(Steve McNair, who would be 40 now, died four years ago Thursday. This is the column I wrote on the day of his retirement five years ago. He becomes eligible for induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in the Class of 2014. Covering him his senior year at Alcorn State remains a highlight of my more than four decades in sports writing.)
First, Favre. Now, Air McNair. This is going to take some getting used to.
Two of the greatest — certainly the two most productive — quarterbacks in Mississippi history have retired in one off-season. Steve McNair’s Thursday retirement was not totally unexpected — not with all the physical problems he’s played through in recent seasons — but it nonetheless shocks my football system.
McNair’s heroics have made my autumns more exciting for the past 20 years, ever since he was a 16-year-old sensation at Mount Olive Attendance Center.
True story: The first time I saw McNair play was in the Class 1A state championship game at Mississippi College. I walked the sidelines that day in absolute awe. He kicked the opening kickoff through the end zone. Before the first quarter was done, he threw a picture-perfect 57-yard scoring bomb and intercepted a pass. Before the day was done, he scored on a 52-yard run, threw a 49-yard, game-winning pass and made a game-saving tackle, one of about 25 he made from his safety position that day.
He had it. He went by Steven then, and I wrote it this way: “Remember that name: Steven McNair.”
No, this doesn’t necessarily mean I was a brilliant judge of talent; it just means I did have two eyes that worked reasonably well.
Greatness in athletics doesn’t come from talent alone. Work ethic, courage, toughness and other intangibles all play a role. McNair had them all. The one thing he never had was a whole lot of luck. He played much of his NFL career hurt.
But that didn’t keep him from throwing for more than 31,000 yards, running for more than 3,500 and producing more than 200 touchdowns running and throwing.
Seems funny now that so many pro football experts doubted whether or not he could make the transition from tiny Alcorn State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference to the NFL.
Seems even funnier that so many college football coaches back in 1990 doubted whether he could play quarterback in the SEC. The football histories of either Mississippi State or Ole Miss would read much differently had they signed McNair to play quarterback. (Southern Miss did recruit him as a QB, but he chose to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Fred, at Alcorn State instead.)
High among my favorite memories of Mississippi sports moments was from a sunny, crisply cool October day in Lorman when McNair broke the all-time NCAA total offense record. He scrambled out of the pocket, dodging two or three defenders off their feet, then lowered his head for a big gain against Southern University. When officials stopped the game, he handed the football to his mother, Lucille McNair. Yes, and then he won the game with a last-minute drive against the clock, as he did so many times.
And do you remember the Hesiman Trophy controversy that year? Sports Illustrated put McNair on its cover with the headline: “Hand him the Heisman.”
They should have. McNair threw for 4,863 yards and 44 touchdowns that season and ran for another 936 yards. He was the most outstanding college football player that year, one of the most outstanding of any year. They gave it to Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam instead. McNair not only was a much better, more productive player; he would have been a better running back, too, if that were his position. McNair finished third.(briefhed)
The Houston Oilers made McNair the third pick of the 1995 NFL draft behind KiJana Carter of Penn State and Tony Boselli of Southern Cal.
The Oilers chose to bring McNair along slowly. As then-Oilers GM Floyd Reese said Thursday, “We thought it would take him a couple of years to adjust to the pro game and then by year five he’d have us in the Super Bowl.”
As it turns out, that’s what happened, although by then the Oilers had become the Tennessee Titans. He took them within one yard of a Super Bowl victory. At Alcorn State, McNair had been a one-man show. In the NFL, he adjusted his game to fit within a system. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t risk life and limbs to make an extra yard. That reckless playing style led to a series of injuries that have limited McNair’s mobility in recent years.
The injuries he played though may have limited his productivity but only served to increase the respect and admiration his teammates held for him.
As McNair put it in his press conference Thursday, “I played the game with a lot of passion and a lot of heart and it showed. Over 13 years, I had a lot of injuries because I played in physically. I played it to make things happen.”
He did, indeed. Football won’t be nearly as much fun without him.