As more details of his July 4 murder and its backstory are coming to light, Steve McNair’s sterling legacy may take a bigger hit than he ever suffered on the field. It’s not as bad as the revelations of baseball Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett’s troubles but it will feel just as surprising.
He and his female companion Sahel Kazemi may have been dating prior to July 4 and for a man known for his commitment to family and community work, it’s a shock that will reverberate for some time.
Regardless of what is revealed in the coming days and months, what McNair did on the field cannot be questioned and the legacy he carved there will be one to remember.
McNair was a quarterback that would have made the late Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson proud. When the Hall of Fame coach wanted a Black quarterback to succeed in the 1960’s – he groomed men like James “Shack” Harris and later Doug Williams to succeed on the next level, knowing that one day future Black signal callers would get opportunities on their behalf.
In the early 1990’s, “Air McNair” was that beneficiary. A product of Alcorn State University, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated and finished his record-setting career with a third-place finish in the 1994 Heisman Trophy race – the best ever for an HBCU product.
He started his career coming off the bench to lead the Braves on a game-winning drive as a freshman in 1991 and ended it with his career with the Walter Payton Award as the Division I-AA player of the year and a division record 16,823 career total yards to go along with more than a dozen records.
More than his numbers, he helped put the Mississippi HBCU (Historically Black College and University) on the map and as a result -other schools got attention as well. Even then, McNair was a team player who elevated others with his efforts.
Drafted No. 3 overall by the Houston Oilers in 1995 – the highest position for a Black quarterback at the time -he succeeded another pioneer in Warren Moon and took the franchise to a higher level than Moon did.
His tenure will be defined by two seasons. First, the 1999 season that ended in Super Bowl XXXIV where McNair led a brilliant final drive that fell one yard short of a touchdown. A drive that showed his skills as a passer and a runner.
Second, his 2003 season that ended with him leading the NFL in passer rating (100.4) and sharing the MVP award with Peyton Manning. It would be his last taste of success with the Titans before he left for Baltimore in 2006.
One last year of success soon followed – a 13-3 season in 2006 with a second round playoff defeat to Indianapolis. But by his retirement in April 2008, his legacy was sound.
He’ll be remembered as a winner, leaving the Titans as the franchise leader in wins (76). He’ll be remembered for his numbers, joining Hall of Famers Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young as the only men to have thrown for 30,000 yards while running for over 3,500.
But it was his toughness that will define his football legacy. In a league where the label “warrior” is a more honorable than “superstar,” McNair earned it every time on the field.
He not only played through pain – stories abound of how little he would practice during the week before a game because of some injury – but thrived with it.
For him, it was simply remembering the words that stuck with him in high school coach. He told USA Today in 2004, “My coach told me that when you’re in pain, you tend to stay more focused on what you have to do. I took that to heart, and I think that’s how I play now. I can just concentrate better when I’m playing in pain.”
His success paved the way for future Black quarterbacks including Donovan McNabb, Jason Campbell and Vince Young, who followed McNair at Tennessee and described him as a “mentor” since he was a teenager.
Regardless of how his life ended and the turn of events that may have led up to it, McNair’s legacy on the field will remain intact.