Jordan McNair’s death opened his father’s eyes, hurt his heart and tested his faith
The family’s foundation helps others following the tragedy for Terps football
OWINGS MILLS, Md. – On the bucolic campus of McDonogh School, winding roads take you past pristine lawns, exquisite mini-mansions, fleets of school buses and gorgeous brick school buildings before you get to its athletic complex, which is itself as well-manicured as a governor’s lawn. The pre-K-12 private school has a few famous alums strewn across the globe, but on this excruciatingly hot weekend in June, one graduate in particular is being remembered in spirit.
Jordan McNair died three years ago in a football offseason conditioning program at the University of Maryland, and his alma mater is where his parents and family friends are holding a health and wellness clinic designed to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. At the time, the 19-year-old offensive lineman’s death tore the school’s athletic department apart at the seams and ended multiple careers on campus. It was an ugly exposure of the worst parts of college sports encompassing incentivized eating, peer pressure punishments and, unfortunately, fatal negligence.
But on this Saturday, the energy is a far cry from the hostile environment of a College Park, Maryland, workout. Young boys are running around playing 7-on-7 with volunteers from the Terps football team and others, who are volunteering their time to teach not only kids, but their parents about the importance of safety during play.
Meanwhile, families are listening to medical professionals analyze the tricky and complicated world of overlap that exists in youth-level sports, a dizzying array of regulations and rules that for the parent who wants to show up with juice boxes and orange slices, feels like a college lecture.
“Exertional heat illness is completely different than grandma’s sitting in her 80-degree apartment for three days. And nobody’s come to check on her,” explained Jennifer Rheeling, a career athletic trainer who works in the Washington public schools sports system. “That’s an entirely different type of heat illness that you treat much differently.”
Sitting on the side is Marty McNair, Jordan’s father. He’s drinking a bottle of water and passionately preaching his message that prevention is everyone’s best motivation. After the media crush swept through campus and the McNair family, they decided to do something. The foundation in their son’s name now does events across the country, but they aren’t concerned about being forgotten.
The truth is that every year, there are several Jordan McNairs. Which Marty McNair finds not just unacceptable, but like his own son’s death: easily avoidable.
On Aug. 11, Drake Geiger, a 16-year-old football player from Omaha, Nebraska, collapsed on the field during football practice from what is believed to be heatstroke and later died in the hospital. Two days later, Dimitri McKee, an 18-year-old offensive lineman from Montgomery, Alabama, passed out during practice and was airlifted to a hospital where he later died, also suffering from heatstroke.
At the same time, in Georgia, two coaches were charged with murder and child cruelty in the August 2019 death of Imani Bell, a basketball player who was practicing with her team outdoors in Jonesboro. That day the temperature was in the high 90s and the area was under a heat advisory.
“At the end of the day, prevention costs nothing. You can’t put a price on that. You can put a price on it. But it’s gonna cost you,” McNair said to the group of parents. “Please bring a bag of ice to every game. The worst that could happen is that it’s going to melt.”
Right there, on the campus of the school that they call family, the guy whose people call him “Marty” explains that, paradoxically, none of this is personal to him anymore, in a sense. Yes, the death of his own son opened his eyes, hurt his heart and tested his faith, but that’s just the beginning when it comes to the new community he’s a part of. There are that many families who share this grim bond.
“I call it a fraternity nobody wants to be a part of. We lost 20 kids last year and probably out of the 20, I may talk to more than half of their parents,” McNair explained, sitting under one of the many canopies set up for shade in the scorching summer heat. “I’m just glad that we’ve created something of a template of, I hate to say it, how to deal with stress or the grief of a child, but every parent that I see that gets in front of this by starting their own foundation and stuff like that, those are the ones that they follow our template. I was just glad that we were able to set an example for this type of thing.”
Authority is difficult to define. In a child’s life, most daily interactions come with facing said people in control and navigating relationships with each one. And when a child is hurt, half the battle is figuring out which one, in fact, is in charge to help.
Between coaches, parents, athletic trainers and EMT staff, the indecision and bickering of adults can cost a kid his life. Or it can help, depending on the scenario. When you add in the variable of “high stakes” nonprofessional sports, that’s where athletic trainers come in. They aren’t just there to fill water bottles and tape ankles, their primary purpose is to keep people safe. Which doesn’t necessarily mean going to the hospital when something goes awry.
“I’m a trained professional,” Rheeling said to a group of parents who were sweating it out on lawn chairs. “If I have an exertional heat illness, I’m going to cool down before I call the ambulance, because when the ambulance gets there they’re going to argue with me about taking the kid. But the ambulance isn’t cold enough to chill them. The emergency room doesn’t have what they need to chill them quick enough. And so the whole time they’re not being chilled, their organs are cooking.”
At this point in the proceedings, the looks on the faces of parents changed. The idea that the “helpers” might in fact be the hurters is quite a difficult pill to swallow. And who has the gumption to argue with an EMT when their child is suffering? The trainers, that’s who. Rheeling is a proponent for all school systems and amateur athletic leagues investing in full-time trainers for these very reasons. Their existence is as independent operators, not people making decisions in the so-called best interest of the parents or coaches.
“I tell my coaches, you have to, if the EMS gets there, and you call before I tell you to, you keep that kid in the pool. Let me deal with them because all I’m doing is slowing them down and delaying them from taking that child out of the tub,” she said.
For Rheeling, a 6-foot-plus white woman with a job that requires upsetting a lot of people in the name of safety, sometimes, it’s now second nature. But it didn’t start that way. Her interest in athletic training started early, and coming from the Midwest, when she landed in Blackity-Black Washington a couple of decades ago, it was a culture shock in more ways than one. But that learning experience is also partly why she’s become a preeminent expert in the field. It’s about more than just understanding heartbeats and body temperatures.
“If it’s homecoming at Woodson [alma mater of Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich], we got a cul-de-sac behind the field and that’s my ambulance gate. But they tailgate out there. They cookout. So I readjust,” Rheeling told the crowd, doing her best to empower them to understand their surroundings for more reasons than the obvious. “Those are things your coach doesn’t have time to stop and think about. You, as a parent, you’re just coming to watch your kid. It didn’t even occur to you until something goes wrong and it’s not handled correctly.”
For those who do the job, it’s a tricky position to be in, without a large amount of trust. While Rheeling has built plenty in the community, for people such as Brayah Jones, you don’t come across it so easily. She played softball and volleyball in high school, and started studying sports medicine then, too.
Playing an indoor sport, people tend to forget that you don’t have to be outside in the hot sun to hurt yourself, heatwise.
“It’s actually a little bit easier inside [to get a heatstroke]. People don’t know because the air is not moving. So like on a day like this, yet 80 degrees where we got that breeze. So we can eliminate a little bit of that risk,” Jones explained. “But inside, if it’s 80 degrees inside, there’s no moving air. It’s a little bit worse. So that’s one of the things that I’ve learned.”
Ultimately, the biggest hurdle is one that happens at home. If parents and guardians are uninformed, there’s not much else to do – it’s not just the kids and their coaches who need to look out for themselves.
“One thing that I noticed about kids overall is they’re always gonna do what their parents say. So if their parents are not on board, it doesn’t matter what you say, what your coach says, whatever they’re going to believe what their parents said,” Jones pointed out. “You know, that’s the person that they idolize in life and then there’s nothing wrong with that. Um, so the parent involvement is actually very key and a lot of parents don’t realize that we’re on the same side. Like, I want your kid to play. But if your kid’s injured, I can’t let them play, but we’re going to do what we can to get them back out there.”
Marty McNair has always been a helper. Before his world was turned upside down by the death of his son – and the ensuing scandal that concluded with the University of Maryland settling with his family for $3.5 million in January – he owned a drug treatment center in Baltimore, where he’s from.
“I’d always been advocating,” McNair began. “I’d always been advocating for somebody. I’d always been, I’d always been a public speaker. I was a toastmaster for years, but I never thought I’d use it use it. When this happened, you know, I didn’t want to shift gears, but I was in a position to shift gears. So I was already an advocate. One of the things that really got me was out of all these kids I’d heard that were dying, I’m like, ‘Well, damn, nobody’s advocating? Like nobody.’ I hadn’t heard of anybody. At that time, you know, man, I just said it was God, a higher power. It just kind of really pushed me in that direction.”
The family’s relationship with the school isn’t shattered, however. Then-Maryland coach D.J. Durkin is long gone, and the new coach, Mike Locksley, played at Towson State and his daughter and McNair were in the same graduating high school class. The two dads have been friends for some time, and at the event at McDonogh, various players and people connected to Terps football were around for fellowship and fun with the kids – hence why the handout gear that weekend was Maryland red.
The level of strength it takes to turn your own personal disaster into a building block for others who are less spoken for is nothing short of remarkable. But it isn’t all just public speaking and seminars. He makes portable inflatable cold tubs available to athletic programs and leagues across the nation, a simple, inexpensive and proactive way to prevent deaths on practice fields and in gyms.
But the McNair Foundation didn’t stop there, either. In May, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act, giving student-athletes across the state certain health-related protections. It began with then-state Del. Shelly Hettleman, who was looking to create legislation that would help students report issues to their school’s administrations without being forced to deal with their athletic departments. As part of the new name, image and likeness regulations, it all sort of fit together as part of a movement to empower amateur athletes in the state.
“I actually was a member of the committee, the appropriations committee that has jurisdiction over higher ed in the house,” Hettleman explained. She had come by the function to show support, as she and Marty McNair have become friends throughout this process. “We looked at what happened and kind of what led to some holes in the system that allowed it to happen, and what is it on a certain level that can be done. Just as kind of an entry point, I looked at and talked to some of the other higher ed folks and realized that there’s really no kind of clear communication avenue for kids that was away from the athletic department to express concerns.”
Which is, unfortunately, the hardest part for Marty McNair.
We can place blame in the court of public opinion as to how and why things like Jordan McNair’s death happened, and courts can rule about who is liable or not, but ultimately, it’s where Marty McNair feels like he let his son down. He believes he didn’t do enough to empower the 19-year-old.
“That’s the one thing I didn’t do. I didn’t, I’ve always taught Jordan to fight for himself. Stand up for yourself. Always be a leader, never a follower, with his peers,” he stoically noted. “Never told him to do it with adults. And that’s the thing. I tore myself up initially as regards to that, because that’s what I didn’t take care of, when I should have.”