Ellis McKennie needed a couple of weeks to concoct the winning formula, one that starts with a white, Gatorade-branded towel and ends with a sweat-free entrance to Sen. Ben Cardin’s office on Capitol Hill. That’s the trouble with being a 310-pound football player. A half-mile walk while wearing a sport jacket on a sweltering summer day in Washington becomes miserably unpleasant.
So early in the summer, McKennie devised a strategy. He would leave the University of Maryland football facility wearing dress pants and a Terps T-shirt. When he arrived at the College Park Metro parking garage, he would tie that towel around his forehead to soak up sweat, then head toward work with his jacket and dress shirt hanging from his backpack.
McKennie’s summer days usually started around 5 a.m. for daily football workouts, and he wouldn’t return home from his internship in Cardin’s office until 7 p.m. This was McKennie’s third political internship; when he pursued the first opportunity, his mother, Jodi, remembers saying: “Why did you add something to your schedule? Why would you possibly add something to the little bit of free time that you have?”
The answer: He cares — about his future, other people, public policy and the world. Along with a childhood dream of playing professional baseball, the outspoken and informed offensive lineman always hoped for a career in politics.
McKennie is far less known for his role on the field as a senior reserve for the Terrapins than as the team’s leading voice off it. After teammate Jordan McNair died in June 2018 as a result of heatstroke suffered during a team workout, McKennie helped lead efforts to memorialize his fellow lineman, who had been a friend since grade school. When DJ Durkin was reinstated as head coach in late October following a pair of independent investigations launched in the wake of McNair’s death, McKennie broke the players’ public silence by expressing his displeasure on Twitter. The same day, he was one of three players to walk out of a team meeting with Durkin.
His actions weren’t impulsive. That’s not how McKennie works. He talked to his parents before he sent his thoughts out to the world. Jodi McKennie remembers her son telling her, “When I say what I have to say, I could possibly lose my scholarship.” McKennie’s parents promised they would figure out the finances. They knew their son had handled this well. They understood what he risked by speaking out.
“Yes, I was very worried,” Jodi McKennie said. “But I was very proud.”
McKennie surged into the spotlight. Some teammates starting tweeting, too. Pushback intensified, and the school fired Durkin the next day. McKennie’s message has been retweeted more than 5,000 times and received nearly 20,000 likes. It’s still pinned to his profile, so it’s the first tweet anyone sees when visiting his page.
The preventable death of McKennie’s friend has added some purpose to his career path, but it has long been his plan. McKennie hopes to attend law school in the fall, perhaps at George Washington, where his dad played basketball and majored in political science. He will take the LSAT during Maryland’s bye weekend in September. McKennie’s mom said her son already has applied for several positions to work on presidential campaigns once the football season ends.
“He just really wants to be a part of that political scene,” Jodi McKennie said. “He feels like he can make a difference.”
Seizing the day
During McKennie’s seven-week internship, he would work on assignments from the legislative staff, such as attending briefings and writing memos. McKennie and the other interns met with Cardin once a week. They watched the Democratic senator speak on the floor about the Women’s World Cup and equal pay. (McKennie joked that Cardin’s speech “might have gotten outdone by Megan Rapinoe’s, but his speech was good, too.”) All of this, of course, always came after McKennie’s football workout each morning.
Members of Congress gave lectures to the interns throughout the summer. Each time, an intern from that office would introduce the representative or senator. For Cardin’s lecture, the interns chose McKennie for that role.
McKennie can name all 100 senators, and he rattled off those from Indiana, North Dakota and Wyoming to prove his point. He and his fellow interns compiled a mental list of which ones they had spotted in the building.
The offensive lineman remembers his walk from Union Station to the Hart Senate Office Building on the first day of the internship — and not just because he was uncomfortable in his dress attire. As McKennie turned a corner not far from the Metro station, the Capitol Dome suddenly peeked into view above the trees.
“Oh, wow, I’m working here,” McKennie thought. “This is kind of insane.”
After morning workouts, McKennie carpooled to the parking garage with kicker Mike Shinsky and soccer player Erin Seppi, who also had summer internships in the District. McKennie would pick up a copy of Express, The Washington Post’s free daily newspaper, usually from an uber-energetic man who was quick with a joke. On the commute, McKennie perused the paper, mainly to find the dates for $10 Nationals tickets.
McKennie arrived at Cardin’s office with a snack pack from the team’s nutritionist, filled with applesauce, trail mix, fruit snacks, Popchips and an Uncrustables sandwich that he would give to a fellow intern from Yale. He would stop by his boss’s office to say hi, then settle in at his desk, check his email and maybe scroll through the news.
To cap his jam-packed daily schedule, McKennie would go to bed early. Sometimes, though, he would give up an hour or so to “do something to feel human,” McKennie said, such as watching Netflix or playing a video game. At 5 a.m. the next day, the routine began again — workout, breakfast, carpool, work.
Unafraid to speak out
McKennie’s future in politics always seemed obvious. He was an empathetic kid, said his mom, who remembered how he would ask her to contact his elementary school in suburban Maryland and figure out a way to let him share his lunches. McKennie felt bad that the kids without money in their accounts had to eat cereal, but he wasn’t allowed to share because of food allergies.
Later, in high school at McDonogh, outside Baltimore, “the magic of Ellis,” his mentor Jan Kunkel said, was how he would use his intellect to help others better themselves. Kunkel saw McKennie grow to realize that peers respected him not for his size but for his character.
“He quietly asserted his presence if someone said something inappropriate,” said Kunkel, who taught McKennie in honors precalculus and led his advisory, a twice-weekly, 30-minute period meant to give students a sense of community. “So if someone had a comment that in any way was inflammatory, Ellis would kindly put that person in their place, so inconspicuously that the person who made the comment was not offended in any way but clearly got the message without it being abrasive.”
When McKennie spots an injustice, he speaks — just as he did when the controversy around his team reached its height. In February, he called the NCAA “a joke” when he couldn’t tweet a flier for a Jordan McNair Foundation fundraiser because of compliance issues. More than 18,000 people retweeted those comments, and McKennie was later allowed to share an NCAA-approved version of the flier.
This month, McKennie expressed a need for policy solutions to prevent mass shootings. He has retweeted the video of MLS player Alejandro Bedoya urging Congress to address gun violence and fencer Race Imboden’s tweet about why he knelt during the national anthem at the Pan American Games.
By the end of elementary school, it was clear McKennie was interested in the world, his mom said. After that, everything became a means to get into politics. With an undergraduate degree in government and politics, McKennie is working toward his master’s in public policy. In March, he was elected to the University Senate for the 2019-20 school year.
Conversations about social issues and legislation were common in the McKennie household. The family played quiz games, trying to list all 50 states as fast as possible or rattling off presidents, with the difficulty increasing into more obscure facts about former U.S. leaders.
McKennie’s mom believes her son’s worldview was shaped by growing up in a mixed-race family with a white mother and a black father. When McKennie played the oboe in the McDonogh band, his mom was pulled over on the drive home from a concert because her taillight had burned out. She questioned the officer, asking whether he was sure the light wasn’t working.
“Ellis, when we got home, was all but in tears,” Jodi McKennie said. “He was so scared that we were going to jail because I spoke back to the officer. But that’s not my worldview of the police.”
That type of conversation took place early and often during McKennie’s youth. Now he encourages Terrapins teammates to vote. Before the 2018 midterm elections, he left voter registration forms with the team’s academic advisers so players would have that option when they checked out for the summer.
He is not sure how many acted. It’s not that his teammates are apolitical; it’s just that “we’re kind of in a bubble being Division I athletes where everything’s taken care of for us right now,” McKennie said. The players don’t really have to think about health care — they just visit the team doctor. Housing is covered, too. They won’t graduate with student loans.
So why does McKennie, a Division I scholarship athlete with those same conveniences, care so much?
“I’m just interested in politics,” he said. “I feel like I have a passion for doing these things and hopefully making better decisions than what are currently being made and making the world better.”
When friends comment on Jodi McKennie’s Facebook posts about her son, they jokingly give him titles such as mayor, senator and president. Everyone in the family would tell McKennie that he would one day be the first black president. Now they say he will be the second.
Those are the descriptors that have followed him into adulthood: When McKennie enters the football facility wearing a suit, he will hear coaches say, “Good morning, Mr. President!”