Instead, we have two options. Either we pack up and move to an NFL market or live vicariously through one that’s nearby. Judging by your jersey buying habits and your magnetic auto decals, it’s safe to say that most of you picked the Tennessee Titans.
Ever since the formerly inept Houston Oilers changed their name and moved to Nashville twelve years ago, they’ve functioned as a model organization – a Super Bowl run, six playoff appearances, only three losing seasons and just one head coach. Many of us here in pro football’s Dust Bowl were transfixed by their success and jumped on the bandwagon. Soon the Titans became our surrogate team, Jeff Fisher our surrogate coach, Steve McNair our surrogate quarterback.
By now – regardless of how much or how little obsessed you are with football – you should be familiar with the last name on that list. This past weekend produced one of those rare moments wherein CNN and ESPN each had cameras trained on the same story – the tragic and bizarre shooting death of McNair and his 20-year-old girlfriend Sahel Kazemi at McNair’s condominium in Nashville.
Their bodies were discovered around midday on July 4, roughly 12 hours after whatever happened to them happened. Nashville police have publicly waffled back and forth between double homicide and murder-suicide, but either way McNair was clearly the victim. A friend discovered his body sprawled across a couch; two gunshot wounds to the chest, two to the head. Lying nearby was Kazemi, felled by a single shot to the head. Underneath her frame was a semi-automatic pistol.
My job this week is not to delve into conspiracy, although there’s plenty of conspiracy to speculate on. My job this week isn’t to establish a motive, although motive remains unclear. Instead, my job is to aid in the remembrance of this 36-year-old former quarterback in an honest and thoughtful way.
McNair took the road less travel to NFL stardom, playing at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss. Despite toiling in near-total obscurity in Division I-AA, McNair – or “Air McNair” as he came to be known – built a ground-up reputation as a gritty gunslinger. His gaudy senior season numbers – roughly 6,000 yards of total offense and 53 touchdowns – earned the star athlete the coveted Walter Payton Award (given annually to I-AA’s top player) and a third-place finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Months later, then-Houston Oilers coach Jeff Fisher drafted McNair third overall in the 1995 NFL Draft, where he served as a backup for two seasons behind veteran Chris Chandler. In 1997, with the team playing in Memphis for a season while Nashville put the finishing touches on a new stadium, McNair led his team to an 8-8 record in his first season as a starter. More importantly, he proved that he could win in the NFL the same way he did in college, by both running and throwing the football.
Two years later, McNair led the re-branded Titans to the playoffs for the first time. Trailing Buffalo 16-15 with just seconds left in their first-round match-up, the Titans’ Lorenzo Neal fielded a Bills kickoff and handed the ball off to tight end Frank Wycheck. Wycheck then tossed a backwards lateral the width of the field back to wide receiver Kevin Dyson, who scored after a 75-yard sprint. The legality of the play, forever immortalized as the “Music City Miracle”, is debated still today. Regardless, the momentum it stirred propelled the Titans all the way to the Super Bowl in January 2000. There, playing against another Cinderella signal-caller (St Louis Rams star Kurt Warner), McNair and Dyson almost pulled off another miracle in the waning seconds, but came up one yard shy of the end zone and lost 23-16.
That game became a microcosm of McNair’s career, as he enjoyed success during his next five seasons in Tennessee, but ultimately fell short each year of the NFL’s ultimate prize. In 2006, he was traded to rival Baltimore, where he led the team to a 13-3 record and the AFC North Championship. But his body, which had begun failing him during his final seasons in Nashville, ultimately forced him out of the game for good in April 2008 after 13 seasons in the NFL.
McNair’s legacy is that of a top-flight quarterback destined for a bust in pro football’s Hall of Fame. He finished with 2,733 completions on 4,544 attempts – 60.1 percent – for 31,304 yards, 174 touchdowns and 119 interceptions. McNair was just as dangerous outside the pocket as inside, accumulating 3,590 yards and 37 touchdowns on 669 carries.
He was the last of the truly great dual-threat quarterbacks; strong pocket passers who are a threat to run the ball as well. Before Michael Vick and Vince Young – two runners who occasionally threatened to pass – there was Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Steve Young, Donovan McNabb (who has since stopped running), and McNair. And with the rise of spread offenses, “Wildcat formations” and whatnot, it looks as if those men were the last of an extinct breed.
McNair was a great philanthropist, to be sure. His namesake foundation has provided educational and athletic opportunities for underprivileged children across the Nashville area and beyond. He has also hosted annual football camps for young players, spent countless hours volunteering with local Boys and Girls Clubs, sponsored charity golf outings and dinners and set up a fund for victims of Hurricane Katrina. McNair not only enjoyed the perks that accompany being the face of a franchise, he also graciously accepted the requisite responsibility it requires.
But McNair was also a philanderer. Sahel Kazemi, the 20-year-old found alongside McNair’s bullet ravaged body, was his lover, but not his wife. According to a report in the New York Daily News, Mechelle McNair learned of both her husband’s death and torrid affair in one phone call last Saturday, as did his four sons – Steve Jr., Steven, Tyler and Trenton.
If McNair’s marriage was going south, he had the option to either fix it or leave. Shacking up with a barely legal waitress from Dave & Busters was not an option. Buying her a condo and a fancy car was not an option. Accompanying her on exotic vacations was not an option.
A generation of football fans in Nashville, Baltimore and Birmingham saw McNair as a superhero, and with good reason. He lifted what was technically an expansion team on his shoulders and carried them to a Super Bowl in just two years. If not for his immediate success, Nashville’s burgeoning reputation as a great football town may never have come to pass. Who knows how many children and how many families benefited from his charity work or how many athletes gained their foothold at his football camps?
But like most superheroes, McNair had tragic flaws. And no matter how hard his former coaches, teammates and friends implore us to focus on his career and forget his off-field transgressions, we can’t, we won’t and we shouldn’t. In the end, like each of the celebrities we’ve lost in the past few weeks, McNair was both a supremely talented and deeply flawed human being. In that respect, he was no different than the rest of us.
Upon Further Review is the Birmingham Weekly sports page. Write to email@example.com