From Humble Roots
From Humble Roots
Looking at a small poor town called Mount Olive, Mississippi, there is little to imagine that it would be the one to produce one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time. And certainly, while Steve McNair was a youth attending Mount Olive High School, he likely didn't think so either. The town of less than 900 residents was a stranger to that type of storytelling, a world removed from the glamor and magnitude of professional sports, and further still from a fountain of inspiration. It was, however, home. And hard as it was, it left it's mark on Steve McNair from a young age; a mark that was a constant reminder throughout his life that it would be "putting his shoulder to the wheel", working tirelessly, leading fearlessly, to lead him to taste the success that so many pursue, and so few ever realize.
"I'm proud of where I come from. A lot of people leave Mississippi, and their claim to fame is somewhere else. But I have so many moral values that made me the person I am now."
- Steve McNair
The young Steve McNair played football, basketball, baseball, and even ran track, testing himself, working. McNair thrived in all sports, but none more than highschool football, where his big arm earned him the enduring nickname "Air McNair". As a junior, Steve McNair led the Mount Olive High School Football Team to the state championship, from his exceptional play at both quarterback and safety, where he intercepted 15 passes that season alone.
But there was one problem. The offers he was getting weren't for him to play Quarterback. The University of Florida wanted him to play running back, something McNair had little interest in at the time. Instead of going to a big name school, McNair decided to take his talents to Division 1-AA Alcorn State. Looking back at those days, McNair certainly knew there were many things that almost prevented him from playing Quarterback at the highest levels.
"I've learned to be patient. When I was younger I rushed things a lot. I tried to attack the game. Now I get teammates more involved before I try to take over."
- Steve McNair
Alcorn State never regretted their decision to take the Mississippi passer on board. In his first year as their starting signal caller, McNair put up more than 3500 yards, 29 touchdowns through the air, and another 10 on the ground, helping the Braves to a winning season. His next season was better still, leading Alcorn State to an 8-3 record and earning him First-Team divisional honors, a title he kept for three straight seasons. His family sports success drove Steve forward inexorably, as if success was an expected inevitability.
"It was the family tradition. I wanted to live up to the name - McNair."
- Steve McNair
However; it was the following season that "Air McNair" made his stamp on the college record books, and placed his name atop scouting boards across the NFL. His final year at Alcorn, McNair exploded. He produced nearly 6000 yards of offense himself, rushing and passing, and recorded a total of 53 touchdowns, earning him "All American" designation, and smashing more than a dozen college records. He knew he could make it to the pro's if he pushed himself. And with the limelight looking him squarely in the face, McNair responded in a way few could have; with thunderous success and boatloads of flair to boot.
"Pressure is what you make of it. It makes me play harder...I've never believed anyone could put more pressure on me than I put on myself. People expect great things from me. I expect great things from myself."
- Steve McNair
"There's no way I could do what he's doing. He's hands-down the toughest player in the NFL."
- Titans Defensive End, Kevin Carter on Steve McNair
As a young boy, Steve McNair had little idea that he would become the highest drafted African American Quarterback in NFL history. But that's exactly what he became when the Houston Oilers selected him in the first round in 1995, and inked the strong-armed signal caller to a seven year deal.
Behind the incumbent starter Dave Krieg, however; McNair did not see significant playing time in the years that the team remained in Texas. After two mediocre and ultimately fruitless seasons, the team was moved out of state to it's current home in Tennessee, though the franchise would not settle into Nashville for another few years.
In 1997 McNair won the starting job out of the gate, and during the season, he made himself known the opposition. McNair showcased his arm talent and his athleticism in leading the Titans back to .500, racking up a team-leading eight rushing TD's in the process, as well as the third highest rushing total by a QB in one season at the time. McNair earned the praise of both his teammates and fans, notably for his increasingly gritty, no-nonsense style that put the team in front of his own numbers.
"I'm out there to play football. Regardless of what numbers I put up, people talk about not throwing touchdowns, or not getting 300 yards passing. You have to do what it takes to win."
- Steve McNair
The 1998 season brought further growth from McNair, as he threw for 3200 yards, 15 TDs and only 10 Interceptions, the lowest in a total season from a Titans' Quarterback in team history. McNair had risen to the top of the Oilers (they were re-fashioned as the "Titans" the year following), who were still playing in Memphis at the time, and was solidifying his role as the leader. More than that, his mindset and tough playing style positively influenced his teammates, and birthed an ever growing fandom in the team's new home.
"During my ten years in the NFL I've never played with anyone as physically and mentally tough as Steve McNair. That toughness trickled down to everyone on the team. He was a team captain and when Steve said we could so something, we believed him. He had proved it so many times before. He had that clutch gene, no matter how tough the situation, no matter what the score, we believe if we could get the ball back in his hands, we had a chance."
- Titans Safety, Blaine Bishop
With the 1999 season came the new moniker, "Tennessee Titans", who were then playing in Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville. McNair himself started the year as the Titans unquestioned leader. There was an air that something special was building. The team had added the talents of Wide Receiver, Derrick Mason, Tight End, Frank Wycheck, and Running Back, Eddie George, to pair with an offensive line that had grown into a true smash-mouth unit led by Bruce Matthews. As fans anticipated the coming success, they were then dealt a sucker punch.
The season looked to be derailed when McNair went down against the Cleveland Browns in the season's early goings. Doctors informed the Quarterback he had a ruptured disk in his back that would require surgery. The news was a bitter blow to Titans fans after watching McNair dice up the Cincinnati Bengals the week before with 350 yards passing in a big win. But anyone who knew McNair was more than well aware that the sting of being left out of a game, to him, was far greater than that of any fan.
"With the physical mindset I play the game with, I expect to get hurt...It hurts a lot to know that my team battles every Sunday and I can't be a part of it."
- Steve McNair, following his back surgery in 1999.
Backup Quarterback Neil O'Donnell stepped up to the plate. He played well in McNair's absence, going 4-1 while McNair recovered from surgery. His teammates were happy to welcome him back to starting lineup only five weeks after undergoing back surgery, and he didn't disappoint. McNair proceeded to lead the team on a rousing run, winning seven of their last nine on their way to a 13-3 record, clinching second in the AFC Central. McNair's play was nothing short of inspired, winning over the city of Nashville and his team in the process. There was no question who was leading the show.
"I played for seven years with Steve. He was as tough as any fullback in the league. He was country-strong. There were times he would run the ball out of the backfield and blast through defenders like they were straw dolls. He'd get pummeled on a sack and pop up with a smile giving kudos to the defender for a nice shot. I remember him playing through a bruised sternum and just begging the defense to hold down the offense, that we would shake it off and come through when it mattered most. He did."
- Titans Safety, Blaine Bishop
The Titans were matched up with the Buffalo Bills for the AFC Wild Card game. With the Bills riding high at the time with a physical defense, the match-up was billed as a likely grinder. The game lived up to that billing, but not in the way most imagined.
Following a scoreless first quarter, Jevon Kearse put the Titans up by two by recording a safety on Bills QB Rob Johnson; it would be one of six Titan sacks that day. An excellent return by wideout Derrick Mason on the ensuing kickoff gave McNair plenty to work with. Steve culminated the drive with a short TD run to put the Titans up by 9. The Titans tacked on another field goal before the first half closed, holding Buffalo to a mere 64 yards of offense. It was not to last.
The Bills rallied in the game's second period, driving down the field for two scores (but missing out on a two point conversion) to bring the score to 13-12 in their favor. McNair and George responded, managing to help the Tennessee offense regain some form. Despite this, the Bills matched their efforts. Another exchange of field goals left the game at 17-16 with all but a few precious moments left.
Photo Courtesy of Michael Mcnamara/Sporting News via Getty Images
McNair was on the sidelines preparing for the chance to heave a prayer deep into Bills territory when it happened. The play that became known as the "Music City Miracle", the brainchild of Special Teams Coordinator, Alan Lowry, sent the stadium into ecstasy. McNair was left smiling on the sidelines as Kevin Dyson streaked down the field into the endzone as the final seconds ticked off the clock, knowing he had been granted the chance to take the Titans deeper still into the NFL Playoffs.
"The tide has changed. You have to be able to improvise in today's NFL."
- Steve McNair
McNair's words ring true to this day, but never more than in the dying moments of that game at Adelphia Coliseum. Lost in the madness of that finale were the efforts of a relentless defensive effort, and the gritty play of McNair and George in particular.
"He's like the captain of the ship. As Steve goes, so this team goes."
- Titans Wide Receiver, Derrick Mason
The play propelled the Titans into the AFC Divisional Playoffs against the Indianapolis Colts, who were led by second year starter Peyton Manning. The Titans, led by McNair and a huge day by Eddie George, outlasted the Colts in a 19-16 win. The following game saw the Titans roll over the 14-2 Jacksonville Jaguars for the third time that season in the AFC Championship Game; a convincing 33-14 win that launched Tennessee into the Super Bowl.
The subsequent loss in Super Bowl XXXIV was tough on the Titans, but none more than McNair. Despite a spur of late-game heroics (and one of the most impressive Super Bowl plays of all time), McNair and his team fell one yard short. It immediately prompted a renewed desire to return to the big game, an aspiration he was not afforded again in his pro football career.
"The sense of urgency is real for me, because the window of opportunity is closing. Gotta get back to the Super Bowl, gotta get back there an win it."
- Steve McNair
Those words, though never realized, encapsulate McNair's persona. He was a leader before anything else, and would fight tooth and nail for his crew. During McNair's career in Tennessee, teammates remarked about his off the field demeanor; one that was grateful and happy and generous.
"He wasn't just a leader, he was a confidence builder. He had this even-keeled demeanor about him that let you know he was in control at all times. He was also the nicest and one of the most caring people off the field. He would bump into a stranger after a game while we were having dinner would be asked to come talk to the team or at a camp. To their surprise, he would actually show up out of the blue."
- Titans Safety, Blaine Bishop
Titans fans laid out a heroes welcome for their team upon their return to Nashville following the Super Bowl defeat. The Titans rewarded McNair with a new deal; six years and $47 million.
The following year, McNair repeated his goals of returning to the post-season. He led a team that was arguably superior to the Super Bowl squad of the year prior, to a 13-3 record, including physically dominating wins over most all they encountered. McNair led the Titans to the NFL's best record, with their three losses coming by a combined seven points. The team waltzed in the playoffs as the league's best team, only to falter when they arrived.
The 2000 Tennessee Titans would go down as one of the most heartbreaking of teams. Despite out gaining the Baltimore Ravens by 317 to 134 yards, tripling their first down count (23 to 6), and doubling their time of possession(40:29 to 19.31), they fell to their divisional rivals all the same. The team wasn't the same following the loss.
Despite a career year from Steve McNair in the season that followed (3350 passing yards, 21 TDs, 5 rushing TDs), the Titans managed only seven wins, and snapped their playoff berth streak that they had held since 1998. With a bruised and battered McNair and Eddie George, the team struggled. McNair was named to the Pro Bowl, but opted to stay away from the game with a lingering shoulder injury.
"Pain is Steve's friend,. It's his motivation, his cape. He becomes Super Steve. We knew when he's hurt, he's going to play better."
- Titans Defensive End, Jevon Kearse
McNair rallied the Titans in 2002, leading them back to the postseason with an 11-5 record. With a newly healthy McNair and Eddie George, the Titans got back to their steam-rolling ways. They barged back into the playoffs on the back of Steve McNair's arm, with a physical win over Pittsburgh Steelers. The trail was de-railed in a loss to the Oakland Raiders in Conference Championship, however. Pundits bemoaned the closing window of opportunity for Steve McNair and his Tennessee Titans, but the Mississippi QB wasn't done yet.
"If you were going to put together a list of all the things you can't coach - poise, ability to lead, competitiveness, responsibility - he (Steve McNair) has them all."
- Former Titans Head Coach, Jeff Fisher
Despite missing two games in the following year, McNair threw for over 3200 yards, 24 TDs and only 7 Ints, becoming the youngest player to ever pass for 20,000 yards and rush for 3000 yards. The Titans ended the season with a 12-4 record, tying that of their divisional rival Indianapolis Colts. Steve McNair shared more than win count with the Colts that year. He was named Co-MVP of the NFL along with Peyton Manning. In no-love-lost playoff game against the Ravens, the Titans prevailed in sensational fashion, avenging the bad loss a few years prior. Despite a close loss in the bitter cold to Tom Brady and his New England Patriots the week following, McNair had elevated himself to the highest rungs of honor in the NFL. His fearless style had made him a household name.
"He picked his spots, because he knew those hits take a toll. He saw the field more. Those are the ways he evolved."
- Titans Tight End, Frank Wycheck
The Titans front office at the time, headed by Floyd Reese, had opted to restructure McNair's contract several times in the years that followed. The result was an almost unmanageable cap liability. With two straight years of losing the Alcorn State product to season ending injuries, the Titans front office feared having to pay out his entire salary, a whopping $23.46 million dollars. In response, the team did the unthinkable to fans; locked McNair out of the facility.
After intervention on behalf of the players association, McNair and the team were able to compromise, but not by keeping him around, by trading him to another franchise. Steve McNair played very well for the Baltimore Ravens in the year that followed, but the injuries returned again in 2007, and he announced his retirement from the NFL in the off-season afterwards.
"We are saddened and shocked to hear the news of Steve McNair's passing today. He was one of the finest players to play for our organization and one of the most beloved players by our fans. He played with unquestionaed heart and leadership and led us to places that we have never reached, including our only Super Bowl. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family as they deal with his untimely passing."
- Titans Owner, Bud Adams
On July 4th, 2009, the body of Steve McNair was found, shot to death, in an apartment he rented, the victim of an apparent murder-suicide. The news sent shock waves through Tennessee, and the entire NFL. On a day that is oft sleepy on the NFL calender, news stations and sports networks alike scrambled for details on the tragic event.
Sahel Kazemi had been the shooter; a young girl McNair had met at a restaurant where she waited tables. People in McNair's circle were blindsided. The lights began to shine into McNair's marriage, and confusion abounded. Friends and family were reeling in the following months, most having few words or explanations.
Most barely knew who Sahel was, or had never heard of her at all. It became a media frenzy, journalists and fans searching for answers right alongside the Nashville Police Dept. What they found yielded no better explanation of the events than when the news had first broken. Like the McNair family, Nashville was shell-shocked.
But when the lights finally died down, it was clear that those gunshots had left a hole in Nashville, a gaping wound in the lore of Titan football that would not be easily sutured.
The massive waves of people who turned out for his memorial at LP field was testament to the impact he had on the lives of football fans everywhere, as they watched career highlights of days gone by, remembering the man who had brought their football team to the pinnacle of NFL power, and given his time and money to help those in the community.
"I don't think there was a player who played with him or against him that didn't look up to and respect him."
- Former Titans GM, Floyd Reese, on Steve McNair
In each July 4th that passes, there is the lingering memory of that terrible event, but more than that, a memorial of a local hero who changed Tennessee football forever, and gave selflessly of himself without the incentive of reward or recognition; true charity.
"The guy's as talented as any quarterback who has ever played the game."
- Former NFL Quarterback, Randall Cunningham on Steve McNair
I was able to catch up with and interview Titans legend Keith Bulluck, who had the privilege of playing alongside the indomitable Steve McNair in Tennessee. Bulluck was of course able to put together a highly impressive career of his own in Tennessee. Below are some of the questions I asked, and his answers;
What did you think when you first met Steve McNair?
"Steve was a quiet leader. As a rookie coming in 2000, Steve set the example. What spoke loudest was his actions. I played with guys like Donovan McNabb in college, and McNair was nothing like him. He didn't need to be loud to get his point across. Steve put it all on the field, and when he spoke, you listened. That was obvious from early on."
What was he like in the locker room when the cameras were turned off? What do you remember most about him off the field?
"He took care of the rookies. He was always inviting the younger guys to events, opening his home to them for family barbecues. I think that surprised me a lot, coming from where I did. Lots of guys in the pros aren't like that. When they aren't in the facility, they go home in privacy. He taught us younger guys how to give back the community, how to be a pro."
What is your best memory of Steve McNair?
"The conversation I had with him my first year starting. He sat next to me one game on the bench, and told me how proud he was of me, proud of how I was helping out the team. That's what was important to him, I asked him if he thought I was being 'too brash'. He just told me 'Be yourself, enjoy the game. Because when it's all over, it's over. No matter what, football will take it's course.' Even before I was starting, as a younger guy, he was always giving advise to us. He took us under his wing. I never forgot that."
What did he mean to the city of Nashville?
"He was their first real hero. When you think of the Tennessee Titans, he's the one that comes to mind, he's the one that took the team on his back. I remember how he played for us in the AFC Championship game against the Oakland Raiders. He was playing lights out, getting beat up, fighting hard for the team. We on defense felt bad that we couldn't match his performance in that game. I think I regret that more than anything during my career."
What do you admire most about the way he played?
"From the quarterback position, you're not expected to be tough. Steve was tough. I remember during a game against Kansas City; he got hit really hard into the equipment chest on the sidelines, but he just popped up like it was nothing. His toughness set the bar, and he set it really high. It set him apart. I cracked my ribs at one point and I was in the trainer's room. He told me 'Steve played with it'. I thought, 'well now I have to play.' When you're QB is the toughest guy on the team, that makes you play hard for him, makes you want to win for him."
It was obvious speaking to Keith, and to others who knew Steve and watched him play, that he was an important person to them, a guy who had influenced them profoundly, and whose loss affects to this day.
In the end, there is an unmistakable legacy that Steve McNair left behind; a lingering power that has prevailed even when his life did not. He stands as a legend of the game, and nowhere greater is that presence felt than in the hearts of fans who watched him valiantly play week in and week out, and in the teammates who had the privilege of playing alongside him. McNair was a hero to the people of Nashville, and to the state of Tennessee, but even heroes are human. It's the great deeds he did, on and off the field, that remind us of that fact; that we are called to a higher purpose, that there is no greater a gift than being able to positively influence those around you.
"No quarterback, no player comes to mind who's played through the injuries and the tough situations as he has. The numbers don't describe what he is as a player."
- Former NFL Quarterback, Broadcaster, Phil Simms
When the book was suddenly closed on McNair's life story, it hit those around it like an earthquake. But it's his memory that lives on in those friends and family, his teammates and his fans, that illuminate the greatness within. Steve McNair stands atop this Pantheon Of Titans as a man first and foremost; a fearless leader who sacrificed his body every week to win, to prove he was the player, and the individual, that those around him expected him to be.
Now five years removed from his untimely death, it is up to us to carry on his memory to future generations of Titans fans, to foster and encourage those same virtues of hard-work, leadership, and bravery. He may be gone, but the legend of No. 9 will live on, and his legacy will go down as one of the greatest in the history of the NFL. "Air McNair" will never be forgotten.
A massive thank-you to:
Blaine Bishop and Keith Bulluck