, a private school, and then to Maryland. Four members of Maryland’s team went to McDonogh, and those players had a strong role in the vocal outcry after Durkin’s return.
McNair was buried wearing McDonogh’s special dress uniform — khakis, a blue blazer and a tie. At the viewing, McKennie, who wore his McDonogh tie that day, arrived a few minutes before his mom but said he would meet her inside.
“Five minutes later, he calls me again, just sobbing,” McKennie’s mom, Jodi, said. “He said, 'Mom, I went in, and I wasn't ready to see Jordan in his McDonogh special dress.’”
‘Nobody knew what to do’
When McNair suffered exertional heatstroke at a Maryland practice on May 29, which ultimately led to his death 15 days later, his teammates did not immediately know the severity of the situation. Within the next couple days, McKennie began receiving texts from McDonogh friends who had heard it was serious, and Jordan’s mom reached out to McNair’s mom, Tonya Wilson, for updates.
Over the summer, McKennie interned in Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin’s office, walking distance from the hospital where McNair stayed. McKennie visited every day during his lunch break, and doctors told him even though McNair couldn’t respond, he could hear.
McKennie would give McNair updates from the NBA Finals: “You should have seen LeBron had 50 last night! You missed it. It was crazy. They still lost, so he’s got to pull one out tonight.”
“That’s all I was talking about,” McKennie said, “the NBA Finals.”
Those visits were difficult for McKennie, his mom said, adding how once when she visited, her son didn’t want her to go into the room. It was not how he wanted his mom to remember his friend.
When McNair had a liver transplant, a large group of friends and family gathered at the hospital. Jordan stayed for about 10 hours, and McKennie came by the next day, too.
"It wasn't a scene of sorrow,” Jordan said.
“It really wasn't,” McKennie said. “I was playing freaking spades with his mom.”
On June 13, Maryland’s players had a team meeting in the morning, where they learned McNair was not doing well. Jordan’s mom had been texting McNair’s mom every morning but reached out a bit later than usual that day. Minutes later, McNair’s mom responded to say her son had died. Jordan’s mom called her son, so he could hear it from her rather than someone else.
Jordan thought he might have been the only person in the team building who knew. He first went to the office of offensive line coach Bryan Stinespring, who was meeting with senior Sean Christie. The three cried together, and then Jordan continued to spread the word. McKennie, who was in Baltimore for his internship, heard the news from Durkin and began taking on the same role but with people from McDonogh. Over and over, both repeated the excruciating sentence that nobody knew how to process.
“People are just wandering,” McKennie said of the scene when he arrived back on campus just after the second team meeting ended. “Nobody knew what to do.”
‘Football is their light’
So here’s what they did: McKennie and Jordan emerged as leaders for anything related to McNair. The two spoke publicly to share the team’s plans to honor their teammate. All players wear No. 79 helmet stickers every week. They carry his jersey onto the field.
Before the season, McKennie searched online to see tributes Nebraska held for punter Sam Foltz, who died in a car accident in 2016. That’s what sparked the idea of painting the number 79 on each 21-yard line at Maryland Stadium. When the Terrapins opened the season against Texas, Jordan, a sophomore offensive lineman, stayed on the sideline for the first play to create the missing-man formation. Jordan’s mom said her son was intentionally the one who hung back because of his relationship with McNair.
Starting with the downpour at McNair’s burial, the offensive line group developed a theory that McNair controls the weather, citing two lightning delays at Maryland games this year. A couple of other games have been played in the rain, too. Even a jersey retirement ceremony held for McNair at McDonogh took place beneath a drizzle.
They continue to play every Saturday. They have become experts in compartmentalizing. They wave a flag emblazoned with No. 79 before each game and carry it off the field afterward.
“It had become so heavy and just dark,” Jordan’s mom said. “For these boys, football is their light.”
A few months after McNair died, painters stopped by Jordan’s apartment and left the door to McNair’s room wide open. He stepped inside, the only time he’s done so since McNair’s death. Jordan visualized how the room once looked when his friend’s belongings filled the space. He didn’t stay longer than five minutes, but he said that was “definitely the roughest experience.”
McKennie wrestles with guilt. As he drove back to College Park the day McNair died, he called his mom, inconsolable, and kept saying: “It’s just football. This didn’t have to happen.”
As the decision of whether to reinstate Durkin loomed last week, McKennie told his mom, “If I wouldn’t have just went to position drills,” referring to the team’s next task after McNair struggled during sprints. “If I would have said, ‘No, we have to help Jordan.’”
This is McKennie wondering, still, if he could have prevented McNair’s death. But there is no way to bring his friend back, and that’s why McKennie spoke out this time.
Some players’ urging to fire Durkin centered around what they called “Justice for Jordan.” Their stance did not focus on politics or 200-page reports. It’s about McNair, their fallen teammate, whose apartment door remains closed, who left behind the orange McDonogh pennant and a memory to guide their way forward.