Mitchell Layton/Getty Images (Savage), Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images (Cowart)

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  • Maryland’s football program now bears a black mark after the death of Jordan McNair, and NFL draft prospects Byron Cowart and Darnell Savage are doing their best to move on.
By Robert Klemko
January 23, 2019

MOBILE, Ala. — For one hulking defensive lineman and one 5' 10" cornerback at the annual Senior Bowl, interviews with NFL team personnel on hand to scout the prospects almost always begin with five words: ‘We’re sorry for your loss.’

The players, who grimace and say ‘thank you’—what else do you say?—want to move on. They’re in Mobile because they want to get on with their football careers and become, at last, pros. But the name of the school attached to their own names—Maryland—carries an indelible black pock now. Those are the guys from the program that killed a kid. Neither their fellow players on the North team nor their coaches, the Oakland Raiders staff, say a word about it. But the scouts tasked with interviewing players in sit-down interview sessions rarely fail to express their condolences.

“This is a game,” says former Maryland defensive lineman Byron Cowart. “But what we went through was real life, not a game. Nothing about that was fake. That was real. We lost a guy.”

Jordan McNair died June 13, 2018 of a heat stroke at a shock trauma center in Baltimore. The 19-year-old had collapsed during a football conditioning session on May 29, and an independent investigation sanctioned by the school found that trainers did not follow proper procedure in treating McNair, who had complained of cramps. Media reports described a toxic culture around conditioning in the football program—an external review commissioned by the Board of Regents said it was not a “toxic culture”—and McNair's death would eventually lead to the dismissal of head coach D.J. Durkin. Numerous medical staff members either resigned or were fired.

The rest of the team finished its season. They’re trying to get on with their lives, but they’ve been changed by the experience. Two of them are poised to be drafted, and the thought of reaching the pinnacle of the sport still wrestles with their vivid memory of the game’s rock bottom.

“I think about, just never taking the game for granted now,” says Darnell Savage Jr., the cornerback. “That was a guy who loved football, who always walked in with a smile on his face. You just kind of keep that in the back of your mind when you go out to the practice field, or maybe when you wake up and don’t feel like working out one day.”

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Cowart, a Tampa native, was once a five-star recruit and prized Auburn commit who transferred to Hillsborough Community College before spending his senior season at Maryland in 2018. He’d only been on campus for a few months when McNair passed, but they had become friends. They joked about their identical gaps between their two front teeth.

“You know what you’re signing up for,” Cowart says. “Football can change your life so fast, so it’s like, what are you willing to do? What are you willing to sacrifice?

“It shook a lot of guys up mentally. When you’re talking about death, some guys wanted to walk away from the game. But some guys, if we go back home, we’re on the street. I’m a religious guy, I have faith in God and I just pray every day and try to know my body, and if I feel anything that’s off, go talk to the trainer.”

Savage knew McNair longer. They met when McNair was a freshman in 2017. Savage had been recruited to Maryland and a handful of other schools as a sophomore in high school, then he broke his leg. Maryland was the school that stuck with him, so he returned the favor. Then, during the October of his freshman year, coach Randy Edsall was dismissed, and the men who recruited him were out. So what's there to keep a guy like Savage, a Delaware native, from transferring? The guys. The locker room. Teammates you find along the way. Guys like McNair.

“He was younger than me but I spent a lot of time just laughing and being around him,” Savage said. “One thing that helped me get through it is how his parents handled it and how they stuck together. They’re probably two of the strongest people I’ve ever been around. To go through something like that. They helped bring us all together as a family.”

If the NFL teams want to know more, they haven’t asked yet. Maybe they think it’s too fresh, or maybe they’ll save those questions for the NFL combine in a few months. If they ask around, they’ll find that Cowart and Savage grew up fast. They tried to be the glue that held everything together. “I wanted to be one of the guys who could say, ‘Hey man, you going through something? Talk to me,’” Cowart says. “Come cry on me.”

More than anything, though, they became the guys willing to speak up, who never want to experience anything like this again.

“On a team,” Savage says. “Everybody should have the ability to say how they’re feeling.”

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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