As sports fans, we never truly know our heroes. Even when we get to meet them off the field, we never truly get a chance to meet the real them.
Never has this been so drastically exemplified than in the death of former NFL player and Mississippi legend Steve McNair. One year ago today, on the Fourth of July, McNair was found dead in a condo along with his mistress, Sahel Kazemi, in a murder/suicide.
For me, McNair’s death runs deeper than being found in a condo with a woman he was having an affair with. For me, this story truly begins in 1991 and McNair’s college decision.
McNair was courted by several powerhouse football programs all over the country. The only problem was, Steve wanted to play quarterback and these big time programs wanted him to play defensive back.
To help make this decision, Steve turned to his older brother Fred McNair. Fred steered Steve to Alcorn State University, a historically black college where he would get a chance to play quarterback.
For those who do not know anything about Alcorn State, it is a Division 1AA school in Lorman, Mississippi. The Braves of Alcorn State play in the SWAC conference.
The SWAC conference is no stranger to greatness. Fellow member schools Jackson State produced Walter Payton and Mississippi Valley State produced Jerry Rice. Both men are NFL and Mississippi legends.
It did not take McNair long to establish himself as a college football star. The future Alcorn legend was breaking records his freshman year at the school.
McNair was given the nickname Steve “Air II” McNair. He was Air II was because his bother Fred was the original Air. McNair improved at an exponential rate, so much so, that by the end of his junior year, everyone questioned if he would stay at Alcorn or test the NFL waters.
McNair decided to return for his senior year at Alcorn. What a treat that year was for football fans all across Mississippi. McNair would gain nearly 6,000 yards rushing and passing, accrue 53 touchdowns and break more than a dozen records while being named an All-American.
Off the field, McNair would win the coveted Walter Payton Award as the best Division 1AA player in the country. On the field, he would lead Alcorn State to the 1AA playoffs.
While SWAC teams had never done well in the 1AA playoffs, never winning a game and now not even sending their champion to the playoffs, McNair would play valiantly with a pulled hamstring in a 63-20 loss.
He would throw for 514 yards and three touchdowns in that loss. The game proved to NFL scouts that McNair could play in the NFL, though it ended his chances at a Heisman Trophy.
In a strange twist of fate, McNair finished third in Heisman voting behind Rashaan Salaam and Ki-Jana Carter.
Salaam would be drafted in 1995 by the Chicago Bears with the 21st pick in the first round. He played three seasons with the team but was never able to match his rookie season. Injuries and fumbles led to Salaam being a journeyman player for three other NFL teams, the XFL, and the Canadian Football League.
Carter’s NFL career would be derailed before it even started after being drafted with the first pick in the first round by the Cincinnati Bengals. Carter would see his rookie season end with a knee injury in Bengals first preseason game on his third carry. He would never regain his ability after he tore ligaments in his knee. He bounced around the NFL until 2004 with three teams beside the Bengals.
McNair would be drafted with the third overall pick by the Houston Oilers in the 1995 draft.
McNair would spend his rookie season in 1995 holding a clipboard behind starter Chris Chandler. The only playing time McNair would see his rookie season was late in the season against the Detroit Lions and the New York Jets. In his second season in 1996, McNair again spent his time behind Chandler, until he started a game in December against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
After the 1996 season, the Oilers would move from Houston to Tennessee and McNair would get his chance to shine. The 1997 season was played at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis as the Oilers began their transition to Tennessee.
The team would finish 8-8 but McNair threw for 2,665 yards, the most since Warren Moon quarterbacked the Oilers. He also only had 13 interceptions, the fewest for a quarterback in franchise history. McNair also led the team in rushing touchdowns and finish second on the team with 674 rushing yards, the third highest in NFL history.
In his second season starting in 1998, McNair continued to improve as an NFL quarterback. He posted career highs in all statistical categories as the Oilers made their move to Nashville.
In 1999, the Oilers changed their name to the Titans and opened their new stadium Adelphia Coliseum.
The 1999 season would be the best season in Oilers/Titans history. It was also the beginning of McNair’s injury problems with an inflamed disk in his back. McNair needed surgery and the reins at quarterback were turned over to Neil O’Donnell, who would go 4-1 in McNair's absence.
McNair would return in time to help the Titans win seven of their final nine games as the team finished 13-3 and second place in the AFC Central. Tennessee would make the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
An amazing Tennessee playoff run began at home against the Buffalo Bills. The game ended on the “Music City Miracle.” The Titans and McNair marched all the way to Super Bowl XXXIV.
In that Super Bowl, McNair drove the Titans down the field in the final minutes in a 23-16 game. The rest of the country finally got to see McNair the way Mississippi and Tennessee fans had seen for years.
With no timeouts, six seconds left and the ball on the St. Louis ten yard line, McNair had one final chance to tie the ball game. McNair evaded defenders and passed the ball to Kevin Dyson who scrambled towards the goal line, only to be tackled by Mike Jones a yard short of the end zone, ending the game.
McNair continued to improve in the 2000 season. The Titans finished 13-3 once more but were eliminated by the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs. In his best season as pro, McNair would post career highs in passing yards (3,350) touchdowns (21) and quarterback rating (90.2).
McNair was named to his first Pro Bowl of his career in 2000. McNair and Tennessee made the playoffs again in 2001 with an 11-5 record, only to be eliminated by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 2004 and 2005 seasons were McNair’s final seasons with the Tennessee Titans. It was a season he spent battling injuries, though he was named to his final Pro Bowl in 2005.
McNair was traded to the Baltimore Ravens in 2006. In his first season in Baltimore, McNair led the Ravens to a 13-3 record and an AFC North title.
The 2006 season would end for McNair and the Ravens in a 15-6 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. McNair’s 2007 season was marred by injuries and he would only start six games for the Ravens.
After 13 NFL seasons, McNair announced his retirement in April of 2008. His career cut short by injuries because of his fearless playing style.
A little over a year later after retiring from the NFL, McNair was murdered.
McNair would be well known for his charitable work and his Steve McNair foundation. McNair spent his off seasons putting on football camps in Mississippi, with another Mississippi legend, Brett Favre.
Steve donated to the United Way and to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. There seemed to be no end to the heart and love shown by McNair to the causes close to his heart.
He was named to the Alcorn State Hall of Fame in 2005.
Some athletes off the field lives can lead you to see how their lives would be spent after their playing days were over. For McNair, the only negative press he would make would be two DUI arrests in 2002 and 2007.
No one could have possibly seen that an affair with the 20-year-old Kazemi would end in a double tragedy. Kazemi’s presumably murdered McNair because he was not going to leave his wife or he was having affairs with other women. Money was thought to be an issue as well, since Kazemi was falling deeper and deeper in debt.
No one will ever truly know the reason for the murder/suicide.
One year ago, I returned from a wonderful day with my family at a cookout and fireworks show. As I turned on my TV to ESPN, I saw the news scrolling across the screen.
The biggest star I had grown up with and seen play from high school to college to pro was dead at the age of 36. I was only 31.
Hearing the news broke my heart and I hoped his family would somehow find a way to heal. One year later. My mind still thinks of the news of McNair and the questions that will never been answered.