Marty McNair, the father of deceased Maryland lineman Jordan McNair, left, welcomes his friend Michael Locksley before Locksley’s introduction as football coach. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

The most important thing Michael Locksley said Thursday when he was introduced as the new football coach at Maryland could have sounded like lip service, precisely the kind of thing you’re supposed to say at a news conference where the marching band heralds your arrival, whether you mean it or not.

“Just like any family, as the leader of it, every decision I make with these kids will be made as if they were my own child,” Locksley said. “And that’s not anything I take lightly.”

Standing in the back of a considerable crowd at Cole Field House was the most important person taking in that message, a man who knows it can’t and won’t be lip service: Martin McNair.

The reason Michael Locksley is the coach at Maryland is because Martin McNair’s son Jordan collapsed on the practice fields in College Park and later died. The Terrapins program is anchored in that fact in the present and the future. It is inescapable.

So even as he pursued what he repeatedly called his “dream job,” Locksley needed approval not from Wallace D. Loh, the president of the school, or Damon Evans, the athletic director for whom he now works. No, Locksley needed approval from Martin McNair and Tonya Wilson, the two people who matter the most in what became a mess.

“The McNairs were some of the first people he talked to in making this decision,” said Locksley’s wife, Kia. “It was important for him to know that they were on board and supported him and to know that Jordan would be honored and not forgotten about.”

Michael Locksley won’t forget Jordan McNair because Michael Locksley can’t forget his own son, Meiko, who died in September 2017, killed by a single bullet in Columbia, Md., at age 25. The case is unsolved. It affects the Locksleys every day.

“The circle of life,” Michael Locksley said, “isn’t built for parents to bury kids.”

These two families knew each other when life was normal because Jordan McNair and Kori Locksley were high school classmates at McDonogh School in Baltimore County. Jordan played football. Kori played soccer. On the same day, they signed letters of intent — Jordan to play offensive line at Maryland, Kori to play forward at Auburn.

“We had a connection,” Kia Locksley said. “They were friends for years.”

And then, in September 2017, Meiko Locksley was shot and killed. And then, in May, Jordan McNair fell ill during a workout, suffered exertional heatstroke and died two weeks later.

What the Maryland football program needs after all this tragedy and turmoil is someone who understands what the players who will carry the program forward have been through. To that end, Matt Canada, the interim coach who admirably and ably guided the Terps through a 2018 season that included the dismissal of coach DJ Durkin, was the choice I endorsed. He knew the kids. He understood their pain. He handled a situation not of his own making humbly and nobly.

Locksley had worked at Maryland for 10 years, but he had been away. He knows the recruiting base and the high school coaches here as well as anyone in the country, but how could he understand the rubble left following McNair’s death?

Turns out, he has a deep understanding, one he never would have wished for.

“It’s not something that just goes away,” Locksley said. “It’s a day-to-day fight.”

For all the good feelings in College Park on Thursday about this hire — with what appeared to be dozens of former Terps gathering in support, with the high school coaching community reinvigorated by Locksley’s mere presence, with Locksley clearly describing Maryland not as a steppingstone but as a destination — there are reasons to proceed with caution. Locksley’s only tenure as a head coach came at New Mexico, where he was fired four games into his third season. His record: 2-26. Throw in an altercation with an assistant coach and a DUI arrest involving a minor who was driving a car registered to Locksley’s son, and it wasn’t a résumé builder.

Please explain, Coach.

“As everyone else,” Locksley said, “you mature, you grow.”

“We talked about his past,” Evans said. “He’s grown as an individual. I saw that. He indicated what he had learned. You could just see in him where he was then, which was eight to 10 years ago, to where he is now. He’s had a lot of life lessons — as we all have.”

Including the hardest one. For the past three seasons, Locksley served as an offensive assistant at Alabama. In 2017, he was the co-coordinator who helped orchestrate the game plan that opened the season with a decisive win over Florida State. That night, Locksley talked to Meiko by phone. The second of Locksley’s four children had battled mental health issues. But when they hung up, how could the father know he had spoken to his son for the last time?

“You can’t believe it,” Kia Locksley said. The best you can hope for: “You get to a point where you are able to talk about it without crying, which I can do now.”

So where the Terrapins football program is concerned, it mattered that Martin McNair joined in the revelry Thursday at a place that must bring him so much pain. It mattered that Tonya Wilson, who couldn’t make it to Locksley’s introduction, texted her support.

But take away the marching band and the cheerleaders and the podium and the television cameras. Take away the football coaching job from Michael Locksley. It matters that the Locksleys and the McNairs have each other.

“It means so much,” Kia Locksley said. “Unfortunately, we are a part of that club together. And it’s not that it makes you happy to know somebody who can understand. But I think it makes it easier, you know, to know that you can call somebody and say, ‘I’m not having a good day.’ ”

What Michael Locksley makes of Maryland football hasn’t been determined. But these Terrapins, they have dealt with loss. They need someone who can care for them as not-yet-grown men, who can understand them as people and who can relate to their situation. They need someone who can stand behind a lectern at a news conference, proclaim that “every decision I make with these kids will be made as if they were my own child,” and not have those words be forgotten when the whistle blows to open the first practice.

They need someone who won’t run from the memory of Jordan McNair but who will embrace it.

After her husband finished answering questions and the Maryland staff got him to pose with other coaches and dignitaries for an endless string of photos, Kia Locksley stood off to the side of the commotion with her family. She grew up in Fort Washington, not far from where her future husband was raised in Southwest D.C. She met Locksley the first day of her freshman year at Towson, and she has helped him live out this coaching dream ever since — at Pacific and Army, Florida and Illinois, Alabama and now, again, back home.

“A rock star,” Michael Locksley said of his wife.

As her husband fulfilled his duties, Kia Locksley mingled with her parents and greeted old friends, with a glaring absence. Meiko, of course, never got to see the day his dad got the only job he says he ever really wanted.

“But he’s with us every day,” Kia Locksley said. “Every day he’s with us. He’s with us right now.”

Just as Jordan McNair is, too, always with the Maryland football program.

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