Remembering the great Steve 'Air' McNair

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(Writer’s note: Happily, July 4 will mark the 17th anniversary of the opening of your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Unhappily, it will be fourth anniversary of the death of Steve McNair, one of most incredible athletes these eyes have seen.

Ruston Webster, a Madison native and the general manager of the Tennessee Titans Friday, called Friday to say he is donating one of Steve’s last Titans jerseys, a pair of his game-used spikes and a helmet, to the Hall of Fame. “Least we can do,” Webster, a really good guy and friend, said.

Steve McNair will be on the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame ballot for the first time when the selection committee meets this fall to vote on the Class of 2014.

Our family was out on the Reservoir, celebrating the 4th when I got the call about Steve’s death. We were all shocked. And four years later, I still can’t believe he’s gone. What follows is the column I wrote on McNair shortly after learning of his death on July 4, 2009. )

 

The first time these eyes saw Steve McNair was 21 years ago this fall. He was 16 years young, and he was, in a word, special.

McNair played that day in a state championship football game for Mount Olive, and he never came off the field for a rest. He kicked off, through the end zone, to start the game. He threw passes; he intercepted a pass; he threw for a touchdown; he ran for a touchdown; he made almost every tackle; he punted; and he returned kicks and punts. He won the game almost single-handedly.

You didn’t have to be Bear Bryant, Eddie Robinson or Vince Lombardi that day to know you were watching someone special. He played quarterback and safety, but he would have been the best player on the field at any position. He was that gifted.

Those memories came flooding back Saturday afternoon when I heard the shocking news that Steve “Air” McNair was dead, apparently murdered.

I don’t pretend to know about the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death. But I did come to know and appreciate the man over the years, not only as a gallant athlete, but as a compassionate and humble man who gave his time and money to many causes.

“He’d do anything in the world for you,” his Hattiesburg agent, Bus Cook, said through sobs Saturday. “I cannot believe he’s gone. I just cannot believe it.”

McNair won the widespread respect of both teammates and foes because of the way he played his sport.

“Steve was a warrior, just a great competitor; I can’t believe he’s gone,” Archie Manning said. “I just got off the phone with Peyton (Manning), and he’s pretty much in shock. He loved to compete against Steve, and they had some unbelievable games against each other. Peyton played in Nashville last fall when they retired Steve’s (Tennessee Titans) jersey. That was a special day for Peyton because he had so much respect for Steve.”

Peyton Manning and McNair shared the National Football League’s MVP award in 2003.

“I always enjoyed Steve’s company, too,” Archie Manning said. “We always had that Mississippi bond. This hits me like Walter (Payton) did. They were both too damn young to die.”

So many memories:

• Of Willie Morris’s reaction after first seeing McNair play. After a few trips to Lorman to see McNair play at Alcorn State University, I told Willie, a close friend, splendid writer and avid Ole Miss fan about McNair. Willie went to see him once, and then quit going to Ole Miss games that year so he could watch Air McNair. “Rickey,” Willie gushed, “He’s even better than you said he was.”

• Of the sunny, crisply cool October day in Lorman when McNair broke the all-time NCAA total offense record against Southern University. He scrambled out of the pocket, dodging two or three defenders off their feet, then lowered his head for a big gain. When officials stopped the game, Steve handed the football to his proud mother, Lucille McNair, who had raised him alone. Yes, and then he won the game with a last-minute drive against the clock, as he did so many times.

• Of the trip to New York for the 1992 Heisman Trophy presentation. Sports Illustrated had put McNair on its cover that year with this headline: “Hand Him the Heisman.” They should have. Rashan Salaam, a running back from Colorado, won it that year. McNair not only was a better runner than Salaam, he could do all the rest, too. Yes, I voted for McNair. He should have won it. He was the best player in college football that year. He finished third.

• Of a trip to the Gulf Coast and a distribution center for Hurricane Katrina victims in the fall of 2005. The workers there were talking about all that McNair and Brett Favre were providing for their center and the victims. “Everything we ask for, they send us,” one volunteer said. McNair and his wife, Mechelle, themselves, helped load trucks headed to Mississippi with much-needed staples.

• Of McNair playing with every sort of injury imaginable, both at Alcorn and then in the pros. Of a Tennessee trainer cutting away a flap of skin from McNair’s thumb on his throwing hand, so he could go back out and lead the Titans to a huge victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of Lucille McNair telling me when she knew her son, Steve, was one tough customer. “He was 8 years old, raking leaves in the yard,” his mother said. “He was pouring gasoline on the leaves to burn them but some of it went on his hand and it caught fire. He came running into the house with his hand on fire and we had to take him to the hospital, but he never cried. I never remember that boy crying because he was hurt.”

That may be. But across Mississippi, many cried on July 4, 2009. Steve McNair was 36, and, as Archie Manning put it, “too damn young.”

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