At the NFL scouting combine, draft prospects secure their professional futures by reckoning with past misdeeds. They are probed about laws they might have broken, plays they might have taken off, roles they might have shirked. There is value for teams in information, however painful the extraction might be.
Maryland offensive lineman Derwin Gray, a two-time All-Big Ten honorable mention at left tackle, is considered a late-round prospect. By Thursday afternoon, he had met with over 20 teams, including a formal meeting with the Ravens. In every interview, he was asked to relive the sorrow of losing a teammate, a tragedy for which he was not responsible.
“It’s something that now is common for me,” he said. “Every team that I met with has asked me about my career at Maryland, the ups and downs.”
“Definitely, it comes up,” said Terps safety Darnell Savage, who is also working out for scouts in Indianapolis. “Being college athletes, that’s not something you go through every day. That’s a really difficult situation. For us to come together as a team and overcome that, a lot of people want to know how we did it. It’s interesting how we really came together and played for each other. I think that’s what made this year special.”
The first game of his last season in College Park, a win over Texas that Gray missed with an injury, began with the Terps sending just 10 men onto the field, a hole at right guard. Jordan McNair, a McDonogh graduate and Randallstown native, had died June 13 after suffering heatstroke and collapsing during an offseason workout in late May. He was 19.
An independent investigation commissioned by the university found that athletic trainers did not follow proper procedure in treating McNair. Experts said immersing the offensive lineman in cold water could have saved his life.
Aftershocks rippled into the season. Reports of a toxic culture overseen by coach DJ Durkin and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court. Durkin’s reinstatement and dismissal. Wallace Loh’s announcement that he would retire as school president. Legal troubles and financial woes. Heartbreak and grief. Wins and losses.
“Everybody pretty much knows” the narrative, said Maryland defensive lineman and fellow combine participant Byron Cowart, who on Saturday said he hadn’t gotten many questions about McNair. “They just like the fact that, as a team, we fought through it. As a player, me coming in as the new guy, I just took a step back and was observing, listening, being a shoulder to cry on. You have to let people grieve. Football, at that time, it wasn’t a priority. It was just getting my teammates right.
“I’m seeing guys that I have big relationships with, they’re crying, mentally messed up, some of them not knowing if they want to come back. That was just trying to get the team and let us heal as a team.”
Gray and Cowart declined to pass judgment on how the school and program handled the situation. Gray said it was a question he couldn’t answer. Cowart was grateful to have a fresh start after three disappointing seasons at Auburn. He said he tried to be there for his teammates and coaches.
Both acknowledged that the attention on the program made their season tougher. The Terps sent three players to the combine — Savage is expected to be the team’s highest selection in April — and linebacker Tre Watson and offensive lineman Damian Prince could be late-round picks. But poor quarterback play and a difficult conference schedule doomed the program to its second straight season without a bowl game.
“It was definitely hard to focus early on,” Gray said. “Guys mourn in different ways. A lot of people feel in different ways. Me being a leader, one of the older guys, I had to be understanding, but at some point, we had to get back to work and understand that we had a season ahead of us to get ready for.”
It was a season no one had asked for but one Maryland players were devastated to see end. One of McNair’s goals was to beat Ohio State; the Terps came within an errant pass of an overtime win in College Park.
After Maryland’s season ended with a 38-3 loss to Penn State, Cowart cried on the field.
“We were together, man,” he said. “The biggest thing is, Coach [Matt] Canada, he believes that nobody will ever know what we’re going through, because we’re living it. You can assume, but you just never know. I could say that we were together. …
“It’s like, I wish I had one more year. I felt like I was a part of this team. I built relationships. Me being from Florida and going up there, it’s just different culturally. It was fun. I met some good people up there. That was big for me.”
Even as Durkin has largely receded from public view since his dismissal, Cowart has kept up with his former coach. He said he talked with Durkin a few months ago, lumping him in with former Auburn defensive coordinator and current South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and former Terps defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh as coaches “who helped me get to where I am now.”
Gray said McNair’s memory motivates him “every day.” McNair had dreams of making it to the NFL. Gray hopes he’s impressed teams with how he’s pursued his own.
“There’s definitely been ups and downs —coaching changes, personnel changes,” he said. “Then losing a fellow teammate, a brother, that’s hard to deal with. Coming out here, to see where I’m at today, it’s just great. It’s exciting moving forward.”