Jordan McNair's death highlighted on HBO's 'Real Sports' investigation into college strength coaches

The death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair played a central part in a report by HBO’s “Real Sports” looking into the role of college football strength coaches.

The 21-minute report, one of three stories that aired on the HBO show Tuesday night, started and ended with McNair’s parents, Martin McNair and Tonya Wilson, being interviewed.

Their 19-year-old son, a redshirt freshman offensive lineman, died June 13, 15 days after suffering heatstroke during a team conditioning test.

The McNairs, who have created a foundation in their son’s name, have also appeared on ABC, CNN and ESPN to speak out about his death.

The HBO report never mentioned DJ Durkin by name, identifying him only as “the head coach of the University of Maryland” who recruited McNair out of McDonogh.

Wilson said the coach “made a promise that he would treat Jordan as one of his kids and make sure nothing happens to him and make sure he’s OK.”

The report said McNair died after an “intensive conditioning session” in which “he and and his teammates were made to run sprints of 100 yards over and over and over.”

According to initial reports from the university, which were confirmed Friday in a 74-page external review conducted by Walters Inc., a South Carolina-based sports medicine consulting firm, the test consisted of 10 110-yard sprints.

Martin McNair said his son went from “a healthy kid Tuesday to you’re talking about a liver transplant Wednesday afternoon and we’re still trying to grapple with, ‘What happened?’ I didn’t even know what a heatstroke was.”

The HBO report said Jordan McNair was “heckled” by a trainer as he struggled to finish the drill. Though not identified by name on either HBO or the external review, Walters identified the person to be Maryland’s head football trainer.

Football trainer Wes Robinson and Steve Nordwall, the associate athletic director for football performance, have been on administrative leave since Aug. 10. Durkin has been on leave since Aug. 11, a day after ESPN published a damning story on its website about Maryland’s “toxic” football culture.

Rick Court, Maryland’s strength coach, was also placed on administrative leave before quickly agreeing to a financial settlement.

A second commission was hired by the university, which, like the Walters Inc. review, will report its findings to the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents. Those findings are expected to be released “soon,” according to Regents chair James T. Brady.

None of the football staff and training staff members were identified by name, either by HBO or by Dr. Rod Walters.

The HBO report delved more deeply into two other college football players, California defensive end Ted Agu, who died after a supervised training run in 2016, and Kent State offensive tackle Tyler Heintz, who died nearly a year to the day before McNair after suffering from what was described as a heat-related illness following a less rigorous workout.

HBO highlighted the fact that Cal strength coach Damon Harrington was rehired three times after Agu’s death, which was later attributed to his carrying the sickle cell trait known as a contributing factor to heat-related illnesses and deaths. Agu’s parents sued Cal for subjecting their son to “a lethal workout” due to his sickle cell trait. Harrington, who now works at Grambling State, declined to comment for the HBO report.

HBO interviewed former Kent State strength coach Ross Bowsher, who was fired in August 2017 after admitting to falsifying his certification papers. Bowsher said in the interview on HBO that he went out 17 days after Heintz’s death and got certified in an attempt to cover his tracks, though, according to HBO, the 13-hour course Bowsher took does not “teach anything about heatstroke or player safety.”

Oklahoma trainer Scott Anderson, who in an academic paper last year wrote that “collegiate football’s dirty little secret is that we’re killing its players,” said in the HBO report that “without question, the role of the strength and conditioning coach has grown with time. There should be some accountability that comes with that.”

It is not known whether HBO requested interviews with Durkin or any other Maryland employees or officials.

Through his attorney, Durkin declined to comment Friday after the release of the Walters report, which did not mention the 40-year-old coach by name or position.

Confirming what had been said both by university president Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans at an Aug. 14 news conference, the HBO report also said McNair was not given cold-water immersion therapy, which can significantly reduce a person’s temperature and their risk for heatstroke.

“That’s not taking care of my child,” Tonya Wilson said. “That’s when I get mad, angry. This could have been prevented. It could’ve been prevented.”

Wilson said a visit by Loh and Evans to apologize the morning of the August news conference was not enough.

“It doesn’t work,” Wilson said. “If he was taken care of, he would be with us.”

Martin McNair said he missed not being able to give fatherly advice to his son.

Asked what advice he would give Maryland and other “big-time football programs,” the elder McNair said in the report’s closing, “Do better. Do better.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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