Steve McNair: From Small-Time College to Big-Time NFL Success

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Steve McNair: From Small-Time College to Big-Time NFL Success
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

When I think of Steve McNair, who was eight days younger than I am, I think of myself back in 1994 when I loved to call talk radio shows.

McNair was a finalist that year for the Heisman Trophy, and I called the show to say McNair should not win the Heisman. After all, he came from a Division I-AA school, the kind of place you go only when you're not good enough for Division I football or if you can't make the grades up there.

"Giving McNair the Heisman would be like giving an NFL MVP award to a semi-pro, or like giving a baseball MVP to a minor leaguer," I said.

Man, was I ever wrong.

That year, McNair finished third in the Heisman voting behind two men who would go on to have Hall of Fame careers in the NFL—second-place Ki-Jana Carter from Penn State and winner Rashaan Salaam of Colorado.

No, wait! Correction! Carter's career was cut short by injuries while Salaam, who later acknowledged a marijuana addiction, displayed a disturbing propensity for fumbling the ball. It got so bad the Bears told him to give the ball directly to the referees after every play. Despite a good rookie season, Salaam later washed out of the NFL.

Looking at the top-10 list from that year, besides McNair there were only two others who've had great NFL careers. Fourth place Kerry Collins of Penn State and sixth place Warren Sapp of Miami (Florida). Also on this list are names I don't recognize due to rapid fades into obscurity (such as Alabama's Jay Barker or Georgia's Eric Zeier) along with names of those who are famous for being infamous (such as Nebraska's Lawrence Phillips).

McNair, we know, was drafted by the Houston Oilers with the third pick in the 1995 NFL draft. Nothing much to report, except that he led the Tennessee Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV, went to three Pro Bowls, was All-Pro once, threw 174 touchdowns against 119 interceptions, had 31,304 yards passing, and had an impressive 60.1 career completion percentage.

In short, when I look at the tragedy that is McNair's untimely death, I see a man who proved that success in the NFL doesn't have as much to do with where you played college football as it does do you have the skills needed to survive in the NFL. Sure, I had no idea where Alcorn State was before McNair entered the picture, but countless college football players from the Big Ten, Pac-10, Big 12 and SEC conferences have flopped miserably in the NFL.

R.I.P., Steve.

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