I was at a pool on July 4th at the corner of Independence and Liberty, enjoying a wonderful mixture of lemonade and vodka, and messing with my phone when one of my friends (TPaulin08) launched this missive into the Twittersphere:
Dumbly, I stared at it for a solid 15, 20 seconds, vodka addled mind doing it’s best impersonation of racing. Do we know a McNair? Is it like a 1970s NFL player who I would only know from behind NFL Films music (Sam Spence is amazing)? I stumbled on my phone to ESPN.com, and was met with the headline that Steve McNair was dead. And my first thought wasn’t of his illustrious career, or the four sons he left behind, but my first thought was of Chris Benoit. Dead professional wrestler, Chris Benoit.
The Monday night after they found the bodies of Chris, his wife Nancy, and their son Daniel, the WWE made the decision to cancel their Monday Night show, and instead run highlights of his career, and commentary from his fellow wrestlers. Even while this three hour tribute was occurring, CNN and other news outlets were reporting breaking news that all evidence pointed to Chris having been the one to kill his wife and son, before taking his own life. By the end of the show, a lot of what would eventually be known as fact was being openly speculated about on major news networks…and then the WWE decided to re-run the special on the West Coast.
Now, I know you’re wondering, why is a reaction to the death of a former NFL MVP and widely accepted “good guy” in the league starting with a recap of the tragic double homicide and suicide of a former WWE World Heavyweight Champion (a reign the WWE now ignores)? Well, it’s because the first words out of my mouth regarding his passing were:
“This is going to get much, much worse.”
Tuesday, more of the salient details of the unfortunate death of Steve McNair became more widely known, and it is apparent that his girlfriend shot him while he slept on their couch, and then killed herself. And there have been equal sides praising him for the details of his life, as well as vilifying him for the manner of his passing. To these people, Steve McNair will be remembered as the cautionary tale, a warning of sorts to those who would sacrifice the happiness of those around him for his own wants.
Not to me.
To me, I’ll always remember Steve McNair as my grandmother’s favorite football player ever. When you’re talking about small town Mississippi, Alcorn State isn’t just the most accessible college football: when Air McNair was under center, it was the only football in the universe. For a generation of quarterbacks (hell, football players), he was more than just a 1st round draft pick, he was more than a third overall pick who would go on to lead a team to a Super Bowl, be named league MVP, and be one of the most respected players in league history. For people whose lives are defined by HBCU football, he was (and is) our most recent bright shining star. My dad played for Clark Atlanta University when colleges were still segregated, and to this day, the only Clark/Morehouse games I’ve missed were ones I was in college for.
To me, Steve McNair continued to have resonating personal significance once in the NFL. Once he was drafted by the Houston Oilers (my birthtown team!), he was forced to sit behind Chris Chandler (the killer of my childhood!), but all the while he remained a consummate professional. By the last season the team spent in Houston, he was the starter, and would remain as such for years. During his tenure not just in Tennessee, but in the NFL, he was hailed as an amazing leader and competitor, a distinction that culminated with his being named co-MVP in 2003. The respect from his peers and those who know WAY more than me about the League (AP voters) only served to confirm something I had suspected years earlier.
To me, Steve McNair IS his greatest moment, a beautiful season capped with a wonderful pass in Super Bowl XXXIV (in Atlanta!), ending with Kevin Dyson being stopped a literal inch short of the tying touchdown by the St. Louis defender. Now, his finest hour wasn’t the throw itself (although superb) or the game as a whole (16 unanswered points in the second half!), but it was how he carried himself afterward. I’ve been involved in sports my whole life, I’ve won when I should have lost, and I’ve lost when I was sure that I should have won, but I’ve never reacted as well as Mr. McNair did after this game. He was truly conciliatory to the Rams, and as gracious a loser as I have ever seen. As anyone who has competed against me would attest (in football, wrestling, rock-paper-scissors), losing isn’t a strong point of mine. It was this post-game display that showed me that everything I had heard about him regarding his character and leadership ability wasn’t just locker room double speak, but that it was grounded in some part of reality. The consensus among those who have given quotes about McNair this week is the same impression I got from him over my television set after what had to be one of the most trying experiences in his professional career. He seemed the picture of class and dignity, and most of all, a tremendous leader. Hearing his former Baltimore teammates who only played with him for two seasons talk about his ability as a motivator and a mentor spoke to his ability as a commander. Seeing the lives he changed through his charity work speaks to his concern for his fellow man.
People this week have said that we cannot separate the manner in which he died with the works he dedicated himself to in life. But, why not? Are we defined by our poorest decisions, or by the way we try to carry ourselves everyday? Far be it from me to speak about anyone else’s personal life (mine being what it is), but I can honestly say that if those four boys he leaves behind are instilled with half of the grace and dignity the Steve McNair I know always had, then he did this world a great service in his short time.