I got a text message on Saturday evening from a friend in the
“Dude, I didn’t believe it either, but they’re reporting it on CNN. I think he was shot”.
I was stunned. It had been a crazy week and a half. With the passing of Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and Ed McMahon, people were ready to believe anything. I fell for the Jeff Goldblum is dead story. Apparently there were rumours of Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears too. I didn’t want to believe the McNair story.
As soon as I got home I logged onto Sports Illustrated and there it was – “Steve McNair: 1973-2009".
As a fan of the NFL for about decade now, there haven’t been many better players than Steve McNair. The first season that I really got into the NFL, he lead his Tennessee Titans team to the Superbowl, and came within one yard of winning it all. Four years later, he was named the league’s most valuable player, along with Peyton Manning. He was a leader, he was athletic, he was one of the first prominent black quarterbacks. He could run, pass, do it all as a QB.
But for all the post-season success, and MVPs, and other accolades he collected, he will be remembered for one thing above all others. Toughness. For me, Steve McNair defined toughness in the NFL. It was a miracle that he played as long as he did, given his bruising style of play.
Said former Miami Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tim Bowens: “Hitting him was like trying to tackle a defensive tackle. … He wasn’t one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league, he was one of the toughest players in the league.”
Of his ability to play with pain, McNair says: "It goes back to high school, when my coach told me that when you're in pain, you tend to stay more focused on what you have to do. I took that to heart, and I think that's how I play now. I can just concentrate better when I'm playing in pain."
He did not take the traditional route to stardom. Growing up in smalltown Mount Olive in Mississppi, a town of less than a thousand people, he was an all-around athlete. He starred in football, baseball, basketball and track. He was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 1991 Major League Baseball draft, but opted to play college football at historically black Division 1-AA university, Alcorn State. There, he garnered national attention, when in his senior season, he set more than a dozen records on his way to finishing third in the Heisman Trophy - something unheard of for a player at a 1-AA school. It was enough for Sports Illustrated to put him on the cover with the headline "Hand Him the Heisman"
He was drafted No. 3 overall by the Houston Oilers (who later became the Tennessee Titans) in 1995, the highest ever for a player from a Division 1-AA school, and the highest ever for a black quarterback (Donovan McNabb, Michel Vick and JaMarcus Russell have since been taken higher). He may have been the Oliers/Titans best ever draft selection, and they’ve made some great picks, including Earl Campbell, Bruce Matthews and Eddie George.
Watching him over the years, I got the feeling that he was the type of player that you would absolutely love playing with, and hate playing against, because you knew he was going to give 100% on every single play.
He was oldschool. Earl Campbell with a cannon of an arm, the face of a franchise, a warrior. He was Steve "Air" McNair. Rest in peace.