- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2020

Ellis McKennie stands 6-foot-4, but that gave him no advantage as he tried to see as far down the road as he could. There was no end in sight to the phalanx of protesters marching down Constitution Avenue in the District Saturday. He turned around. Due to a bit of a hill in the road, he couldn’t make out the end in that direction, either.

One of the best parts of the afternoon, the former Maryland Terrapins offensive lineman said, was partaking in one of the dozen or so chants heard throughout the day. The call: “Show me what democracy looks like.” The response: “This is what democracy looks like!”

“That just resonated, being out there with thousands of people, voicing protest to the way this country has been for the past several hundred years and the way racial justice has permeated,” McKennie said.

McKennie himself has had much to endure this year, with his football career coming to an end and the coronavirus pulling the plug on his years as an undergrad at College Park, all capped by his father’s own life-threatening battle with the deadly illness.

But McKennie, who was called “Mr. President” by friends and coaches after giving the Terrapins’ locker room a steady voice in the wake of teammate Jordan McNair’s death in 2018, keeps marching.

On Saturday he joined thousands in a massive “Black Lives Matter” demonstration in response to the deaths of George Floyd and other black men and women at the hands of police.

McKennie supports the Black Lives Matter movement. “I think it’s finally being adopted as the quintessential motto for our era of the social justice movement for African Americans,” he said.

Athletes from all sports and walks of life took part in massive protests over the weekend — but McKennie’s days as an athlete are technically through.

As was the case for many college seniors across the country, McKennie’s final semester at Maryland had a brusque end. The coronavirus pandemic forced classes online. The 310-pound lineman entered the NFL draft, but his pro day was canceled. A chance to work out in front of league scouts went out the window.

In a recent essay for the Maryland athletic website, McKennie discussed how “self-centered” concerns soon took a back seat.

His then-51-year-old father, Ellis McKennie Jr., not only contracted COVID-19 in late March but had to be placed on a ventilator and into a medically-induced coma.

After three weeks, McKennie’s father beat the virus and returned home, though he’s still “getting his wind back.” The rest of the family in McSherrystown, Pennsylvania, avoided getting sick.

“He’s doing so much better. He had an incredible recovery,” the younger McKennie said.

Later that month, the draft came and went, and McKennie wasn’t selected. He didn’t hear from any teams about a training camp invite. Soon, he had to acknowledge a harsh reality.

“It probably took me a day or two to really get over the fact that my football career was probably over,” he said. “But you come to the realization that maybe that just wasn’t what’s meant to be, and maybe there are other intentions for me outside of football.”

For McKennie, a public policy major at Maryland, that will take the form of classes at George Washington Law School this fall. McKennie did three political internships while at Maryland, including two for U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Democrat, and he wants to stay involved in politics.

Juggling his internships with team workouts and activities required a sartorial audible that underscored his commander-in-chief nickname.

“This past summer I’d show up and leave the facility every day in a suit,” McKennie recalled with a laugh. “It was kinda funny, everyone else was walking around in shorts and T-shirts and stuff and I’m the only one in a shirt and tie and jacket every day.”

It wasn’t always so breezy inside that building. In 2018, McNair — a teammate of McKennie’s not only at college but also in high school at McDonogh, outside Baltimore — died from heatstroke two weeks after collapsing during a hot offseason workout and not being properly cared for by athletic trainers.

McKennie spoke at the team’s memorial for McNair later that summer, and things got to be even more difficult when the school announced it would reinstate suspended coach D.J. Durkin. McKennie was one of three players to walk out of a team meeting Durkin held upon his return, and on Twitter he expressed his anger that “a group of people do not have the courage to hold anyone accountable” for McNair’s death.

A day after Durkin’s reinstatement, Maryland changed course and fired him.

For McKennie, it was a lesson in courage.

“I faced a moment in my life there where I knew what the right thing to do was, but I knew that there could possibly be consequences,” he said. “I had to come to the decision in my mind if I was going to do the right thing at that time or be worried about my future.

“I almost impressed myself about how — after I did speak out and a couple things that happened in the building, I looked around like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I did that.’”

Courage and empathy for others have led “Mr. President” to consider running for office someday. They’re the same qualities that led him to protest in Washington, to get behind what he called a globally-recognized symbol for peace and social justice.

“We’re at a time right now in this country that is gonna be written about in history books, and you want to make sure you did everything you could at the time to make an impact, you know?” he said. “Whether you feel like you’re just a single person in a sea of thousands of people, it’s important to know that your presence makes a difference.”

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