All the ups and downs of the last week were like playing in a bruising football game, but Ellis McKennie – a staunch ally of his late friend and teammate Jordan McNair – said he didn’t mind the upheaval because he believes the University of Maryland at long last has set things straight.
“I’m happy that they finally did what was right,” McKennie, a backup offensive lineman, said in an interview after athletic director Damon Evans informed the team in a hastily-called, post-practice meeting Wednesday that head football coach DJ Durkin would not return.
McKennie, a 6-foot-3, 307-pound junior, grew up with McNair in Randallstown, played Little League Baseball with him and helped recruit him to McDonogh and to Maryland. McKennie, whose hometown is listed as McSherrystown in Adams County, was devastated when McNair died in June of heatstroke after falling ill during a team conditioning workout in May.
On Tuesday, after the University System of Maryland’s 17-member Board of Regents had recommended that Durkin and Evans remain with the school, McKennie wrestled with whether he could stomach attending a team meeting to reintroduce the coach who was at the helm of the program when his close friend died.
McKennie was torn by divided loyalties – his love of the school and his teammates, and his powerful allegiance to his dead friend.
“He said ‘I don’t know where to stand, but I couldn’t stay there and listen to this,’ “ said his mother, Jodi McKennie, describing her son walking out of Tuesday’s meeting. “But a few hours later, he said, ‘I’m going to practice because I’m part of this team.’ “
A jolt to McKennie’s family: Durkin’s initial reinstatement – following an administrative leave – had jolted the McKennie family, who remain close to McNair’s parents, Tonya Wilson and Martin McNair.
Jodi McKennie said earlier Wednesday that her son, who interned over the summer with Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin and is interested in a career in politics, “learned a hard lesson – that money and power is more important than somebody’s life.”
But then she received an urgent call from Ellis.
Evans had summoned the players via text message to a meeting, even as some were still finishing their showers, and told them Durkin was out.
“I was called as soon as he (Ellis) got the information,” Jodi McKennie said Wednesday night. “We’ve been talking to Ellis all night. I feel relief and justice for Jordan. You keep saying his name until somebody listened.”
Surreal events: Ellis McKennie described the surreal recent events as “a rollercoaster with the lowest of lows. All it took was for some people to speak up. He’s a kid who was tragically lost to something that was preventable.”
After overseeing studies of McNair’s heatstroke and of the team’s culture, the Board of Regents recommended Tuesday that Durkin and Evans remain with the school. University president Wallace Loh announced that he will retire in June. Loh had previously said the school took “legal and moral responsibility” for mistakes in treating McNair.
“He is a good man and a good coach,” Board of Regents chair James Brady said Tuesday of Durkin, who was originally set to be back on the sideline for Saturday’s home game against Michigan State.
But the regents’ decision to retain Durkin and Evans stirred outrage on campus and in Maryland politics, with many questioning why people most closely tied to the football team would remain on campus.
Quiet protest: McKennie’s own, quiet protest had come at the team meeting and on social media.
“Every Saturday, my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate,” McKennie tweeted Tuesday. “Yet a group of people do not have the courage to hold anyone accountable for his death. If only they could have the courage that Jordan had. It’s never the wrong time to do what’s right.”
McKennie, who played his first college season in 2015, had helped Maryland recruit McNair, whom he described as caring and gentle.
“The kid would do everything he could to make sure that you were all right,” McKennie said. “He was just that kind of a kid.”
A bond with McNair’s parents: McKennie said he has formed important bonds with McNair’s parents. The parents don’t come to games, but McKennie said he talks to McNair’s father “probably once a week.”
“He is one of the strongest people I know,” McKennie said of Martin McNair. “He may talk me off the cliff one day about getting angry about something or another. He’ll text me good luck before the game, after the game. Those two have been incredible.”
The Terps wear stickers with McNair’s No. 79 on the back of their helmets. The program held moments of silence for him before the season opener and home opener.
Jordan’s voice: McKennie’s mother, who lives in Pennsylvania, said Ellis “is very committed to being Jordan’s voice and he also loves his brothers on that team and is very grateful to the university for the degree he has. We don’t come from money and he fought hard to get that scholarship and that degree.”
Ellis McKennie interned with the late gubernatorial candidate Kevin Kamenetz of Baltimore County, who died of cardiac arrest in May. He was then a summer intern in the Baltimore office of Cardin, the Maryland Democrat.
Hopes to run for office: McKennie, who is seeking a master’s degree in public policy, said he hopes to run for elected office one day.
His goal, he said, would be to provide people lacking power with “an avenue to speak for themselves.”
That is akin to what he has been trying to do for McNair and his family.
“I try to do right for his mom and for his father – what would give them the most peace and solace,” he said. “My teammates and I are going to continue to play our hearts out for each other and for Jordan, and for the university that we all love. I really hope that we can just continue to honor him and keep his memory alive because that’s the minimum of what he deserved.”