Steve McNair was as competitive a football player as has ever suited up for the Tennessee Titans franchise.
However, there was one important area in which the star quarterback was not in competition, but rather was part of a dual role in re-establishing the franchise’s identity. That role — leadership and being the face of the franchise, a responsibility and a bond that McNair, who was murdered Saturday in Nashville condominium, shared with running back Eddie George.
As George tells it, McNair was the spirit and soul of those Titans teams that relocated from Houston and carved an indelible niche into the consciousness of the City of Nashville and beyond. George was simply the more vocal portion of that tandem in terms of leading their teammates.
“He was the spirit, and I was the voice. Plain and simple,” George said. “We drew off his spirit, his determination and I just spoke it. That was a great tandem. It was never a competition of who’s getting the most attention or who’s the star. It was if we’re successful, we’re all going to be successful.
“That was truly a team effort, and we had one goal in mind and that was to win a championship and to build relationships off of that, lasting relationships. I’ve learned to embrace that over the years in reflecting back over my career, realizing that in this facility and in this town and this city was something special.”
George and McNair held a familiar ritual before every game in the tunnel just before heading onto the field to begin a game.
“My favorite memory is right before we’d go out to battle, we would give handshakes to everybody coming out of that locker room, coaches, players, staff, anybody wearing a Titans uniform, and just look them in the eye for that final confirmation that we’re all ready,” George recalled. “He and I would stand out front and at the very last moment, turn to each other and say, ‘I love you,’ and embrace and go out to war.”
McNair and George, both first-round picks in consecutive years, were teammates for eight seasons, and the running back said the pre-game ritual never got old.
“That was special to me every single time. I know that I was going to give my best and he was going to give his. We expected everybody else to give theirs from the trainers on up,” George said.
Their shared identity as the faces of the franchise was noticed by coaches and teammates alike.
“He along with Eddie [George], Frank [Wycheck], Brad [Hopkins] and some of the teammates, they were the poster boys of this franchise,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said “They put us once again in the National Football League because I think for a few years we disappeared going through what we were going through during that [moving] process. When we finally got to town and got settled in 1999 it is obvious what happened. He was a tremendous part of that.”
McNair might have had a quiet and reserved persona outwardly, but it masked the fierce competitor that lay beneath.
“He was a very, very quiet competitor. He had this internal drive, this motivation that as coaches we would like to tap into and spread around. It was a very unique quality,” Fisher said.
Current and former Titans saw it alike, as well as the many injuries McNair battled just to be on the field on Sundays.
“I don't think that anybody should ever look past the remarkable things he did on the field. ... He was, and always will be a pillar of this organization,” said Brad Hopkins, the left tackle who protected McNair’s blind side for his entire tenure with the Titans franchise.
It is a legacy left behind by a cornerstone of the franchise built in Tennessee, something even players who never played with McNair are aware of, says long snapper Ken Amato, one of a handful of current Titans to have been McNair’s teammate.
“They don’t realize it on hand because they weren’t here, but they know what Steve meant to the Titans,” McNair said.
And while the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death, and his relationship with Sahel Kazemi, certainly leaves a different slant on his legacy, football-wise, George said there can be no doubt of the quarterback will be remembered.
“I don’t want to dig into it, because it’s irrelevant, because you’ve still lost a friend. It’s not gonna bring him back,” George said. “Instead of harping on the dirt and the grit, I choose to focus on his life and his spirit, the good times that he blessed me with and the wins he blessed me with and the sadness that we shared together in building something special.
“It was put together not by coincidence, but by a group of guys that meant something to each other, to bring that energy forth and to put together what you see here today. It was special.”