The reception will be frigid on Saturday night at Rentschler Field, where Randy Edsall’s Maryland football team will face Connecticut. Edsall knows this. Many Huskies fans still resent Edsall for the abrupt nature of his departure, when he flew directly to Maryland after Connecticut’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma on Jan. 1, 2011. His players learned of their coach’s decision to accept the Terrapins job only through Internet reports until Edsall finally informed them of the news. One local columnist still refers to him as “The Great Deserter.”
But deep in the heart of Huskies country, in Edsall’s old town of Glastonbury, Conn., a high school senior with soft azure eyes has become the Maryland football coach’s biggest ally. He wears Terrapins gear to class and spreads the Gospel of Edsall, even to those who won’t listen. Jeff Place sees the malice and recognizes the hate. But he knows something about Edsall few else see.
“Say what you want on the football field,” Place said. “But I don’t know how you can bash him as a person.”
Their friendship began in uncommon circumstances. Initially, Place’s parents thought he was just a morning person. Jeff was 11 years old in 2005 when he started waking up at 5 a.m. or earlier. Sometimes he rose with a headache and no appetite, nothing more serious than that. But soon Jeff was waking up nauseated and vomiting. His parents marched him into the hospital and asked for an MRI exam. The radiologist brought them into an X-ray room and pointed to the scanned image. Jeff’s mother Mary wasn’t sure what she was seeing, but she knew something was wrong.
“This is a major problem,” the doctor said.
The diagnosis: morbid hydrocephalus. Spinal fluid was rushing into Jeff’s brain while he slept, causing the morning headaches. Only standing brought relief and returned the fluid to its proper place. There was a mass on the scan, too, which the radiologist thought was a cyst. It wasn’t until Jeff entered a 71 / 2-hour procedure when everyone learned the truth: He had a brain tumor.
After that, the operations and complications blurred together. Five more surgeries in two states, all within the same year. Two subdural hematomas — blood clots in the brain. A massive stroke. Severe paralysis on his left side that required six months of physical and speech therapy. A mechanical shunt placement that failed, so a Boston neurosurgeon later installed a brain aqueduct to allow the fluid to drain. But so long as his heart still beats, his brain remains safe.
The morning after the first surgery, high school football prospects across the country would fax their signed letters-of-intent to college programs, where eager coaches awaited, Edsall among them. But on the eve of National Signing Day, around 7:30 p.m., Connecticut’s football coach walked into Jeff’s hospital room and sat down. Besides Jeff’s parents, Edsall was the first person to visit.
They first met when Edsall spoke to Jeff’s youth football team. He kept in touch with Jeff’s father Bob, a former football player at Boston University. So once he heard of Jeff’s surgery, Edsall headed straight for Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, a signed jersey and football in hand.
“You find time or you make time,” Edsall said this week. “To me it could help somebody recover a little bit quicker, brighten their day by doing that. That’s important to me.”
When Edsall left Connecticut for Maryland in 2011, departing a program that he had built from the ground up over 12 years, Jeff’s allegiances followed. He stripped his walls of Connecticut memorabilia, hanging new Terps gear he bought at the campus bookstore. Once a month, when Xavier High School allows its students to forgo the shirt-and-tie uniform for something more casual, Jeff’s friends know he will arrive in red.
“He’s literally been a mentor to Jeff and he’s literally seen him grow up,” Bob Place said.
They still chat through weekly e-mails and phone calls, updating each other on life outside of football. When Edsall’s first season at Maryland ended with two wins, and fans called for his departure, Jeff helped pull him up.
“He’d send me letters, e-mails of encouragement, things along those lines,” Edsall said. “I think maybe I’ve gotten more out of it than he has.”
Perhaps. Jeff still can’t believe a coach in the top tier of college football responds to e-mails the day he sends them. He’s sitting in the Byrd Stadium stands now on a sweltering August afternoon, watching the Terrapins begin another preseason practice. He drove from Connecticut with his brother and mother to tour the campus and, of course, visit Edsall.
“There he is,” Jeff says, pointing to midfield as Edsall weaves through the stretching lines. As the Terps break into positional drills, Jeff reflects on a long recovery. He calls it “a fortunate experience.”
The day before, Maryland’s football players gathered to hear Jeff give a motivational speech, huddling around the teenager with Terps gear on his chest and scars on his scalp. They listened as his baritone voice grew louder, preaching to athletes who could use his forearms as toothpicks.
His positivity surprised some Maryland players, considering all that he has been through.
“He spoke with a lot of confidence, honestly,” freshman tight end Andrew Isaacs said. “For a kid to talk in front of a group of football players, around all these 6-7, 6-5, 300-pound guys, I wouldn’t be speaking with that much confidence.”
Only 5 percent of Jeff’s tumor remains. He has gained back all the lost weight and his memory has returned to normal. Last summer, he attended a youth leadership council in Bridgeport. He wants to enroll at Maryland and become a manager on the football team, working for the coach he calls “like another father, or an uncle.” Edsall hopes that will happen.
As the sun beats down on the metal bleachers, Jeff’s mother suggests they leave. They already skipped another college tour to be here, and they need to hit the road before rush hour begins. As they stand, Mary Place asks if her son wants to say goodbye to Edsall.
“Eh,” Jeff says, walking away, “I’ll send him a message later.”