On a Wednesday morning one year ago, Maryland’s football players gathered twice in the team meeting room — first to hear an update about teammate Jordan McNair, who suffered heatstroke at a team workout 15 days earlier. McNair wasn’t doing well, so the players prayed and headed their separate ways. By the time the staff called the team back together, many had already heard the news. McNair had died, and all anyone could do was wander away and cry.
The grieving process began then and continues today, the pain peaking in conjunction with emotional reminders such as Thursday, the first anniversary of McNair’s death. Photos flooded social media throughout the morning, with the players at the indoor practice facility all wearing shirts featuring a large red No. 79, McNair’s jersey number, and his name on the back. Usually, the players work out in a few separate groups at different times. Thursday morning, they worked out together.
“We are still 18- to 22-year-olds who dealt with an unimaginable tragedy,” said offensive lineman Johnny Jordan, one of McNair’s closest friends. “The honoring and never forgetting is huge for us.”
Later in the day, half the team participated in a field day at a Washington elementary school. Thursday evening, the other players joined the Jordan McNair Foundation, which aims to educate communities about heat-related illnesses, as it hosted a health and wellness clinic at McDonogh School, McNair’s alma mater outside Baltimore.
“It’s a very bittersweet day,” said Marty McNair, Jordan’s father. “However, I think this is our way of giving back to the community, and this is what we wanted to do as far as keeping Jordan’s legacy alive. It’s an emotional day still, just the same. This is the way we give back.”
Death from heatstroke, experts say, is entirely preventable as long as it is diagnosed and treated properly. Maryland’s medical staff failed to do either for McNair in May 2018.
Thursday evening, a few of McNair’s teammates shared stories and an athletic trainer spoke with parents about recognizing and treating heat-related illnesses. The Jordan McNair Foundation donated 20 inflatable tubs to schools and youth programs in its effort to teach others what McNair’s parents had to learn through the loss of their 19-year-old son, who could have been treated through timely cold-water immersion.
Maryland players have driven the way the team honors McNair. Since many describe McNair, who was an offensive lineman, as a “teddy bear,” Coach Michael Locksley said they thought it would be fitting to work with kids on this particular day. The team’s leadership group also decided the 6 a.m. workout should feature the number 79, whether in the form of repetitions or yards.
In the past year, three coaches have led Maryland — DJ Durkin, who drew criticism for allowing an abusive culture to fester within his program; then Matt Canada, the interim coach who guided the Terps to five wins in the 2018 season amid constant turmoil; and now Locksley, the man who Maryland officials decided was the right person to rebuild this program.
Even with all the new faces — the entire coaching staff, incoming freshmen and a handful of transfers — the players remain committed to honoring their teammate this season and beyond. Many of Maryland’s strength coaches, who led the workout Thursday morning, tweeted about McNair alongside the players. The coaching staff brought an abundance of energy to the clinic and guided kids through drills while their parents listened to the safety presentation. McNair’s mother, Tonya Wilson, looked on with a smile.
“We embrace whatever hurts our players,” Locksley said. “Whatever they’re feeling, we feel. Our coaches and our staff have done a great job of being really sensitive but also getting to know our current team and putting meaningful time into developing strong, powerful relationships with these guys that we hope will be the foundation for good things to come for our program.”
Thursday marked the beginning of another year of healing and grief. The players, and all those who knew McNair, will navigate the next 12 months, maybe with a bit more closure this time, until the next time they meet this date, which is permanently attached with the weight of pain and purpose.