Credit to Bleacher Report Dallas Cowboys community leader James Williamson for help with this article.
On Saturday, July 4, the world lost a very good man when former Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Steve McNair was shot to death behind a market in downtown Nashville, Tenn. McNair played 13 seasons in the National Football League, 11 with the Titans, and two with the Ravens. In 161 games, he threw for 31,304 yards, 174 touchdowns, and 119 interceptions. He threw for 27,141 yards with the Titans, second most in Titans history, was named to three Pro Bowls and won 2003 NFL MVP.
McNair was born on Feb. 14, 1973, in Mount Olive, Miss. Steve played many sports early in life, but he knew football was where his future would be. He was an athletic player, but also had an extraordinary throwing arm, which led him to starring as a quarterback in high school. He would often come home with bumps, bruises, cuts, but he seemed to enjoy the pain. Steve entered Mount Olive High School as a 14-year old in 1987. He played four sports (baseball, basketball, football, and track), and even got drafted by the Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates, but because he wanted to become an NFL quarterback one day, he refused the offers both times.
As a junior, Steve led Mount Olive to a state championship, and as a senior, broke all of his brother's school records. He played both offense and defense, quarterback on offense and safety on the defensive side of the ball. In 1990, he intercepted 15 passes, and was named an All-American by Super Prep Magazine. Steve was recruited heavily by schools like Florida State, but every school who recruited him wanted him to play safety. However, Steve's dream was to be an NFL quarterback, not safety. Then, his only choice was to go to nearby Alcorn State University, where Steve would accept a scholarship offer.
Steve felt comfortable signing on with ASU because head coach Cardell Jones had all the confidence in him, and McNair would be able to flourish in a shotgun offense. As a freshman, he did just that. He gained 3,199 yards of offense and posted a record of 7-2-1, exceeding even Jones' expectations for him. As a sophomore, he broke out, throwing for 3,541 yards and 29 touchdowns and showed his athleticism, running for 10 more scores. The Alcorn State Braves finished 7-4, but McNair was certainly a bright spot. By this time, McNair was already earning high praise from NFL draft analysts.
In 1993, the Braves finished 8-3, and McNair threw for over 3,000 yards and tossed 30 touchdown passes, and his draft status was getting higher and higher each day. Despite being at a little-known Alcorn State school, he was a Heisman Candidate, finishing third. In Steve McNair style, he played the season through mental pain, as his grandmother Hattie had died. He dominated in his senior year, and NFL scouts had seen enough. Teams were intrigued by his toughness—mental and physical—athleticism and great character. The team most interested? The Houston Oilers. The Oilers took him with the third overall pick of the 1995 draft, and signed him to a seven year, $28 million contract.
In typical Steve McNair fashion, the first thing he did with the money was buy his mother a new house. The house was at the same location in which she picked cotton as a young girl. As a rookie, he didn't play very much at all, appearing in four games, going 41-of-80 with 569 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. He was playing behind Chris Chandler, who threw for 2,460 yards and 17 touchdowns in 1995. The Oilers coaching staff admired his ability to handle being a backup and not complain. The staff wanted him to get chances, and he threw for nearly 1,200 yards in 1996, along with six touchdowns and four interceptions.
Following the team's move to Tennessee in 1997, McNair became the full-time starting quarterback. He had a respectable season in '97, throwing for 2,665 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. He not only didn't throw many interceptions, he ran for 674 yards along with eight touchdowns, and the future looked up for "Air" McNair. The following year, Steve and the Tennessee Oilers made names for themselves. Steve threw for 3,228 yards and 15 touchdowns, had 289 completions, and led the newly-named Titans to an 8-8 record. While it wasn't elite, the future was clearly looking up for Steve, and the team as a whole.
In 1999, the future officially arrived. Steve battled through 11 regular season games, throwing for 2,179 yards, 12 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He led the Titans to a 13-3 record, and helped the Titans to playoff wins over the Bills (also known as the Music City Miracle), Colts, and Jaguars. In the Super Bowl, he fell to the NFC Champion St. Louis Rams, but had a solid game, going 22-of-36 with 214 yards, and running for 64 yards on just eight attempts. He even threw a complete pass with seconds left to Kevin Dyson, but the wide receiver was tackled by Rams linebacker Mike Jones, thus ending the game. His great effort in the Super Bowl gave the Titans reason to give him a new contract, signing him to a six year, $47 million deal. In 2000, the Titans picked up where they left off, finishing the year 13-3 again.
McNair didn't have a dynamite year, throwing for 2,847 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, but he was 12-3 as a starter and made the plays when needed. He could make them through the air or on the ground. The Titans again fell short in the playoffs, losing to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round, 24-10. A McNair pass to running back Eddie George was bobbled—into the hands of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, and that sealed the deal on the game. However, McNair was having quite a start to his career. He didn't have especially flashy career statistics after the year was over (12,685 yards, 65 TD's, 49 INT's), but had a record of 41-23, and that's the statistic that matters most.
The next year, McNair made a name for himself as a truly solid passer. For a disappointing 7-9 Titans team, he threw for 3,350 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, his best statistical season to date. However, the Titans were just 7-8 under McNair, and his job description was to lead the Titans to the playoffs. He was eager to do that in 2002. That he did. McNair didn't miss a game, throwing for 3,387 yards, 22 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, leading the Titans to an 11-5 record and AFC South division crown. He led the Titans to one playoff win, but they were crushed in their second postseason game by the Oakland Raiders, 41-24.
The next year, he had his best campaign to date, throwing for 3,215 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The 2001, 2002 and 2003 seasons showed why the Titans tabbed him with the third overall pick in 1995. The Titans won the AFC South again, but yet again, fell short in the playoffs. After the year, McNair took home his own award, winning NFL MVP for the 2003 NFL season. The next year was a very disappointing one for Air McNair and the Titans as a whole. McNair, as usual, battled injuries, starting just eight games, winning three of them, and following a string of successful years, the Titans finished 5-11 in 2004.
That's when things went downhill between McNair and the Titans. The Titans went 4-12 the next year despite McNair throwing for 3,161 yards and 16 touchdowns, and following that season, the Titans traded McNair to the Baltimore Ravens, ending a very storied 11-year marriage. McNair made an instant impact in Baltimore. Despite coming in late and having to adjust to the playbook, McNair led the Ravens to a 13-3 record, throwing for 3,050 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. He didn't have the legs to make plays on the run anymore, but still had the intelligence of the game.
McNair wasn't able to get anything done in the playoffs, going 18-of-29 with 173 yards and two interceptions in a 15-6 divisional round loss to the Colts. His counterpart in that game, Peyton Manning, had kind words to offer after the passing of McNair. "Steve McNair was one of the greatest competitors I've ever played against. I'll always remember playing against him. Many of our defensive players always talked about what a huge challenge it was having to play against him. He and I had some great battles against each other."
The next season, McNair battled injuries yet again. In six games, he was 133-of-205 with 1,113 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions. After the season, he elected to retire. But it was no façade. He said he wanted to retire to spend time with his family. He did just that.
McNair is known for his toughness, both mental and physical, and I would bet any amount of money he fought as hard as he could to survive the gun wounds. “The football thing was one thing and I remember his playing days, but just the human being. He brought so much joy to so many people. He was a consummate pro and he was a gentleman. He was a great father. He raised his boys very well, they are well behaved. His legacy will live on,” former teammate Eddie George said.
Steve didn't deserve what he got on July 4, 2009. Rest in peace, Steve "Air" McNair. You made Titans fans happy. You made Oilers fans happy. You made Ravens fans happy. You made NFL fans happy. And most of all, you made your family happy. My thoughts go out to them.
After passing, ESPN ran a feature on him, and Jeremy Schad had some very fine words to offer. "McNair lived his entire life under the spotlight, but was decidedly uncontroversial. He was basically the model athlete, which makes his violent death all the more incomprehensible.”
R.I.P. Steve McNair.