Tragedy struck the University of Maryland in 2018 when offensive lineman Jordan McNair died of a heatstroke he suffered during a football workout. Now as the Terps prepare for football in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the school is determined not to forget the lessons learned from McNair's tragic death.
"Obviously, the tragic death of Jordan McNair is something that we never forget around here," Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans said Wednesday. "We've had to learn from that and move forward and it’s at the forefront. The health and safety of the welfare of the student-athletes' at the forefront."
On Wednesday, the Big Ten reversed course on its decision to postpone the fall football season and announced that games will begin on Oct. 24. The conference also released a comprehensive set of protocols in place in order to keep the student-athletes safe.
From the outside looking in, it is very easy to be cynical over the Big Ten's decision. Facing pressure form athletes, parents and even politicians, the league finally caved after seeing other conferences begin play. Now the conference will try to recoup whatever cash it possibly can from the season while maintaining the facade of "safety first."
But conversations over what to do about the football season have been ongoing within the conference since the conference originally postponed the season in August. The death of McNair was certainly part of those discussions.
"I did have conversations at the conference level when we were discussing this issue of COVID-19 and the spread and the unknown complications and the effects that it could have on young people," Evans said. "And when you go through something like we went through at this institution, you're very, very mindful. We always had health and safety at the forefront, but it becomes even more paramount so I felt it was necessary for me to share that with my colleagues in the Big Ten so that they would understand what we were dealing with."
"[I have] been a part of a lot of Zooms with our head coaches in this league and [McNair's death] had come up," head coach Mike Locksley said.
He added, "I think because of what's happened with Jordan here, that's enabled us to be, we're at the forefront of leading the charge for the health and safety of not just Maryland athletes, but athletes across our conference. That conversation has taken place, but to a degree and there's a comfort level knowing that the people that are making the decisions on how to get us back safely took these things into account and we're able to get our players back on the field safely, healthy and with their welfare first and foremost."
When it comes to the health and safety of the student-athletes, you can't afford to get this wrong. That is especially true of Maryland which has worked hard to reestablish the trust that athletes and parents have in the school that was lost after McNair's death and the tumultuous D.J. Durkin era when he was head coach.
Because of that, Evans and Locksley were sure to stress on Wednesday in the wake of the Big Ten's decision that Maryland was only moving forward with the season because it was believed the athletes could be kept safe with the school adhering to the conference's new health and safety protocols.
"As much as we wanted to play football and all of our sports this year, they weren't going to be played unless we felt comfortable that we were in a position not only as an institution, but as a conference to move forward in a safe manner and today we feel good that we're in that position," Evans said.
"There's no doubt in my mind that there would be no way that we would go back out as a team if we didn't feel that we could do it safely and have the welfare of our student-athletes in the forefront because of what we've gone through," Locksley said.
McNair's death was an important reminder of what happens when the safety of the athletes is no longer the priority and Maryland is determined not to make that mistake again during the coronavirus pandemic.
"We will not sacrifice when it comes to protecting the health, the safety and the wellness of our student-athletes," Evans said. "We have to keep it at the forefront. While we are excited to get back to playing football and while we want to get our other sports going as well, we're going to continue to monitor this virus and do what's in the best interest of the student-athletes that represent this great institution."