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Much of Ellis McKennie III’s life the past two and a half years has been spent balancing the turmoil and tragedy he encountered as a Maryland football player with his own personal academic triumphs. The 22-year-old recently got accepted into George Washington University’s law school, which he will start this fall.
But that moment has been sandwiched between two emotionally draining episodes. In the summer of 2018, his Maryland teammate, Jordan McNair, died after suffering a heat stroke during football practice. And the past few weeks, McKennie’s father, Ellis McKennie Jr., was hospitalized with COVID-19.
The worst moment came when McKennie’s mother inquired about a course of treatment doctors were considering in order to save the life of the elder McKennie, whose condition had rapidly deteriorated after being diagnosed with pneumonia and admitted to a Pennsylvania hospital on March 18. He needed a ventilator to help him breathe and doctors later put him into a medically-induced coma before attempting extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) therapy, which helps oxygenate blood outside the body. The blood is then sent through a tube to an artificial lung to remove carbon dioxide while adding oxygen.
“There was actually a really kind of deja vu moment I had when my mom called and said, ‘He’s not doing well today and they’re actually in search of an ECMO machine right now, do you know what that does?’” McKennie recalls. “‘I said, ‘Mom, it’s really sad that I do know what it does. I can remember the day they put Jordan on that machine and that was close to one of his last days too, which was kind of super scary to me. It meant things were getting much, much worse.”
As things turned out, this story appears to have a much happier ending that both McKennie and his mother, Jodi, say was “a miracle.” It came Monday when McKennie’s dad was released from the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Hanover.
The elder McKennie, who will turn 52 on Sunday, even took a few steps from his wheelchair to a waiting car as relatives and hospital staff cheered. His release came about six days after he was taken off a ventilator and came out of the coma.
“It was pretty amazing because when they called me, they said they really should send him to a rehab facility because he’s so weak and he can’t walk and he can’t swallow because of the tube but because he’s still testing positive for COVID they had to send him home,” Jodi says.
Although the older McKennie still doesn’t have any sense of taste, doctors have told Jodi that if her husband shows no further symptoms, he won’t need to be tested again.
For Marty McNair, the father of the late Jordan McNair, watching the McKennies go through their ordeal brought back difficult memories for his family. He has known the McKennies since the elder McKennie coached McNair’s son on youth football and basketball teams in Baltimore. Their sons attended the same high school, McDonogh School, before going to play for the Terps.
Last year, McNair offered McKennie the opportunity to become the first executive director of the foundation named in his son’s honor after he completed his master’s in public policy at Maryland. He now hopes that McKennie will write either a forward or acknowledgment to the book McNair has written entitled Can My Son Play?, that he expects to be released in June.
“The McKennies have always been very supportive of us,” Marty says. “They had mentioned they wanted to put Ellis Jr. on an ECMO machine, so we really knew the severity of it. When you bring the ECMO machine out, things can get challenging.”
The 19-year-old McNair, who grew up on the same street as McKennie in Randallstown, Maryland, died 15 days after collapsing following a team conditioning test in late May of 2018. As McKennie and his family prepared for that possibility themselves, they received support from McNair’s parents.
McKennie talked to Jordan’s mother, Tonya Wilson, and Marty multiple times a week.
But McKennie, who in the immediate aftermath of McNair’s death became one of the team’s vocal leaders and eventually became a starter on the offensive line as a redshirt senior last fall, says that this experience was much different considering how much closer to home it hit.
“You get one dad, everyone’s born with one,” says McKennie, who has an older brother and younger sister. “Not to say that losing Jordan was any easier. It was definitely a different feeling for me [with my father]. It was just a helpless feeling for me. I couldn’t even go see him at the hospital, even go to a waiting room.”
According to Jodi, her husband was put on a regimen of hydroxychloroquine, the unproven anti-malarial drug with potentially concerning side effects that is now being used to treat some COVID-19 patients as a last resort.He was also turned on his stomach for up to 16 hours a day to help get oxygen to his blood.
On April 6, one of the nurses called Jodi.
“The nurse said, ‘I have someone to talk to you’ and it was my dad, it was just him on the phone,” McKennie says. “We hadn’t heard from him in two weeks. We didn’t even know he was being taken off the ventilator that day. It was a crazy day. It was really cool.”
One of the first things he told his father, who played basketball as an undergraduate at George Washington University, was that Maryland had beaten Duke for the 2020 NCAA basketball tournament title.
“He’s not a Maryland basketball fan, but he’s absolutely not a Duke fan. He can’t stand Duke,” McKennie says. “He was like, ‘OK Ellis, I wasn’t asleep that long.’”
Asked how his father is doing now that he is back home, McKennie replies, “He’s doing much better.” Then jokingly adds, “He’s back to being an ass, acting as if nothing happened. He’s downplaying it like nothing was wrong, we overreacted. He doesn’t know what he went through, which is kind of relieving that he didn’t suffer as much as he thought he was … The fact that he went to the emergency room, he must have been so direly sick. He’s one of those, ‘Give me some rest and some Tylenol and I’ll get through it.’”
As his father continues his recovery while being quarantined at home, McKennie is back in College Park, finishing up work on his master’s in public policy and getting ready for law school if he doesn’t get an invite to an NFL training camp, whenever that might be.
”I’ve been trying to go for runs every day, trying to stay in shape and doing weight work every day and make sure I’m best prepared,” the younger McKennie says. “I’m definitely not doing ideal training.”
McKennie is trying to keep up with news about the nation’s response to battling the pandemic, and to the eventual return to some sort of normal lifestyle, but admits that watching President Trump’s daily news briefings are no longer part of his schedule.
“Honestly having my dad go through that and having a first-hand look at it made those White House briefings so much more unbearable, to be honest with you,” he says.
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