I remember the first time I saw Steve McNair play.
It was 1999, the same year that he would lead the Tennessee Titans on an impropable run to Super Bowl XXXIV. McNair's Titans were battling the Indianapolis Colts and their new young superstar, Peyton Manning.
I only tuned in because the week before, the Titans dispatched the Buffalo Bills on an impossible play that was not really a play at all, but more like a random bunch of laterals. The "Music City Miracle" got the media's attention, despite the fact that team's two best players, McNair and Eddie George, were not involved.
So, I watched to see some of the fireworks that the networks promised. Both teams boasted solid defensive units, so naturally both teams offenses struggled. But McNair, who the announcers kept calling "Air" for some reason, was abysmal. Indy's D was not that good, but the guy could only put up 112 yards threw the air. Had it not been for Eddie George's 162 yards rushing, Tennessee would not have had a chance.
I could not help but think what seemed to be so obvious, "this guy sucks."
The Titans went on to win 19-16, but who cared. Surely the Jaguars, armed to the teeth with Mark Brunell, James Stewart, Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell, and Fred Taylor would easily dispatch the team who had barely eeked out its two previous games.
I ignored the AFC Championship Game, and never saw the 33-14 beatdown that McNair and his 91 yards rushing would lay on the Jags.
Though distraught over my beloved Bucs falling to the media darling St. Louis Rams, I tuned in to Super Bowl XXXIV. I expected little. No way the Titans and their mediocre passing game could outscore the "Greatest Show on Turf".
But during that game, I learned why they called Steve McNair, a quarterback who had failed to throw more than 112 yards in any game in the postseason, "Air".
Down 16-0 halfway through the third quarter, the Titans staged a furious comeback. Though it was not really by the Titans, but by McNair himself. Never had I seen an entire team energized by one man. Sportscasters and announcers commonly refer to star players putting the team "on their back", but the term is rarely appropriately used; with McNair, it was.
It was like he grabbed every single Titan by their pads, pressed his forehead to theirs, and grumbled "We're not done, yet!" In that epic fourth quarter, the defense was faster, the wideouts hit their routes with more precision, and McNair ran the ball with a ferocity that you rarely see in a running back.
The Titans lost that game on the historic stop on Kevin Dyson one inch shy of the goal line, but no one but McNair could have gotten that close. That's why they called him "Air."
His nickname did not come from his passing stats (although he did throw for 31,304 yards with 174 scores over 13 years). Nor was it for his rushing stats (despite a rather guady 3,590).
Steve "Air" McNair was such because he could simply make his team soar.
He possessed a leadership that is rare in life, let alone sports. He played with a toughness that made the men he played with and against, some of the most powerful athletes in the world, seem like wimps.
I remember a game in 2003, his co-MVP year along with Peyton Manning, which he came in with a laundry list of injuries, including an ailing back and a sprained wrist. Despite that he probably felt closer to being actually hit by a train then any of us will ever experience, he played just as hard as he did in that Super Bowl loss. You winced everytime he scrambled out of the pocket and upfield, only to endure a bone-jarring tackle for his trouble. But I marveled at his strength.
It was these qualities that have built the legend of "Air" McNair much better then his stats, 3 Pro Bowls, League MVP, or top 3 draft pick status ever could.
No quarterback today exhibits those qualities. No one has the toughness to endure injury upon injury. None can carry their team from the depths of failure and pull them to victory(sorry, Donovan McNabb). And, no offense to Brett Favre and other extremely competitive players, I have never seen someone so willing to do absolutely anything to win a game.
On July 4th, 2009, football lost a great icon. It lost a player that fathers should show old tapes of to their kids, hoping that they will play like McNair.
Today, football copes with the loss of a guy who would inevitably become a coach. Probably a great coach. The kind of coach that pushes his players to the next level. The kind of coach that takes a 5th round pick, oozing with ability but no polish, and builds him into a not only a good player, but a good man as well.
Today, football players, larger then life athletes characterized by their strength and tenacity, cry over the loss of a comrade.
Today, football lost some of its "air."