On the football field, Steve McNair seemingly never was out of time.
His ability to produce consistently in late-game situations — often despite limitations from injuries — made him a Pro Bowler, a league MVP and a possible Hall of Famer. It also made it impossible for fans in Middle Tennessee who initially booed him to root against him any longer.
“He was one of the finest players to play for our organization and one of the most beloved players by our fans,” Tennessee Titans’ owner Bud Adams said in a statement released by the team. “He played with unquestioned heart and leadership and led us to places that we had never reached, including our only Super Bowl.”
How incongruous, therefore, that his life was cut short, particularly in a violent manner.
McNair always played the game with a joy and innocence too rarely displayed by many of today’s professional athletes for whom a paycheck is the primary passion.
His massive statistics (31,304 passing yards, 3,590 rushing yards, 211 combined touchdowns) were not the result of a well-crafted, well-executed scheme. Instead, his ability to improvise and understand the moment forced opposing defenses to scheme against him – often to no avail.
He is fifth all-time for rushing yards by a quarterback. Of the four who outgained him on the ground, only Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton had more career passing yards.
“If you were going to draw a football player, the physical part, the mental part, everything about being a professional, he is your guy,” Samari Rolle, McNair’s teammate in Tennessee and Baltimore, said.
His desire to play was so constant that he repeatedly took the field when others wouldn’t, or couldn’t. He returned in 1999 after back surgery sidelined him for five games and was named the league’s player of the week after he threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another in a victory over the St. Louis Rams, a game that turned out to be a Super Bowl preview.
In the years that followed he battled numerous issues with his shoulders, sternum, toe, rib, ankles, calf and chronic back pain yet only two quarterbacks (Brett Favre and Peyton Manning) played more games from 1997 through 2006 than McNair. He earned co-MVP honors in 2003 despite the fact that he routinely performed after having missed entire practice weeks because of pain.
“To me it was about when he was getting knocked around, throwing his body around and walking back to the huddle, slowly,” tight end Frank Wycheck said. “He would be a guy that would say, ‘Hey guys, isn’t this fun?’ He would look guys in the eyes and I had a front row seat and to see the joy and the passion in his eyes that we were going to go get it done.
“He was going to lead us to victory. He always wanted us to stop stressing out and to have fun and it really was contagious.”
McNair’s many attributes were equally apparent in one of his longest performances as well as one of the most brief.
On Dec. 1, 2002 in bitter, winter conditions at Giants Stadium, he forced overtime when he completed a touchdown pass to Wycheck and then ran for a two-point conversion with nine seconds remaining. He completed three of four passes in the extra period to set up Joe Nedney’s game-winning field goal in a 32-29 victory over the Giants.
He was 30-for-43 for 334 yards passing and rushed four times for 38 yards in that game – all despite a rib strain sustained a week earlier and which was expected to keep him out.
Two years earlier, a sternum injury forced him to miss a start at Pittsburgh (Sept. 24, 2000). When his replacement, Neil O’Donnell, was knocked from the game in the closing minutes, McNair entered the contest. He was on the field for just four plays – a 9-yard run and three completed passes (all for at least 15 yards), the last of which was a game-winning, 18-yard touchdown strike to Erron Kinney with 1:25 to play.
“He was so cool under pressure, so calm,” former Titans’ running back Eddie George said. “He never raised his voice, never lost his composure. … It was about his willingness to win. It was about his heart. His heart spoke volumes. We rode off of his spirit and that is how it was. He was the heart and soul of our team.”
Nearly a decade removed from those performances, it’s almost inconceivable to think that his gifts initially were overlooked.
In the 1999 season opener – the franchise’s first game as the Tennessee Titans and its first in a brand new, sold out stadium – McNair was booed when he took the field with 7:56 remaining and his team behind by nine, 35-26, to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Tennessee built a 19-point lead before halftime, but a lost fumble and interception by McNair contributed to 28 straight Cincinnati points. Undaunted, he shook off the miscues and ignored the boos and drove the team to two scores in the final 4:30 capped by Al Del Greco’s game-winning field goal with eight seconds to go. Days later, he underwent back surgery for a ruptured disc.
“His worth and what he meant to us as players, it’s almost immeasurable,” Brad Hopkins, who played left tackle in front of McNair, said. “… I can’t even say enough about what he meant to that club and what he meant to the people in the stands.
“Everyone has their good years and bad years, but he was a warrior and a competitor. You wanted that kind of character and that kind of heart leading your team and he did that with style.”