Anthony Davidson was admittedly a mess.
Davidson, a senior defensive tackle who doubled as a long snapper for the Johns Hopkins football team, sailed a snap over the head of his punter, and the ball rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety in the third quarter of a 37-35 loss at Susquehanna in the Centennial Conference opener for both sides Sept. 8, 2018.
Inconsolable and teary-eyed after a rare defeat — just the team’s seventh since the start of the 2013 season — Davidson stalked out of the locker room and ran into coach Jim Margraff, who pulled the player into his arms, embraced him in a bear hug and absolved him of any blame.
“I was not in a good place after that game, and the way he reeled me in and just made it so human, it’s something I couldn’t thank him enough for,” Davidson recalled Thursday. “I wish he knew how much that meant to me and how much that kept me focused throughout the season, knowing that I had him in my corner.”
Loyalty was one of several qualities that current and former players and colleagues cited as ingredients to the success enjoyed by Margraff, the venerable patriarch of the Blue Jays program who died Wednesday at age 58 in his home in the Baltimore area. Margraff, a record-setting quarterback at Johns Hopkins, coached the Blue Jays for the past 29 seasons, the last of which included a school-record 12 victories in 14 games and a first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division III tournament semifinals.
University officials did not release a cause of death.
“We texted a bunch of friends from our class, and I think we all agreed without having him as a coach and even as a mentor, our lives would be drastically different,” former quarterback Braden Anderson said. “He brought all of us together and not even just generations of outstanding football players. I’d like to think there are more surgeons and CEOs that have walked through that locker room than any other program in the nation. That’s something that’s pretty special, and that’s something that’s a testament to Coach Margraff’s coaching style, his mentorship, the quiet intensity, the humility that he portrayed.”
Margraff owned a record of 221-89-3 over 29 years, making him the program’s all-time leader in wins. His 221 victories are the most by any college football coach in state history and ranked third among active Division III coaches.
Margraff was named D3football.com National Coach of the Year last month, and he is a finalist for the American Football Coaches Association National Coach of the Year award, which will be announced Tuesday. But Margraff abhorred individual accolades, according to offensive coordinator Greg Chimera.
“He would always bring the full staff in and say, ‘This is for us,’ ” Chimera, 31, said. “He never made it about himself, ever.”
Chimera and 32-year-old defensive coordinator Mickey Rehring said the door to Margraff’s office was always open, but he insisted on not micromanaging his assistants. Instead, he outlined a list of responsibilities for each coach and let them find ways to meet those tasks.
But Margraff was no taskmaster, said Rehring, who played at conference rival Franklin & Marshall.
“He wanted to make sure that we had a life outside of football,” he said. “He would come to my office and say, ‘Get out of here. Go spend time with your wife. Go on a date night.’ ”
But Margraff himself spent long hours at the office at times. Hopkins public address announcer Chris Ely said it was almost routine to spot Margraff in the stands at men’s and women’s basketball games on weeknights.
Margraff enjoyed coining phrases that resonated with the players. A sampling of their favorite sayings includes “pressure is for surgeons and soldiers,” “tradition never graduates,” and “a man never crosses the same river twice because he’s not the same man and that’s not the same river.”
“He had a very unique talent for boiling down complex thoughts into simple ways that can guide you very easily,” said Anderson, who graduated in 2015. “He put things in a way that was easy to understand and kept things that were important at the front of your priorities. It was simple stuff, but it has not only shaped me personally, but a lot of my schooling and my studying and my priorities and my family life.”
Margraff projected an aura of calm with his players. Senior wide receiver Luke McFadden recalled a sense of panic spreading among the players after that early loss to Susquehanna. The loss was just the third in the month of September for Hopkins dating to 2010.
“In some ways, we were freaking out,” he said. “We were like, ‘What do we need to do to get back on track?’ and all of these things, and his message to us was, ‘We need to practice better.’ There was no sense of emergency in his voice or anything like that. That was exactly what we needed at that time when there were a lot of questions and people were wondering what was going on.”
But Margraff had a competitive streak flowing under his placid demeanor.
“He would tell our team, ‘I think every play we run should be a touchdown and every play they run should be a 1-yard gain. If it’s not, we’ve got to figure out why,’ ” Chimera said. “He doesn’t come off like that to the general public, but that guy was as fierce as they come, and that just fed into our team.”
Current and former players said Margraff did not berate them, but if he did get hot under the collar, they knew it was warranted.
“I can still remember the one and only time he chewed me out in practice,” McFadden said. “I was giving less than my best effort on a block — I think it was spring ball, it wasn’t even the regular season — and he got on me. I was a second-semester freshman, and I made sure that was never the case again because you knew that when something was important enough for Coach Margraff for him to raise his voice or be very forward about something, you just didn’t want to disappoint him in that way.”
Margraff’s affection for his players ran deep. He connected current Blue Jays with internship opportunities provided by former players. He reminded his team that football was merely a game and that life after football was a higher priority. And he fostered an environment that emphasized family.
That was never more apparent to Davidson than this past August, when his grandfather died. Days before the death, Davidson approached Margraff about leaving preseason camp to return to his parents’ home outside of Pittsburgh.
“When I sat down with him and started to tell him the story, he just said to me at the end, ‘You absolutely do whatever it is you need to do, and Hopkins football will be here waiting for you,’ ” Davidson said. “He knew that people had priorities in their lives outside of football, and it was almost like having an extension of my family there.”