Geppert and his Maryland lacrosse teammates played Cornell that morning in nearby Ithaca, N.Y. Before the 2018 trip, Coach John Tillman asked Geppert, a freshman at the time, if he felt comfortable with the team playing a scrimmage there. Maybe it would be too painful, too raw.
Geppert told his coach he had no problem with the location. He initially didn’t want to be the freshman who forced a change in plans, but the more he thought about it, he realized he could let the visit serve as an opportunity for closure.
“What’s scary about it?” he said.
So after the scrimmage, Geppert and his parents headed to the state park. Geppert stayed mostly quiet, within his own thoughts, while his mom talked to the police officer who joined them. The officer pointed out the campsite where Geppert’s older brother, Geoff, had stayed and other areas where he might have spent time during those few days in August 2017. Those were Geoff’s last days, and this park was his last view before he died during a camping trip accident. He was 24.
John Geppert calls this visit his proudest moment: He played for the Terrapins and then “took a big step forward in confronting something that I, for a long time and still do, try not to engage with too often.” Geppert speaks freely about his brother’s influence on him but not so much about this day his world changed.
It’s all deeply personal and private yet in many ways intertwined with his lacrosse career. Geppert started playing the sport as a kid so he could follow the path of Geoff, who was seven years older. When his brother died, Geppert’s first thought was: “What do I compare myself to now? What do I strive to be?”
Geppert wears a necklace with his brother’s signature etched into a silver piece, along with another that depicts a hand holding a cross, based on one of Geoff’s elementary school drawings. It’s too heavy to wear to bed, so Geppert thinks about his brother each morning as he puts on the necklace and at night when he leaves it on his nightstand.
During Geppert’s freshman season at Maryland, he realized he needed to rediscover his on-field identity and remind himself why he played. He visited Haverford College, the school near Philadelphia where his brother played lacrosse. A memorial staircase replaced the muddy hill players walk up to greet their parents after games. Geppert had yet to see the place that helps preserve his brother’s legacy.
“I came back with a clear mind,” said Geppert, who then played well in the NCAA tournament, where Maryland reached the quarterfinals.
Teammates and coaches trust Geppert. The sophomore is calculated and detail-oriented. He started at quarterback for Landon School in Bethesda, and those decision-making skills translated to lacrosse. This season, which begins at noon Saturday for the fourth-ranked Terrapins with a home game against 20th-ranked High Point, Geppert probably will start at close defense for the Terps, and he will do so wearing a No. 20 jersey, the number his brother wore at Haverford.
When Geppert thinks of his brother and the mind-set that helped elevate his own game, he mentions the mantra he and others have adopted: lionhearted. That represents toughness, fearlessness and Geoff’s wholehearted devotion to everything he pursued. It’s how Geppert wants to play lacrosse.
Before moving to Washington and starting middle school, Geppert spent his early years in Ohio. He played with his older siblings — Geoff and Katherine, who is 25 — despite the age gap. They invented games outside on their trampoline and in the basement. John’s involvement in sports replicated his brother’s path. The two played basketball through middle school before focusing on lacrosse and football in high school.
As a kid, John attended Geoff’s games wearing his brother’s old uniforms. John’s earliest lacrosse memory is asking his dad to buy him a helmet — not so he could play but to look more like Geoff with a full complement of gear on the sideline.
“He was like Geoff's shadow,” Katherine said, adding how John usually took on a water boy-type role. “But he wasn't a shadow because everyone noticed him.”
In the summer before his senior year of high school, John and his parents visited Geoff in New York City. The brothers walked around the city a bit and discussed John’s college decision. They talked about Penn State and Maryland, but Geoff could tell John was leaning toward Maryland. Geoff told him to go with his gut. That was the last time the brothers saw each other. John committed soon after. Less than a month later, Geoff was gone.
At the funeral, Geppert’s high school lacrosse coach, Rob Bordley, noticed a group of lacrosse players. But he knew they weren’t from Landon, and even if they had been from another local school, Bordley would have recognized them. Then Bordley heard they played for Maryland.
Bryce Young had the idea to go with all his fellow seniors, players who graduated in 2018 before Geppert arrived in College Park. Young had met Geppert once. He didn’t even have his phone number. But Young’s cousin died unexpectedly earlier that year, so he immediately felt for Geppert when he heard the news. The seniors wanted to show Geppert that connections in the program ran deeper than lacrosse. And they wanted to assure Geppert’s parents their son had a support system at Maryland.
“We rally around guys who are going through some s---,” Young said. “That was something we prided ourselves on — being there for one another.”
Geppert spoke at the reception, focusing on the parallel paths he and his brother shared. Geppert mentioned the outdoor games they played and the summer camp both attended. He said how he preferred his brother’s hand-me-down sports gear to newly purchased equipment.
“I’m going to be honest,” Geppert says now, “I never realized how much I was like him and wanted to be like him until he actually passed away.”
Katherine and John spent time with each other around Christmas during a family trip to Arizona. They worked out together, ate dinner at an Italian restaurant and saw a movie. For Katherine, time with John can spark painful reminders of Geoff, but she feels overwhelmingly grateful.
“Every time I see him,” Katherine said, “he’s growing more into Geoff.”
She notices the similarities in John’s brow and nose structure. Some of their mannerisms and facial expressions seem identical. There’s the giggle with the quick shrug. Of course, there’s also the number on his jersey and the angel-winged tattoo underneath. But Geppert’s truest tributes to his brother run deeper. They’re in his drive and his toughness. They’re in who he has become, the way he plays and how he lives.