Whether he gets taken in the 2020 NFL Draft or not, former Maryland offensive lineman Ellis McKennie III is in good shape.
He’ll either have a chance to pursue his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL — signing as an undrafted free agent would also give him that shot — or he’ll begin at George Washington University Law School in the fall with an eye toward getting into politics in the future. But for the past month, none of that has been on the forefront of McKennie’s mind because he’s been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
McKennie’s father, Ellis Jr., was recently released from a Pennsylvania hospital after battling the coronavirus for a month. Ellis Jr. was admitted to the hospital March 18 and was initially diagnosed with pneumonia. He wasn’t feeling any better after three days at the hospital, at which point he tested positive for COVID-19.
A few days later, after his condition had deteriorated, Ellis Jr. was moved to the intensive care unit and placed into a medically induced coma. McKennie’s mother, Jodi, was quarantined at the couple’s McSherrystown, Pa., home and talked to doctors over the phone multiple times a day for updates. All McKennie could do was hope and pray.
“There were a number of scary moments throughout the course of the last couple of weeks,” McKennie said on Glenn Clark Radio April 17. “Myself and my brother would go sit outside the hospital every day because there wasn’t much we could really do. We weren’t allowed in the hospital. We weren’t allowed with our mom. We weren’t allowed to talk to him, so the closest thing we could do was go sit outside the hospital and pray and just give the best positive energy that we could.”
After more than two weeks, Jodi got the news she had been hoping for.
“Then after about 15 days of him being in a coma, my mom actually received a call from a nurse, and the nurse says, ‘Hey, someone wants to talk to you.’ And magically, it’s just my dad on the phone, so it’s an incredible moment for her,” McKennie said. “She then called me and I drove over to where she was and we talked to him on the phone for a little bit.”
Ellis Jr. was released from the hospital April 13, a moment McKennie captured and posted on Twitter. That was the first time McKennie had seen his father since he was admitted to the hospital in mid-March.
As of April 17, Ellis Jr. hadn’t yet tested negative for the virus — his family was told recent positive tests at this point are due to it being in his system for the past month-plus — but he no longer has any symptoms. He’s now quarantining with Jodi, the only person allowed to be there with him, and McKennie is counting down the days until he can see his father.
In the United States alone, there are more than 750,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 40,000 deaths.
“It’s difficult to describe considering this wasn’t a normal illness your family’s going through alone,” McKennie said. “This is something we’re going through as a country, as a world that’s affecting everyone. All you ever see are the tough news stories on TV that discuss the thousands of [people] that we’re losing every day. So the fact that my father was able to recover from this, I just feel so extremely lucky and blessed for my family and for him that we were able to overcome such a difficult disease that’s been devastating this world.”
Now, McKennie is hoping for some more good news during the NFL Draft April 23-25. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound McKennie is described by Terps head coach Michael Locksley as a smart, tough and reliable offensive lineman who can play both guard positions and center. In 2019, he started a total of 10 games at four different positions (left and right tackle, right guard and center).
In 2018, McKennie emerged as one of the team’s leaders amid the turmoil that enveloped the program after the death of Jordan McNair. McKennie and McNair grew up down the street from one another in Randallstown, Md., and attended the same elementary school. Later, they both attended McDonogh and Maryland. Their families have long been close.
McNair’s goals when he came to Maryland were to beat Ohio State and play in the NFL, according to McKennie. The Terps came within a two-point conversion of beating the Buckeyes in 2018. Now, McKennie wants carve out a career in the NFL in honor of his late friend.
“On an individual level we all have a chance to continue to live out these goals for him,” McKennie said. “I talked to his parents multiple times a week, just checking in. They were so great during the time that my dad was in the hospital, almost kind of paying back the time I spent talking to them while Jordan was in the hospital. It kind of felt a little vice versa. It was incredible just being able to hear from them. I think that’s definitely something that’s in my mind as I’m going through this whole process.”
But it’s safe to say McKennie has a solid backup plan if football doesn’t work out. He’ll be going to law school at George Washington in the fall if he doesn’t latch on with an NFL team. (His deferment date is July 1.) McKennie’s father played basketball for the Colonials from 1986-1991, making GW a perfect fit for him.
McKennie was a legislative intern on Capitol Hill for Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) during the summer of 2019 and is now finishing up his master’s degree in public policy at Maryland. He became interested in politics in 2008, when he was in sixth grade and Barack Obama was elected president.
“That’s something as a young mixed kid in this country, I was extremely impressionable and seeing someone look like me get elected president, that’s something that’s going to affect your life in a major way,” McKennie said. “It kind of led me down the road of, ‘I want to study politics, I want to be involved in policy.’ I feel like law school is the next step.”
Years down the line, will voters have the option of giving Ellis McKennie a checkmark on a presidential ballot?
“I sure hope so,” he said.
For more from McKennie, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics