McDonogh athletic director Mickey Deegan remembers the day offensive lineman Jordan McNair walked into her freshman English class.
“He was like baby Shrek, so cute. He was a huge, huge guy. His smile — and everybody talks about that endearing smile — it was so genuine. Just a wonderful young person,” Deegan said.
McNair, who was 19 and would have been a redshirt freshman on Maryland’s football team this fall, died Wednesday, two weeks after collapsing during an organized team workout in College Park. No cause of death has been announced.
A private memorial service was held Thursday afternoon for faculty and students at the McDonogh chapel, said Nina Sinnott, director of communications for the Owings Mills school.
“Everyone loved Jordan. I have never heard a bad thing about him. Everyone that crossed paths with Jordan will miss him. It feels like I lost a son,” former McDonogh football coach Dom Damico, who coached McNair for four years, said via text.
One of his best friends on the McDonogh team, Marquis Thornes, was in Ocean City when he got a call from one of his Albany football teammates at noon Wednesday, telling him McNair had died.
“I didn’t have no words,” said Thornes, who graduated from McDonogh with McNair in 2017. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry about your teammate.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ I talked to [McNair’s] mother and she said he passed away at 11:30. I came outside and sat on the balcony for like 30-40 minutes. I didn’t say nothing to nobody. I didn’t know what to think, but I know that he’s in a better place. I know that I will see him soon and that he’s watching over us.”
Thornes, who called his buddy “Big J,” said McNair was the first one to speak to him every morning. When they met in ninth grade, McNair was a shy kid, but “once you got to know him, he turned into a big goofball.”
McNair’s work ethic and drive to be the best he could be spilled over to the other players, Thornes said. Sometimes, McNair was more excited for his teammates than for himself after a good game. He was the first one to jump up and down in the locker room after a win.
“He turned me into what I became my senior year, because he helped me out a lot,” Thornes said. “He realized what I was able to become. I remember he was killing in the [2017 Gonzaga] game. I remember at the end of the game we were in the huddle and he looked at me, and he was like, ‘Yeah, get ready to go to college.’ We both had great games and I remember he was excited for me. After the game, he kept saying, ‘You’re going to college.’ I said, ‘I hope so, bro.’ ”
McDonogh teammate BJ Farrare, who graduated earlier this month, said via text: “Jordan was a funny guy and a great teammate. In school, we always laughed together when we sat with our group at lunch and on the field he led us the best way he knew. He put in effort to be the best person he could be to anyone. I’m thankful that myself and the McDonogh community had the chance to be around Jordan.”
Thornes and new McDonogh head football coach Hakeem Sule said McNair didn’t know a lot about football when he arrived at McDonogh as an ninth-grader. He had focused on basketball when he was younger and only played a little youth football before high school.
Sule, an assistant Eagles coach for eight years, saw him in a game with the Hamilton youth football program and realized his potential. The coach said he played a little on varsity special teams as a freshman, but mostly played on the Eagles junior varsity. He never complained, but just kept working his way up.
That work ethic carried over to the classroom, where Sule taught him algebra as a freshman.
“When he came in, there were some worries about how he would do academically,” Sule said, “but he worked tirelessly over the years. Most people won’t understand how hard that kid worked in the classroom. He was going to be successful whether he played in the NFL, whether he got a full scholarship to college or whether he was just regularly admitted to a university. He was going to be successful, because he had the motivation, he had the energy, he had the commitment and he also had the support of his parents. He ended up making the honor roll.”
One of McNair’s McDonogh and Maryland teammates, Ellis McKennie, posted a picture on Twitter on Wednesday night of five white carnations and six red carnations lying in McNair’s Terps locker.
“White for our gratitude for how you have impacted our lives. Red for the flash and joy you brought everyday. You are truly missed my guy. Love you bro,” McKennie wrote.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh broke from football talk after the last day of mandatory minicamp Thursday’s to express his sorrow for McNair.
“I heard a little bit about it this morning, actually was talking with Steve Bisciotti about it and our strength and conditioning coaches,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t have any idea why these things happen. Hope we can learn to understand them better, for our sport and all sports, especially ones that play in the heat.
“From everything I’ve been told, just a wonderful young man, great family and our hearts go out to them.”
Those who knew McNair remember his gap-toothed smile as being a perfect introduction to his easygoing personality.
“He was the complete antithesis of what he appeared to be,” Deegan said. “He was soft-spoken. I call him like a gentle giant. He was sweet, down to earth, humble. He worked hard in the classroom, worked hard on the field. He did what the coaches wanted him to do and he was a real team player. His teammates loved him.”
On the field, however, his play was anything but sweet.
St. Frances co-coach Henry Russell was co-defensive coordinator at McDonogh’s archrival, Gilman, for McNair’s first three years. He had known McNair since he was in sixth grade. Gilman also recruited him.
“He’s always been such a nice kid with that huge smile, just a happy-go-lucky kid,” Russell said, “but when he was on the field, he was a beast. He was very athletic for how big he is, a physical kid. McDonogh definitely wanted to run the ball behind him. He was such a giant. You had to game-plan for Jordan and do different things on defense to disrupt what he was so good at. He was one of the premier linemen in the [Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Conference] for several years.”
McNair rose through the Hamilton youth football program to become a two-time All-Metro and two-time All-State selection. Listed on Maryland’s roster at 6 feet 4 and 325 pounds, he started drawing offers from top Division I football programs after he was named to MaxPreps’ Sophomore All-American team in 2014.
He opted for Maryland over many other Power 5 offers. Last fall, he played in the Terps’ game against Towson on Sept. 9, but ended up redshirting. After Maryland’s spring practice in April he was projected to be the second left tackle on the depth chart.
On Wednesday, Maryland football coach DJ Durkin issued a statement about McNair’s death.
“Our team is heartbroken with the loss of Jordan McNair. Jordan was an incredible young man, and his passion and enthusiasm made him an invaluable and beloved member of our team,” Durkin said in the statement. “Jordan was a hard worker and he always had a smile on his face. He was an extremely talented football player and a humble and genuine human being. He embodied the essence of what it means to be a teammate. Jordan was a fighter. Over the past few weeks, Jordan never gave up with his family, friends and team by his side. Our team will continue to be inspired by the spirit of this brave fighter. Please continue to pray for Jordan’s family during this difficult time.”