The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Motivation or abuse? Maryland confronts football’s fine line as new allegations emerge.

Four games into the Maryland football team’s season, Coach DJ Durkin remains on leave. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

For six weeks, investigators have interviewed current and former players, parents and coaches connected with the Maryland football team, and for six weeks those investigators have filed away their notes. Those notes will help shape a highly anticipated report, which probably will determine the future of the Terrapins’ program and the professional fate of DJ Durkin, its embattled head coach.

Among the things investigators have heard: multiple tales of players plunged into depression; fear and humiliation wielded as weapons; players ridiculed, taunted and pushed past their limits; extreme workouts that resulted in players vomiting and passing out; and a team divided into a group favored by coaches and another that suffered their wrath.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to get back to the point that I was before I came to Maryland,” former offensive lineman E.J. Donahue told The Washington Post.

“I lost my love for the game,” former linebacker Gus Little said. “It wasn’t a game anymore.”

“What was supposed to be a dream turned into a nightmare,” said Kimberly Daniels, the mother of two former Maryland players. “They feel like they lived through hell.”

But while some viewed such tactics as extreme and sadistic, others saw them as motivational and appropriate for the highest level of college football.

An eight-person commission that has been overseeing an investigation into allegations of abuse, bullying and toxicity in the program is expected to wrap up its review as early as Monday. Ultimately, the commission will deliver its findings to the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents, a presentation that could happen at its next scheduled meeting Oct. 19.

The body will have to decide whether Durkin, the state’s second-highest-paid employee at $2.5 million per year, was performing his job of improving the Terrapins’ competitive success or whether he was, in the words of the mother of one former player, “a psychopath who thinks he is more powerful than God.”

More than 175 athletes have played under Durkin at Maryland in the past 2½ years, and it’s not known how many spoke with investigators. Given that, distinguishing isolated complaints from a problematic behavioral pattern is among the commission’s challenges.

Those examining the program are trying to understand acceptable behavior in college athletics and whether Maryland coaches crossed a line — “which isn’t easy to do,” said Henry Darmstadter, a former Maryland kicker who graduated last spring and was interviewed by a commission member last month.

“College football is not like most work environments,” he said.

University of Maryland president said Aug. 14 that the school accepts "legal and moral responsibility" for the decisions made by its athletic training staff. (Video: Reuters)

Several parents, players — past and present — and influential boosters have publicly voiced their support for Durkin, who remains on administrative leave. Others, though, have had concerns since early in the coach’s College Park tenure. One former player’s mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so she could speak candidly, shared with The Washington Post a letter she said she sent to school officials in December 2016, warning of what she viewed as a calamitous culture and abusive behavior in the football program. That letter would have arrived nearly a year and a half before 19-year-old Jordan McNair died as a result of exertional heatstroke he suffered during a team workout.

The unsigned letter, which the mother said was hand-delivered to Maryland President Wallace D. Loh’s office and emailed to others, including then-athletic director Kevin Anderson and the athletic department’s medical administrators and compliance office, warned that Durkin was “orchestrating valorous suffering on the football athletes.” It was perhaps prescient, saying: “The fact that he allows his coaches to psychologically, physically, and emotionally abuse the athletes is paving the way for a multi-million dollar civil lawsuit against the school and the coaches, alleging assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“Are any of you aware or do you even care about the number of student athletes suffering from severe emotional distress because of the abusive actions of Coach Durkin?” it asked. “His actions are extreme and outrageous; intentional and reckless, and the sole cause of the emotional distress.”

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The mother did not know whether the commission had seen the letter or whether anything was done to address her concerns. School officials, including Loh, have said they were unaware of any abuse or bullying allegations until media outlets reported on the accusations in August.

“I have committed as President that we will take the appropriate actions based on the conclusions of the investigation,” Loh said in a statement. “These allegations are upsetting and underline the importance of the independent review to ensure that all allegations are fully examined. I encourage anyone with information to contact the commission.”

A school spokeswoman said Saturday that the parent’s email would be shared with the commission “so that they consider it as part of the review of the culture of our football program.”

“I am sad beyond belief that it took the death of one’s child to actually be listened to,” the mother said.

'They had favorites'

Multiple former players and parents told The Post that they have spoken with investigators in recent weeks. Some offered positive reviews of their experiences in College Park; others corroborated many of the allegations of abuse first detailed in reports last month.

According to players interviewed by The Post, the investigators followed a familiar pattern in their questioning, asking players how they felt about Durkin going on leave, walking through incidents cited in media reports, inquiring about whether they were treated fairly and whether they have any complaints about their time in College Park.

The incidents relayed by players and parents primarily involved Durkin and former strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, Durkin’s first hire when he took over at Maryland in December 2015. Durkin was placed on leave Aug. 11, and Court resigned two days later after negotiating a $315,000 settlement.

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Neither Durkin nor Court responded to requests to comment made through representatives. Neither has spoken publicly since the first wave of allegations.

While many of most serious allegations cited by players have centered on Court, Durkin oversaw the entire program, in essence serving as its chief executive. He tied himself closely to Court, who had more face-to-face interaction with most players.

“One of the biggest, most important things to understand from this whole thing is Coach Court and Coach Durkin picked certain people,” one former player told The Post on condition of anonymity out of concern for his football future. “They had favorites, and the treatment you got depended on which side of the spectrum you were on.”

Players said coaches chose some players for preferential treatment while alienating others. Durkin created a “Champions Club” that included high-performing, well-regarded players, intended to serve as an incentive for the entire team.

“If you were in that, you were treated with bags of gear, great food, massages,” one ex-player said. “Meanwhile, people not in the Champions Club were fed hot dogs and beans. They wanted to make a point. You were either loved or hated. If they didn’t like you, you were mentally and verbally abused by Coach Court and Coach Durkin.”

Another player characterized the club differently: “You had to earn [the] right to be called a champion,” he said. “If you didn’t get to be a champion, you just knew you had to work harder.”

An initial ESPN report in August and others that followed noted that Court could be verbally and psychologically abusive, often using food as a reward, a punishment and a tool for humiliation. Among the new allegations levied by former players interviewed by The Post, many of which also were shared with commission investigators:

●After a player on a weight-loss program had a poor weigh-in, staff members sat him in a chair and called together his teammates. Court poured snacks and Rice Krispie treats over the player, multiple ex-players said. “He was fat-shaming him,” said Donahue, the former lineman.

●Players say they were routinely pushed beyond their limits in workouts and then ridiculed for their struggles. “They would make a point to openly humiliate and embarrass you to the players around you and the coaches,” one ex-player said. “They also had video cameras. . . . Even if you were throwing up in a trash can, that would sort of be the highlight of their film — getting the camera as close as they could up to your face and videotaping you.”

●Two former players told of a 2016 weight-room incident in which a player was vomiting in a trash can following a workout. Court was speaking at the time and grew upset that he was interrupted. Court pushed the player into a refrigerator, screamed at him and tossed the trash can across the room. He then forced the player to clean the mess, the players said.

●Injured players were sequestered from teammates in an gravelly area near the practice fields called “the Pit,” and Durkin referred to them as a “waste of life,” a phrase some players heard as degrading but another characterized as being said “in a joking way.”

A person close to Durkin said the coach told investigators that he had never called any player “a waste of life” and that “the Pit” wasn’t designed to punish injured players but rather was set up to provide a safe area for individualized workouts that were customized based on the constraints of their injuries.

●During meals and in the training room, players were shown graphic videos featuring loud music, violent imagery and animals killing each other. The videos were intended to motivate the players. “There would be videos of animals eating other animals, pulling them apart,” one player said. “Video segments of, like, zombies just pulling out the intestines of other people.”

“A predator attacking prey,” former wide receiver DeAndre Lane said. “Kind of just to get you in that mind-set: Attack, kill or be killed.”

When asked to comment, Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans said in a statement Saturday: “These allegations, if true, are unacceptable. We will not tolerate any behavior that is detrimental to the mental or physical well-being of our student-athletes. When the commission completes its charge, we will act decisively and take all actions necessary to ensure the safety of our student-athletes.”

Evans also said he has recently changed the staffing structure, so the strength and conditioning coach now reports to the associate athletic director for sports performance, not the head coach.

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Robert L. Caret, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, told the board of regents at its Sept. 21 meeting that the commission’s review was “proceeding very quickly” and could be completed by the end of the month. That means a report could be submitted without some scathing allegations from one mother, whose sons have not been interviewed by investigators.

A mother's anguish

Kimberly Daniels, a pastor who also serves in Florida’s state legislature, said her twin sons, Elijah and Elisha, had dozens of scholarship offers but felt a special connection with Durkin. They backed out of their initial commitments to the University of Minnesota, and the defensive backs signed with Maryland in January 2016. They were among Durkin’s first recruits.

“They went to Maryland because of Durkin,” their mother said. “They looked up to him. He called every day when they were in high school. Then things started happening, and they’d tell me: ‘Mom, you don’t know these people. You don’t know what they do.’ ”

Her sons didn’t tell her the extent of their College Park experiences, but Daniels said she quickly had concerns about the environment. Her sons begged her not to complain to coaches and ruffle feathers, though.

Elisha received the worst treatment, she said, as coaches tried to force him to leave the program to free up a scholarship. She said Court once slapped him and that he was often verbally berated and dressed down. Elisha once showed up at 2:08 p.m. for a meeting that started at 2:15, his mother said. Being on time at Maryland, though, meant showing up 15 minutes early. Kimberly Daniels said Elisha had a plate of food and Court “came up in his face, grabbed his plate and threw it against the wall, screaming at him.”

“My son would call and say life’s not worth living. . . . They took something from them,” she said.

The brothers had had enough toward the end of their sophomore seasons of 2017. The last straw, their mother says, was when Elisha accidentally pocket-dialed his mother during a meeting with Durkin.

“I heard Durkin say to Elisha: ‘You’ll never be nothing; nobody likes you. Why don’t you just leave?’ — in the most horrible voice,” she recalled. “That’s when I got on the plane. He had one last game, and then I took my sons out of there.”

She says she flew back to Florida days later with her two sons and one of their teammates — “We was escaping, literally,” she said, “like we were in the Underground Railroad” — and didn’t hear from the football program until June.

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Daniels said her sons had helped host McNair during the player’s recruitment and had been close with the young offensive lineman. Following McNair’s death in June, she said, Durkin texted, offering to fly them in for the funeral. She wrote an email back to the entire football staff, saying: “You have a lot [of] nerves. After you blatantly abused my twins, you are offering a plane ticket to Maryland? The twins do not want me to uncover your evil, they are afraid of [you], but you will not use them to cover your sins. Stay away from my sons.”

Daniels said her twins are not ready to speak to the media, but in the weeks and months that followed McNair’s death, they have started to open up more about their experiences in College Park.

“I have no faith in this investigation. If they haven’t called my boys or me, the investigation is botched. They don’t want to hear the truth,” Daniels said. “And I’ll tell you this: If Durkin goes back, I will be standing in front of that school with a neon sign; I’ll be on the news every day. People need to know what it was really like.”

After this report posted online Sunday, the commission provided The Post with an August email that requested interviews with the Daniels twins. The email was from Charlie Scheeler, a Baltimore attorney who was appointed to the commission by Loh, and was sent to a Florida attorney representing Kimberly Daniels. That Florida attorney, who had previously warned the commission about a potential lawsuit against the university, did not respond to the request, according to the commission.

Sifting through it all

Commission members have interviewed former players — including graduates and those who left the program early — as well as current players, in addition to many parents. Some have been vocal in their support of Durkin and praised the way he has treated players.

Just last week, for example, junior running back Lorenzo Harrison III underwent season-ending surgery on his right knee. Durkin, his wife and his two children showed up to visit the player shortly after surgery.

“That just shows you,” said Lorenzo Harrison Jr., the running back’s father. “When you start talking about caring for a player and a family, they’re family to us. It’s not just a coaching thing.”

Players who have defended the program and enjoyed their experiences in College Park have said what others might perceive to be abuse they felt was more motivational in nature.

“They asked if you could sum everything up in a sentence or two,” Darmstadter, the former kicker, said of his interview with a commission member. “I told them, to me, a bully is someone who picks on someone or belittles someone because they can or because it makes them feel good to put them down. Coach Durkin and Court never struck me as a bully. They did things with the intent of trying to make you better.

“Court would say I’m being hard on you because, when these workouts are over, you go into camp and you have to perform if you eventually want to get on the field,” he continued. “Coach Durkin would say he’s being hard or yelling because of these reasons. I thought they did a good job of saying the ‘why.’ I wouldn’t classify it as bullying. I’d classify it as an intense, competitive atmosphere where they try to foster guys to work hard, take risks and hopefully be successful on the field.”

Even before the Sept. 21 release of a report focused on the circumstances around McNair’s death composed by consulting firm Walters Inc., there was a growing sentiment among many close to the program that the eight-person commission will find that allegations of an unhealthy and abusive culture were overblown.

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“My understanding is that the ‘toxic culture’ label was said, and then it was repeated so often that it was accepted as fact, and I don’t believe that they are going to find that that’s the case at all,” ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, a prominent Maryland alum, said on a podcast recently. “In fact, I think they’ll find quite the opposite among the rank-and-file players that are there that I believe are supportive of Durkin.”

Some who witnessed the behavior firsthand say early media reports misconstrued the intents of what occurred. “I just felt like people were taking it out of context with the whole death of Jordan McNair,” one player who was interviewed later told The Post.

“I believe that they mishandled the Jordan situation,” that player continued, “but now they are making it about the whole football program and people having to leave their jobs because of the [potential] lawsuit. I think the lawsuit should be against our trainers and the university; I don’t think it should be directed to Coach Court and his training methods.”

That player also said he told investigators he saw multiple instances similar to what has been reported: plates of food slapped out of players’ hands, a teammate punished by being forced to eat candy bars while his teammates worked out, a painful workout in which players were punished by spending an hour on a stair-stepper machine while holding a long pipe across their shoulders — a grueling exercise known in the program as “Jesus walks.”

“I mean, it was just a punishment,” he said. “I don’t know if that penalty necessarily fits the crime of being a few minutes late for something.”

The National Athletic Trainers’ Association issued guidelines in 2012, which were endorsed by several other sports and medical organizations, urging schools not to use exercise and conditioning activities as punishment. Lane, the former receiver, said “Jesus walks” was a common punishment for players who were late to meetings or workouts.

“You would put it on your back and literally walk the stairs,” he said.

Several players said they felt their health was neglected by coaches and athletic trainers. Little, the former linebacker, said following one practice his body was locked up from head to toe. He still has two small scars because staff in the training room couldn’t get an IV needle in his arm.

“While I’m laying there with full cramps . . . Coach Court was demoralizing me in the background,” he recalled, “calling me soft, calling me a p---- b---- for laying down on the table.”

Donahue said he met with Durkin in December 2016 to tell him he could no longer deal with the constant bullying. He says Durkin told him that “sounds like a great story to tell my parents on why I’m quitting.”

“You know, I’m a strong person,” said Donahue, who said he has seen a therapist and taken the antidepressant Wellbutrin to treat his condition. “It’s just, you go through all of that, and it really wears you down eventually to the point where you just don’t know what to do, especially as a teenager — like 19, 20 years old and you’re dealing with that life every day and you realize that you have four more years of it.”

Lane said he told investigators the team’s medical staff tried sending him onto the field with a torn tendon, and on another occasion the team’s head trainer, Wes Robinson, urged him to return from a concussion before he was ready. Robinson has been placed on administrative leave and has not responded to requests to comment.

“He was trying to just rush me back, telling me I was lying, telling me that I was scared to play,” Lane said. “Basically trying to pressure me into coming back before I was ready.”

Lane’s complaints were largely reserved for the training staff, and he said the entire investigation could serve as a reckoning for the Maryland football program.

“Everything they’ve done in the dark comes to light,” the former wide receiver said. “They would sweep a lot of things under the rug, and now the truth is coming out, and you can’t really do anything about it but face the consequences.”

Jesse Dougherty and Emily Giambalvo contributed to this report.

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