COLLEGE PARK — Nearly every time Tayon Fleet-Davis walks into the Maryland football locker room, the junior running back’s eyes wander directly across from his own dressing stall to the one enclosed in plexiglass.
It belonged to Jordan McNair and now serves as a memorial to the offensive lineman from Randallstown. McNair died a year ago Thursday, at age 19, after suffering heatstroke during a team conditioning test 15 days earlier.
“Every time I see it, in the morning for a workout, it just pushes me,” Fleet-Davis said recently. “Just reminds me not to take anything for granted. That we only get to live this life once, so let’s go.”
As they did in the weeks and months after McNair’s death — starting with a somber ceremony at the indoor practice facility and punctuated by the celebration after a second straight season-opening upset of Texas — the Terps will continue to honor his memory as they prepare for the 2019 season.
To commemorate the first anniversary of McNair’s death Thursday, Maryland players and first-year coach Michael Locksley will participate in community events at McDonogh School, where McNair starred, as well as at an elementary school in Washington.
When summer workouts officially began as players returned for summer classes May 29 — exactly a year after McNair’s heatstroke — Locksley let the team’s leadership council decide whether the players would work out that day or take the day off.
Fleet-Davis, a member of the council, said the players “all felt like it was the best thing” to work out.
Senior cornerback Tino Ellis, also one of the team’s designated leaders, said not much was said about McNair that day, yet his presence was felt.
“Honestly, it was a normal type of workout, the guys knew they had to come in and work,” Ellis said. “We were aware of what happened that day and we’re just trying to move on from it and work in Jordan’s honor.”
The team will commemorate McNair throughout the 2019 season and beyond. Many of the rituals honoring his memory from a year ago remain unchanged.
“We have the sticker on our helmet [with McNair’s jersey number]. We try not to dwell on the moment,” Fleet-Davis said. “We always have Jordan around in [the indoor practice facility] and in Gossett [Team House]. We just want to play hard for him.”
Learning from tragedy
Damon Evans will mark the first anniversary of his tenure as Maryland’s athletic director June 25. For everything else that happened — including national championships in men’s soccer this past fall and women's lacrosse last month — Evans’ first year after being promoted from interim director will mostly be remembered for McNair’s death.
“When you’re dealing with a tragic situation such as this, you can’t overlook what happened here,” Evans said last week. “We’ve always got to reflect on what happened here. You don’t want to forget.
“We always want to remember Jordan. The championships have been great, but the focus has got to still be the health and safety of the student-athletes, and provide them with an environment that is conducive for them to learn and have success here and to make sure we’re putting in [procedures] to prevent this from happening [again].”
To that end, Maryland has adopted all 20 recommendations made by national sports medicine expert Rod Walters, who reviewed what happened the day McNair became ill — in particular, the protocols that were not followed correctly; most significantly not using cold-water-immersion treatment that experts say could’ve saved McNair’s life.
The last of the measures — the hiring of a head team physician to oversee all Maryland sports and work outside the athletic department — will be finalized after a national search.
“What you learn is that you’ve always got to continue to improve, continue to assess where you are as a program and always look to enhance what you’re doing,” Evans said. “In this case, taking a look at your policies, procedures and protocols as it relates to the health and safety of our student-athletes is something that we’ve got to continue to strive to get better at.”
A hard-earned perspective
Locksley was in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when McNair died, getting ready to start his first season as Alabama’s offensive coordinator after sharing the job the season before. It was his third season working for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban since being hired as an offensive analyst in 2016.
Having served two previous stints at Maryland as an assistant — first under Ron Vanderlinden and Ralph Friedgen, and later as offensive coordinator under Randy Edsall — Locksley still had emotional ties to the program as well as a personal one to McNair. Locksley’s daughter, Kori, now a soccer player at Auburn, was classmates with McNair at McDonogh.
Locksley also had a son who died at a young age, Meiko, who was 25 when he was shot and killed in Howard County in September 2017 in what remains an unsolved case. After Meiko’s death, Martin McNair and Tonya Wilson, McNair’s parents, reached out to Locksley and his wife, Kia. Locksley did the same after Jordan McNair died.
A spokesman for attorney Billy Murphy, whose firm is representing the McNairs in their lawsuit against the university, said Tuesday that Martin McNair will speak during the event at McDonogh.
“There are currently no other plans to comment at this time,” law firm spokesman Zac McDaniels wrote in an email.
Locksley will use his own tragedy to help him coach this year’s team and others at Maryland in the near future.
“I’ve always equated it to raising kids,” he said. “The fact that I deal with it, I go through it, I understand some of the emotions of trying to move forward and not be stuck. At the same time, there’s a grieving process and some of the best advice, and I use it with our guys, is that you’ll never get over it, you learn to get through it. So, what we do as a staff and a football family is find a way to help each other through it and move forward in the right way.
“Obviously Jordan’s imprint is here with this team, very similar to Meiko forever will be with my family.”
Asked what qualities Locksley has demonstrated that have helped hasten the team’s healing process, Evans said: “We needed someone who understood what we were dealing with, who understood this community, who could help us regain the public’s trust and who really wanted to be here. At the end of the day, as I reflect on the past six months or so Mike has been here, he has lived up to everything I thought he would.”
Bringing the family together
In the aftermath of McNair’s death, there seemed to be factions among the team — those who wanted third-year coach DJ Durkin to remain, those who wanted Durkin and strength coach Rick Court fired, and those who were conflicted.
As personnel decisions were made, the factions dissolved and the Terps became more unified in trying to play with McNair in their thoughts. Court left first, resigning before the season began. Durkin was placed on administrative leave in mid-August, reinstated Oct. 30 and fired the following day by school president Wallace Loh.
The unity of the team was seemingly in contrast to the chaos surrounding it. There were games like the season-opening win over then-No. 23 Texas and the near-upset of then-No. 10 Ohio State late in the year when the Terps said they gained strength from McNair’s memory. More often, Maryland was overmatched.
“I feel like last year when it happened, we were all just separated, scattered around,” Fleet-Davis said. “As the year went past, everything’s tightened up, becoming a family again. I feel us becoming stronger. I see it becoming stronger, everyone talking and just having a brother, a family bond.”
Locksley, who was hired in December and joined the team full-time a month later after Alabama lost in the College Football Playoff national championship, said he has long treated his players as an extension of his own family.
“Every decision that you make as a coach, as I’ve said before, I made as if each of these kids are my kids,” he said. “I make ’em as if I were the parent and it’s helping my child. It puts things in perspective for me, but I’ve always been a relationship guy.
“I always felt it was really important that if players know you, and know you care outside the football part, they’ll lay it on the line and bust your butts for them each and every day we go out on the field.”
Fleet-Davis said he believes Locksley’s concern is heartfelt.
“Coach Locksley, he feels what we’re going through, just because he’s going through similar changes,” Fleet-Davis said. “We’re all actually just trying to cope and come together as a family. It’s coming along very well.”
Ellis said the formula for continuing to honor McNair is simple.
“I’d say the way we can honor Jordan is playing hard and winning games,” Ellis said. “If Jordan was here, that’s what he would have wanted. We’re going to honor Jordan every time we step on the field.”