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Maryland

‘Free your heart’: Parents of the late Maryland football player Jordan McNair forge bond with fired athletic trainer

From left, Wes Robinson, former head athletic trainer for University of Maryland football, and Martin “Marty” McNair, father of late football player Jordan McNair, following the Jordan McNair Foundation’s Baltimore City Wide Football Clinic at Morgan State University focused on heat injury. August 6, 2022.

As he reached the top of the famed Angels Landing rock formation in Zion National Park, Wes Robinson realized he had a single bar of service on his cellphone.

Standing there alone, as a peaceful dawn broke over the Utah canyon, Robinson decided to send the message he’d been delaying for months. If the text went through, it was meant to be, Robinson figured. He was meant to reconnect with the parents of Jordan McNair.

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Years earlier, Robinson had been the head athletic trainer for the University of Maryland football team. He was there the day in May 2018 that McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman who graduated from McDonogh School, started showing symptoms of exertional heatstroke during a workout in College Park.

He’d cared for McNair, working alongside other trainers to lower the player’s body temperature with cold towels and ice. But it wasn’t enough. More than an hour after his symptoms first appeared, McNair was taken to a nearby hospital by ambulance and then to a trauma center in Baltimore. He died about two weeks later.

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Robinson was among a handful of football staffers the university fired after an investigation into McNair’s death found that trainers failed to recognize the severity of his condition quickly enough and administer lifesaving treatment, which could have included placing McNair into a cooling tub.

Three years later, Robinson’s text started an unlikely partnership with McNair’s parents, Tonya House and Marty McNair. They had an emotional meeting last year, then worked together on state legislation to improve emergency planning for sports games at middle and high schools. And even after the General Assembly passed the bill, Robinson remains a key presence at the Jordan McNair Foundation, which the family established to educate coaches, athletes and parents about heat injury.

For House and McNair, welcoming Robinson into the fold after his entreaty just felt right — like continuing their attendance at Maryland football home games.

A few years ago, it might have seemed unthinkable.

Amid the intense media coverage that followed McNair’s death, Robinson emerged as an early target for criticism. In ESPN’s “Inside story of a toxic culture at Maryland football,” several unnamed sources told the network that Robinson yelled at people helping McNair during the workout to “drag his ass across the field.”

Marty McNair, left, and Tonya House, the parents of Jordan McNair, the University of Maryland football player who died of heatstroke in 2018, talk with former Terrapins trainer Wes Robinson, right.

Robinson acknowledges a poor choice of words. In that moment, Robinson says, he was helping another athlete and wanted to communicate to his staff members the importance of taking care of McNair and getting him off the field.

But at the time, for some observers, the quote became a prime example of a culture at Maryland that could intimidate student-athletes. Robinson received hate mail and death threats. He was in a dark place.

Robinson knew his grief was nothing compared with what the young man’s parents were enduring, but what happened had shattered his identity as an athletic trainer.

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During his hike in July 2021, he decided to reach out to the teen’s mother, someone he hadn’t seen since the events of 2018.

“I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it probably wasn’t very eloquent because I was scared to death,” Robinson said of his text. He spoke as he sat one evening this July beside McNair’s father and mother in her kitchen in Randallstown.

In the text, he asked whether he might be able to help the family in their efforts to make positive change. Then, Robinson turned off his phone and began his descent.

“When I got the message, I cried,” House said. “I was like, ‘OK, so let me sit back and think how I feel about this.’”

She reached out to Marty McNair, and they decided they’d be open to talking to Robinson. It was clear their son’s death remained a heavy weight atop Robinson’s shoulders. Maybe, after years of navigating their grief, they could help relieve the pressure on him. Maybe something beneficial could come of all this heartbreak.

By the time Robinson reached the ranger station at the base of Angels Landing, House’s reply was in his inbox. Reading it while sitting on a curb nearby, Robinson broke down.

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“She said in that text she had talked with Marty about it, and they were very receptive to meeting with me and seeing what the future looks like for all of us,” Robinson said. “So it was overwhelming.”

A framed photo of Maryland football player Jordan McNair, with his jersey, at the Randallstown home of his mother, Tonya House.

The three of them agreed to meet at Alexandra’s American Fusion, which overlooks the Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City.

McNair and Robinson arrived first. And initially, it was tense. The last time they had seen each other was at a viewing before the funeral, and it hadn’t gone well.

“He kind of grabbed me and pulled me aside and made it very clear that I wasn’t welcome to be there,” Robinson said. Robinson understood. He left and didn’t return for the funeral.

“At that time, Wes was the guy to blame for us,” McNair said.

But in the years since, McNair says, he has found strength in his faith. He’s immersed himself in research about heatstroke and in teaching others how to avoid it.

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That day at the restaurant, the first thing he noticed about Robinson was his size. Marty McNair thought the trainer, who weighs about 150 pounds, would have been dwarfed by Jordan McNair, who was 6 feet, 4 inches tall, and 325 pounds. With that in mind, Marty McNair realized it would have been particularly important for trainers to help his son cool off before he got to the point where it was physically hard to assist him.

More than a half-hour after Jordan McNair’s symptoms emerged during a running drill on the field, two trainers were treating him in the training room when Robinson came into the room, according to an investigatory report by an athletic training consulting firm.

Robinson instructed them to use cold towels to help the player, who reported he was suffering from cramps. As the young man’s condition worsened, he experienced a mood change, becoming agitated and yelling at trainers. Officials called 911, and McNair had a seizure.

By then, Robinson worried that if they tried to put McNair in a large cooling pool in the training room, he could drown.

Years later, McNair says he understands Robinson’s perspective.

“At that time, when it escalated, it’s like, ‘Wow: Who was going to really grab this big bear of a guy when he was already in heatstroke mode?’” McNair said.

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So this time, he approached Robinson differently.

“The first thing he did is he just grabbed me and gave me a big bear hug,” Robinson said. “It was pretty emotional. He told me that it was going to be all right and we were going to get through it.”

From left, Wes Robinson, former head athletic trainer for University of Maryland football, and Martin “Marty” McNair, father of late football player Jordan McNair, hug following the Jordan McNair Foundation’s Baltimore City Wide Football Clinic at Morgan State University focused on heat injury. August 6, 2022.

After they all sat down, McNair and House tried to emphasize that they had forgiven Robinson. They wanted him to forgive himself.

“It was like, ‘We just want you to free your heart,’” House said. “‘We know that you did not set out for this to happen to Jordan. We know that.’”

The goal of the conversation, though, was to focus on the future. And a common thread emerged, Marty McNair said. Had Maryland staffers followed a clear emergency action plan that day, things could have been different. Maybe delays in recognizing Jordan McNair’s heatstroke could have been averted, as could delays in getting him into an ambulance.

Emergency action plans became the centerpiece of their work together. The bill they helped to push through the General Assembly took effect July 1, and it requires schools to create, post and annually rehearse emergency plans for their athletic sites.

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Their work together has also changed the way McNair talks about his son’s death with donors and during speaking engagements, he said. No longer does he mention that in-the-moment quote from Robinson, he said.

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“When I would speak, I would mention what I heard Wes said, prior to talking to Wes. All of the checks got tears on them because it’s the instant tear-jerker,” McNair said. “I don’t use that anymore.”

Instead, he’s started talking about the relationship they’ve developed.

On Aug. 6, Robinson was at Morgan State University’s stadium for the McNair Foundation’s annual youth football clinic. He manned a tent with water and medical supplies near the end zone as athletes practiced drills. It was Robinson who developed the event’s emergency action plan, detailing where cooling tubs and other medical equipment would be located and spelling out the instructions for calling 911 in case of an emergency.

At an event for the parents of the young athletes later in the morning, McNair brought Robinson to the stage to talk about the importance of emergency planning. It was something he couldn’t have imagined doing even a few years earlier. Introducing Robinson, McNair kept it brief.

“Life is very interesting,” McNair told the audience. “And I’m going to leave it there.”

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At the end of the clinic, McNair and Robinson found themselves together in an end zone, and for a moment, they embraced: two men, linked by tragedy but bonded by forgiveness.

“Many more to come,” Robinson told McNair as they broke apart.


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