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Maryland’s Ellis McKennie found his voice when Jordan McNair died. Now he looks to finish his career strong.

Maryland senior offensive guard Ellis McKennie has become the voice of the team, particularly in the wake of the death of teammate Jordan McNair.
Maryland senior offensive guard Ellis McKennie has become the voice of the team, particularly in the wake of the death of teammate Jordan McNair. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Ellis McKennie spent his first three years at Maryland as a nondescript reserve offensive lineman, redshirting his first season after graduating from McDonogh and serving as a little-used backup the next two.

It took the death of Jordan McNair — a fellow offensive lineman who had been more like a little brother since they grew up on the same street in Randallstown — for McKennie to find his voice.

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It then took McKennie getting a role this season, briefly as a versatile reserve and then as a starter in seven games at four positions, to have the platform to use it.

“As someone who’s a leader on this team, I feel confident to express the feelings and attitude of the team,” McKennie said last week, sitting in the auditorium of the Gossett Team House. "I’m that way to Coach [Mike Locksley], too.

“I’m on the leadership council and I’m one of the guys coach is asking, ‘Where do you think the team’s at?’ I’m that voice for him and when the media comes asking the same questions, I’m confident that I can represent the team in a good way in the public light.”

Going into Saturday’s senior day matchup with Nebraska (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten), McKennie is hoping that he can help Maryland (3-7, 1-5) end a five-game losing streak.

“I can’t stress how important it is for us to beat Nebraska,” McKennie said. “I can still remember singing the alma mater after the Syracuse game [a 63-20 win on Sept. 7] thinking, ‘I can’t wait to do this some more this season.’ If that’s the last time I get to sing the alma mater at Maryland Stadium, that’ll be tough for me to handle. I’m going to do whatever I can to get this win.”

Maryland offensive lineman Ellis McKennie waves a flag in remembrance of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who died after collapsing on a practice field during a spring practice, after an NCAA college football game against Texas, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Maryland offensive lineman Ellis McKennie waves a flag in remembrance of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who died after collapsing on a practice field during a spring practice, after an NCAA college football game against Texas, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Patrick Semansky / AP)

McKennie’s role as a leader for the Terps began to evolve in the weeks and months after the 19-year-old McNair’s death from heatstroke in June 2018.

It was McKennie and then-sophomore center Johnny Jordan who were designated to speak when the still-grieving team met with the media for the first time in late August.

It was McKennie who carried the flag with McNair’s jersey number — 79 — out for the 2018 season opener at FedEx Field and waved it after the Terps upset then-No. 23 Texas, 34-29.

It was also McKennie who walked out with a couple of his teammates from a team meeting after former coach DJ Durkin, who had been put on administrative leave in the aftermath of McNair’s death, had briefly been reinstated in late October. Durkin was fired by university President Wallace D. Loh the following day.

“They say in the face of tragedy that people get closer together, and that’s what happened on this team," McKennie said. “We lost a brother, but at the same time, when you go through something like that with a group of people and you come out the other side, you have a different kind of relationship with them. That role during that whole time period just kind of fluidly turned into a leadership role on the field this season."

Jodi McKennie wasn’t surprised that her middle child became the defacto team spokesman among the Maryland players.

“From the time he was a little boy, he was the most empathetic child you could meet,” she said last week. “He could not stand to see anyone he thought was suffering in any way."

It meant asking his mother to make extra lunches for other kids who didn’t have food at home to bring to school or to have her put money on the accounts of less fortunate students. At Maryland, it took shape after McNair’s death.

“The leadership piece took over because he is definitely led by his moral compass, and that comes from understanding right from wrong and what happened to Jordan was so hard on him that he could no longer be quiet,” Jodi McKennie said.

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His father’s five-year stint as the boys basketball coach at Archbishop Curley also had an impact on the younger McKennie.

“I had a couple of kids who had problems with their family and he would see Dad get up and go and do things [for the players],” the elder McKennie said Monday. “It was the same for me. When I got to college, I didn’t realize my Dad, who was a Marine Corps dude, was in my brain. You don’t realize until it has to be shown.”

Recalling when his son walked out on Durkin, the elder McKennie said his son called him beforehand to tell him of his intentions.

“I said, ‘Ellis, before you do anything, do you want to talk about it?’ and he said, ‘Dad, I got this,' ” the elder McKennie said.

Getting his chance

McKennie doesn’t think he would have been any less a leader this season had he not worked his way up the depth chart and into a starting role.

“I have a type of rapport with my teammates, they know what I’m about, and that I actually care about this team and this university,” McKennie said. “Whether I’m playing, whether I’m having a good game or a bad game, whether I’m on scout team, it wouldn’t make a difference, just the type of guy that I am.”

Said senior defensive tackle Brett Kulka: “Ellis is great. He’s definitely a leader. You can see that in the locker room as a whole. He’s an encouraging player. He likes to help younger guys. He understands what it takes to win in terms of you need everyone on the team. He really embraces that role.”

It has been more than 17 months since McNair died and McKennie said it is unlikely that he will ever get over it completely. He had known McNair since they were kids and McNair played Little League baseball on a team coached by McKennie’s father.

“You’re never going to feel normal. It almost turns into a new type of normal, it’s a new reality you’ve got to live it, ” McKennie said. “I can’t lie and say I don’t think about it every day. I get texts from his parents before every game. ... You’re never going to move on from it.

“I think it was important that when Coach Locks got here, he had a meeting with a bunch of us and he said, ‘We can move on without forgetting Jordan. We can take steps forward, but we’ll not forget where we came from and not forget Jordan in any sort of way.' ”

Even though the patch of grass at Maryland Stadium with McNair’s number has grown over, McKennie said, “Internally we honor him every day. His locker is still in our locker room. We pray in front of it before every game.”

Maryland senior offensive guard Ellis McKennie stands outside Gossett Football Team House on Nov. 13, 2019, next to a tree planted to honor Jordan McNair.
Maryland senior offensive guard Ellis McKennie stands outside Gossett Football Team House on Nov. 13, 2019, next to a tree planted to honor Jordan McNair. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Always a Terp

Four years later, McKennie is only one of three players remaining from the 19 members of the 2015 recruiting class, along with linebacker Isaiah Davis and defensive end Keiron Howard.

“There are less than 10 guys from my class that made it through their eligibility,” McKennie said. “Our class is extremely interesting because it’s been filled with so much turmoil. A lot of guys didn’t finish, but we also had two first-round draft picks, DJ Moore and Darnell Savage. So it’s like a pretty big spectrum. I’ve been the only offensive lineman left for two years."

Locksley said Tuesday that the person and player he helped recruit to Maryland while serving as the team’s offensive coordinator has grown tremendously in the past five years.

“He’s a guy that’s been directly affected with the three full-time coaches, two interims, the loss of a former high school teammate [and] dear friend, and this kid continues to stand strong," Locksley said at his Tuesday news conference, where he announced that McKennie and three other seniors would serve as captains for Saturday’s game.

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“He’s one of the guys you can sell the University of Maryland with. He’s the epitome of a student-athlete. He’s a guy that has the right kind of habits and behaviors, where he’s going to be really successful on the field and off the field. Really I can’t say enough great things about the leadership that he’s provided, not just for the players, but even to me as the head coach. He’s the epitome of what a Maryland player should look like."

For much of his career, McKennie focused “pretty heavily” on the front half of his hyphenated position as a student-athlete, graduating in three years with a degree in government and politics and then working on his master’s degree in public policy, which he will finish in the coming weeks as he gets ready to start studying for his LSATs and a career as a lawyer or politician.

“We used to joke that he would be the first black president and then we had [Barack] Obama so now we’re banking on him being the second black president,” his mother said.

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Even with what he has accomplished off the field — twice earning All-Big Ten academic honors, being elected to the university senate during the 2019-20 academic year, interning for U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) last summer — McKennie thinks of himself mostly as a Maryland football player.

“That’s what I do every day,” he said. "There hasn’t been a day in the past five years when I haven’t come to this building aside from a few holidays. It’s going to be a weird change. I’m looking forward to what’s next for me, but I’m definitely going to miss everything that has come about. I’m starting to appreciate things differently now. I’m going to practice not dreading practice anymore. I’m happy to be there with my teammates.”

Unlike many of his former teammates who left long before their eligibility expired or moved on the moment they played their final game, McKennie said there will always be an attachment.

“I love this university and I love what it means to be a Terrapin,” McKennie said. “It means so much more to me than just playing on Saturday. If it was about playing time, I still wouldn’t be here. I should have gone somewhere else and played a little bit sooner. It means so much to me to represent this university and represent this state that I’ve called home for most of my life, that’s the most important part to me.”

Nebraska@Maryland

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM

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