Bumped from the fanposts. Read this. And then read it again.
It was a fantastic ride wasn't it? I have often asked myself what it would be like to see the late-great Steve McNair play again. Live, in person, and in the two-toned blue. Then I realize, "As if one single moment could do those seven magical years justice." In the same moment, I feel the crushing, terrible realization that what happened on July 4, 2009, a day of celebration and patriotism, actually happened.
The reality is draining to say the least. I can also safely say that the death of the legend himself, the not-so-bulletproof warrior is the single most shaping event of my young life.
In every sense of the word, Steve McNair was an idol. He was an upstanding family man, the centerpiece of my favorite football team, a class act, and one of the toughest S.O.B.'s I've ever had the pleasure to share an airplane seat with.
If you couldn't absolutely love the guy, you had a problem. I won't bore you with the whole story, but basically, I was about nine years old, coming back from Nashville to Baltimore over the holidays when I saw my hero standing literally ten feet in front of me.
I did what any kid would do and awkwardly asked him to sign my McNair jersey that I had just received for Christmas as my first NFL jersey. Naturally, he obliged. To make a long story slightly shorter, we were on the same airplane and ended up being right across the aisle from me. After some conversations about school, the NFL lifestyle, football, and life, we landed in Baltimore and he offered me tickets to the Ravens game on New Years Day. At that unstable period in my life, it had been firmly established that nothing about my NFL fandom had been firmly established, so I went and had a great time cheering on the Ravens to a win over the Bills. A fond memory and a fantastic anecdote that people tend to love. I've got a picture with Steve and an autographed jersey that I absolutely worship and an experience I'd never trade for anything in the world.
This experience also drove home the concept that I was going to be an NFL safety and ever since then, my life has revolved around football.
Now let's fast forward to that fateful day; a fun filled Fourth of July that I intended to spend having some fun with friends on the beach and out on the water. At a little bit past mid-day, we cut the engines of the boat and just stopped to relax. I decided to flip the radio on to see how the O's were doing on their road trip to Los Angeles. Naturally, they were losing, but that wasn't anything compared to how hard I was struck by the news that followed. "Some tragic news coming in now, we have just been alerted that former Ravens quarterback Steve McNair has been found shot dead in his Nashville condo."
Shock. Complete and utter shock. How could this have happened? It didn't seem like this was possible. Who would shoot a guy like that? Who could bring themselves to do it? It was a crime of passion. I turned the radio off, I'd heard all I needed to hear.
Death had surrounded me when it came to prominent male figures in my life; 9 seemed like my unlucky number. The last man I looked up to who wore number 9 was my father who passed after a struggle with leukemia in 1997.
After several days of struggling with my emotions, I finally found a positive outlet for this anger and sadness. It would be conceited of me to quit something that I loved because of this. I knew that if Steve or my dad had been alive to give me guidance, neither of them would have let me quit, certainly not before my career was really even yet to begin.
That was the summer of my freshman season. It was a telling sign that I had made the right choice when I was allowed to bypass the freshman development to play on the JV squad in my first year. I worked hard, andin our final game of the season, recorded a game sealing interception while wearing, of course, number nine.
This year, given a chance to compete for a backup job on the varsity squad, I separated my shoulder and got a serious case of turf toe. This undermined any chance I had of making it onto one of the most respected teams on the East Coast. I was crushed. I felt like I had failed and to make things worse, I wouldn't be playing. I had lost my job to injury. I went totally numb. I couldn't even visualize myself ever going back out on that field; I felt like a failure.
Then, an epiphany. I was cleaning out under my bed when I found an old photo. It was me and Steve, me wearing my stupid exhausted smile as I stood in line at the Nashville airport to get on the plane back home. He signed it "Don't give up, you'll make it one day, signed Steve, #9" Sounds like something out of a movie doesn't it? Long story short, I got back out on that field because hell, if he could play through it, I sure as hell wasn't going to let a separated shoulder or some goddamn turf toe stop me.
I got back out on the field the next day and was able to earn my job back basically by sucking it up and doing as Steve would do. He was simply my icon in life; in death, he was my hero. He saved my football career and in doing so, saved my life. Now that's a bold statement, but hear me out. Anyone who has ever suited up to take the field knows this is true.
This game, this simple game, that we get so worked up about has gotten me through more than my fair share of messes. Problems at school? Strap on some pads and go smash someone. Issues with friends? Leave it all on the field and settle your differences in a controlled environment that encourages you bash each other's brains in.
So Steve, tonight I raise my glass to you. You live on fondly in the memories of not just me, but of every NFL fan who has ever had the privilege of watching you play. You've saved my career and in doing so saved my life, you brought me closer to my late father, and inspired me to do what I never thought I could do and for that, I can never thank you enough.
That is what the number nine means to me.