It’s not unusual for former pro-football players to die at an early age. The violence of the game, the ravages of maintaining an NFL-ready physique take a toll on routine longevity, but none of that could have prepared anyone for the shock of Steve McNair’s death on July 4.
McNair, only 36, and Sahel Kazemi, a 20-year-old female friend, were found shot to death in Nashville on Saturday. The police have released few details, but many signs point to a murder suicide.
The causes and the events leading up to McNair’s death will be the subjects of much speculation and intrigue in the coming days, but it’s indisputable that the world of pro-football has lost a pivotal figure; one of the great black quarterbacks of this era is gone.
Steve McNair began his NFL career in 1995, a time when black quarterbacks were still considered a bit of a novelty. Despite the Super Bowl heroics of Doug Williams and the consistently high level of performance from Warren Moon, there were few African-American signal callers and except for Randall Cunningham, no running quarterbacks. (Debate raged over whether a mobile black quarterback could be successful despite the example of several white athletes such as John Elway and Steve Young.) By the time McNair retired last summer, he had become the archetype for a quarterback who could make good decisions, possessed a strong arm, ran hard and led by courageous example.
McNair was born in Mount Olive, Miss. and was a standout athlete. In his senior year of high school, he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners baseball team and several major NCAA schools recruited him for their football teams. However, the larger schools wanted to convert him to defensive back, so McNair opted for Alcorn State University, a historically black school. As Alcorn’s quarterback, McNair put up eye-popping numbers, averaging 400 yards a game in total offense as a sophomore, then as a senior he ran and passed for more than 6,000 yards. The Houston Oilers drafted him with third overall pick in 1995, and he took over as starting quarterback in the 1997 season, the franchise’s first after relocating to Tennessee.
In 1999, when the Oilers finished a difficult transition and adapted the name Titans, McNair had his first great NFL season. He fought through several injuries to lead his team to the franchise’s best record, 13-3. Then, after a heralded win—the Music City Miracle—in the wild card round—McNair led the Titans to consecutive wins on the road at Indianapolis and at Jacksonville for a berth in the Super Bowl XXIV. The Titans were huge underdogs as their opponents, the St. Louis Rams, featured the most fearsome offense in NFL history. St. Louis dominated the first half of the game, but they only led 9-0. After an early third quarter touchdown to make it 16-0, many feared that the rout was on, but McNair calmed his Titans and led a comeback. The Titans tied the game in the fourth quarter only to see the Rams strike back immediately to take a 23-16 with less than two minutes to go.
That set the stage for one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. Faced with a third down near midfield and less than 30 seconds to go, McNair dropped back and was forced to scramble. He eluded several Ram defenders while looking downfield for a receiver. Finally, two Rams seemed to have him in their grasp, but he escaped and found Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson at the Rams 10-yard line for a long gain, which brought the Super Bowl down to a final play. On the game’s final snap, McNair completed a pass to Dyson who was tackled one yard shy of scoring a tying touchdown.
In 2002, McNair fought through injuries so intense that he was unable to practice for many weeks, yet he led his Titans to the AFC championship game. In 2003, he shared NFL MVP honors with Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning. After that season, it seemed that injuries had taken their toll on McNair as his effectiveness declined, but in 2006, he signed with Baltimore Ravens and started all 16 games as he led them to a 13-3 season. McNair left the game having passed for more than 31,000 yards and rushed for nearly 3,600. Yet the biggest part of his legacy was his leadership; he was a powerful man who led by his own courageous example, refusing to let physical pain get in the way of elite performance. He set the bar very high for all quarterbacks following him.
By the time McNair retired last summer, there was no longer a question of whether a black man could be a successful NFL quarterback, the question was: Could he be as successful as Steve McNair?
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.