Not a sweltering August practice goes by, says Ernest T. Jones, that a player doesn’t give the Morgan State football coach a sweaty handshake, or a Bear hug, in gratitude. For the ice baths, the water stations and the misting fans. For acknowledging their distress during workouts. And for putting the players’ welfare above winning.
“Every day I’ll get a hug around my neck and a ‘thank you’ from someone, ” Jones said Thursday after a luncheon to announce the second annual “Battle For Greater Baltimore” between Morgan State and Towson. The game will be played at 7 p.m. on Sept. 1 at Hughes Stadium on the Morgan State campus.
Both Jones, named the Bears’ interim coach in December, and Towson coach Rob Ambrose addressed safety issues in the wake of the death of Jordan McNair, the Maryland lineman and former McDonogh standout from Randallstown who succumbed to heatstroke two weeks after he had trouble finishing a conditioning test during a May practice.
McNair’s death resonated with the other two schools. In 2013, Gavin Class, a Towson tackle, suffered heatstroke during an August practice and nearly died. One year later, Marquese Meadow, a 300-pound lineman from Washington, D.C., was stricken during a Morgan State workout and died two weeks later of complications from heatstroke.
“Our prayers go out to [McNair’s] family and to the University of Maryland as a whole,” said Jones, who arrived at Morgan State as an assistant coach in 2016. Upon his promotion, he huddled with school officials to set up new training protocols “to ensure that something like that wouldn’t happen here.”
Now, before practice, each Bear receives a one-gallon jug of water which he covets at all times, like a St. Bernard with a private keg. Players take two mandatory water breaks, sans helmets. At day’s end, all 100 of them pile into the 10 new ice tubs on the sideline, each of which holds as many as 10 players, for a required 20-minute cool-down.
“They sit there and sing songs,” Jones said. “It’s great fellowship. To be able to put the entire team in tubs, without waiting in line, is pretty cool. Our seniors say this is the best experience they’ve ever had.
“We’ve made the prevention of and recovery from injuries OK to talk about. We’re not trying to figure out who’s the biggest or the baddest. Just be transparent, tell us what’s going on with you and your body and we’ll do all we can to educate you and get you back on the field. It’s a new day in Morgan football, and health and safety are at the top of the list.”
Towson ushered in similar protocols in 2013, in time to save Class’ life. McNair’s death rekindled memories of those trying months for Ambrose, who phoned Maryland coach DJ Durkin afterward.
“I reached out, one coach to another,” Ambrose said. “To have a guy go down on your watch is one of the most horrific things ever.”
Each year, he said, Towson “fine tunes” its safety procedures which, a generation ago, might have seemed far-fetched.
“But 20 years ago, we didn’t have these turf fields that suck in the heat,” Ambrose said. “Cooling tents and ice baths are the standard now. And how the temperature and humidity affect your day-to-day activities, as a coach, is a conversation that exists all the time — or it should.”
Truth be told, the coach said, there are no sure ways to fend off heatstroke or similar maladies.
“All we can do is understand that this is a scary game, a physical game, a hard game — and that the best you can do is to have a plan and follow it,” Ambrose said. “We still don’t have all the answers, but there are best practices that you can dig into. We’ll never stop this from happening, but we can mitigate the damage.”