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Steve McNair’s story is so much more than its tabloid ending

His death only magnified the incredible talent he displayed in college and the NFL

It never feels right when The Steve McNair Story starts at the end. Then again, it feels even weirder that McNair’s story already has an ending.

McNair’s July 2009 murder, on Independence Day no less, reverberated throughout the NFL community. There were the uncomfortable details that emerged in the days, weeks and months after the tragedy — most notoriously that the young woman who shot him in his sleep and then took her own life was, in fact, his mistress.

There was speculation as to what led to McNair’s life ending only a year after his retirement from the NFL. He struggled, according to those close to him, to fill a void without football. “What people fail to realize is that when you make a transition away from the game — emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually — you go through something,” his former Tennessee Titans teammate Eddie George told CNN. “You change, and you’re constantly searching for something.”

But McNair’s story is so much more than the tabloid ending. His death only magnified his impact on the field.

That’s a story tracing back to the campus of Alcorn State University in Mississippi, the historically black college (HBCU) some 90 minutes southwest of the state capital of Jackson. It was here McNair became a larger-than-life figure. He attended the HBCU after refusing to convert to defensive back (despite being more accomplished as a defender in high school) because Division I schools wanted him to. By the fall of 1994, he had surpassed his older brother (and current Alcorn head coach) Fred, who had been praised as the “greatest quarterback to come through the SWAC [Southwestern Athletic Conference].” He was, as Sports Illustrated dubbed him, “the best quarterback — black or white, big school or small — in college football.” The numbers didn’t lie.

During McNair’s senior season, he racked up video game numbers. If they’re possible even there. His aerial assault tallied 5,377 yards and 47 touchdowns. For good measure, he added 904 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Dubbed “Air McNair,” his dominance caught the attention of an entire country well outside HBCU football.

“Steve McNair is the best football player I’ve ever seen. … He’d be the best player on Colorado’s team or Nebraska’s team, too. He’d be the best player on any team in Division I-A. He’s that good,” said Troy University head coach Steve Blakeney in November ’94. McNair’s 476 yards in the air and 110 on the ground in a 47-44 win for Alcorn over Troy left no doubt. “He can do more to beat you with his abilities than anyone else I’ve ever seen. That includes Bo [Jackson, whom Blakeney coached at Auburn].”

His play led him to rarefied air. The Heisman Trophy has been awarded every year since 1935. Only three athletes from HBCUs were Heisman finalists: Grambling’s Doug Williams in 1977, Mississippi Valley State’s Jerry Rice in 1984 and McNair, who received 111 first-place votes, in 1994. McNair placed third behind Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam and Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter. But he was the only candidate with a rap video — created by Alcorn students and appropriately titled “Hand Him The Heisman.”

McNair continued to make history the next spring by becoming the third overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers. He is the last HBCU quarterback drafted in the first round. The man dubbed “Air McNair” in college found himself grounded during his early years in the league. He made six starts in his first two seasons. However, the franchise’s relocation to Nashville, Tennessee, for the start of the 1997 season came with new opportunities for McNair. Although he wasn’t yet the focal point of the offense — that was running back George — McNair’s quiet, workmanlike approach to the game captivated his teammates and soon thereafter the city of Nashville.

“When I got to the team, Eddie George was the man. They were still trying to phase Mac in. That’s when they used to take their time with quarterbacks,” said former Oilers/Titans receiver Kevin Dyson. That all changed during the storybook 1999 season. “When we got on that Super Bowl run, it was Eddie’s team with a dose of Mac. Then Mac just kinda balanced the pendulum and it became his team as well. We relied on him.”

McNair, Dyson and the Titans were a team of destiny. They went 13-3 with moments that have tattooed themselves in football lore. Dyson’s improbable game-winning kick return against the Buffalo Bills instantly cemented itself as the “Music City Miracle.” The images of Dyson sprinting around the field in utter amazement and disbelief are as clear as yesterday — as are McNair’s arms extended into the air.

Yet, it’s what the two didn’t achieve that famously bookended the season. With less than 10 seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXXIV against Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and the St. Louis Rams, McNair found Dyson for a slant route, which would have tied the game. Dyson was tackled a yard short of the end zone.

“Honestly, we didn’t even talk about it,” Dyson said in retrospect. “It was just the elephant in the room. We just never dwelled on it. We were just in shock that we didn’t get it done.”

McNair’s legend, though, continued to evolve. He was the franchise quarterback who took the responsibility seriously. Perhaps more than the Super Bowl, more than his 2003 co-MVP season with Peyton Manning, the fourth-quarter heroics or the respect he commanded in his swan song in Baltimore, McNair’s most valuable quality was simply just being there through incredible circumstances.

His fellow Mississippian and good friend Brett Favre is immortalized as football’s ultimate iron man. But McNair’s toughness was, in many ways, his calling card too. “You name the injury and Steve had it, and he still showed up. Not only did he show up, but he showed up and played extremely well,” George said. “For most of his days in Tennessee he played like that. In his MVP year he played most of the year hurt. It is a testament to his willingness to win and how he sacrificed his body for the team.”

Injuries were a constant narrative in his career. So much so that his wife, Mechelle, would yell at offensive linemen during games demanding they protect her husband. McNair’s most famous injury came in a September 2004 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He played through the bitter pain of a bruised sternum. The injury never healed during the season and would be reinjured twice more, but he managed to play for five additional games.

Dyson calls him the toughest teammate he’s ever played alongside. He remembers his friend as the ultimate warrior. “When you see your quarterback literally not even practicing for weeks on end and go out there and perform at a high level, you almost don’t complain,” he said. “You’ll find a way to get out there too. It’s infectious.”

McNair was traded to the Baltimore Ravens in 2006. He’d lead the team to a franchise-best 13-3 record and was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl. His late-career renaissance would only prove momentary. In April 2008, McNair retired, saying, “Physically, I couldn’t do it anymore.” Air McNair had taken his last flight, finishing with 31,304 yards and 174 touchdowns in 13 years. Less than a week later, the Ravens would draft quarterback Joe Flacco.

And 14 months later, McNair would fall asleep on his couch and never wake up. Many questions still remain about his life’s final moments, most of which may never be completely answered. Part of the myth surrounding McNair is the mystery that comes with him. By nearly every account, he was an incredible father, husband, brother and teammate. He was a man who sought clarity after losing the game that helped create his legend and simultaneously break him via a multitude of injuries that would have sidelined mere mortals for months.

McNair’s final football resting place could be Canton, Ohio, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Or should be, according to those who lined up alongside him. “I think Mac transcends what the game is,” Dyson said. “If you’re not basing it off of numbers and you’re basing it off of his play, what he meant to a city, franchise and teammates. I guarantee you, ask the guys from Baltimore and they’ll tell you the exact same thing. You ask Ray Lewis and he’d tell you the same thing. What he meant to guys, he definitely needs to be in that conversation to be in there.”

Steve LaTreal McNair was not named one of the 25 semifinalists for the Hall’s class of 2018. For now, his legacy remains in the care of family, friends, former teammates and fans who love him, but undoubtedly miss him most.

Liner Notes

The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the big game.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.