Two months ago, Steve McNair walked into a bar named Loser's near downtown Nashville. It was after midnight. McNair wore blue jeans, boots and a black T-shirt hanging tightly on his broad chest. The patrons inside Loser's, a country-themed bar with wood panels on the walls, wooden floors, and a wooden porch, were swaying to "Country Roads" in front of a live band. McNair walked to the bar and ordered a shot -- straight vodka. He took the shot glass, tiny in his large right hand, the one that had thrown touchdown passes for 13 NFL seasons, and tossed it down. Then he turned to look out over the scene. For just a moment he winced, then he opened his mouth wide, an orange peel held between his teeth.
McNair's mouth hung open in a bright orange smile. My friend elbowed me, "Can you believe that guy came within a yard of winning the Super Bowl?" he asked.
McNair came to Nashville in 1999, the most recognized professional athlete in a town that had never had professional athletics before. That season, the Tennessee Titans opened against the Cincinnati Bengals -- McNair led the team on a wild come-from-behind 36-35 victory. McNair and the Titans went on to the Super Bowl. Eventually, they would lose to the St. Louis Rams when Kevin Dyson was tackled at the 1-yard line on the final play of the game.
|Steve McNair's Career|
|Steve McNair will likely not be a Hall of Famer, but his 13-year NFL career came with an impressive list of ups and downs. Below are McNair's stat totals in four important quarterbacking categories, and where those numbers rank all-time in NFL history.
|QB Rating: 82.8
Initially, McNair was the steadfast supporting star on the Titans, the man who handed the ball to the team's workhorse, Eddie George. The quarterback as second fiddle. As George piled up yards, McNair quietly made big play after big play, often on third down when the defense had stoned George on first- and second-down carries. Along the way, McNair's warbling, vaguely pigeon-toed gait, his deceptive speed, the way he pulled himself up off the muddy ground after absorbing big hit after big hit, became a perfect fit for a city that sang about second and third chances. Time after time, McNair dragged himself back to the huddle, the aging veteran, the quarterback who appeared to only have one play left to give.
And just when you thought he was finished, just when you thought he would never get up again, he did. Time after time.
As the weight of hundreds of carries began to toll on George's body, the Titans stumbled to a 1-3 start in 2002. At his wit's end, Jeff Fisher put the offense in McNair's hands. And McNair blossomed. The workmanlike McNair became a star, leading the Titans to the AFC Championship Game in 2002, then garnering a co-MVP award en route to the best individual season of his career in 2003.
Even as a bonafide star, McNair didn't play football like it was effortless or like everyone else moved slower around him. He didn't skitter out of bounds or gallop down the field without anyone near him. The prima donna style never found him. Nope, he played quarterback like it was hard work. And with time, Tennesseans came to love this about him.
His ability to escape disaster on play after play and turn a loss into a small gain worked for Nashville. We didn't need Hollywood flash or glitz and glamor -- we needed a guy who was comfortable picking himself up from the ground, someone who didn't look down on us from up high. A man who would have fit in the city no matter what he did for a living.
McNair was that person.
As he evolved as a quarterback, McNair didn't so much take over the game as he willed it in his direction by sheer stubborn effort. Once I heard a fan behind me exclaim to his friend, "By God, McNair is country strong!" It was a description that fit in a city that values perseverance in the face of adversity above all else.
In Nashville, getting knocked down doesn't mean you've lost, it just means you've got a new perspective to tell a story from.
From 1998 to 2005, I watched every single one of Steve McNair's games. I felt incredibly fortunate. Still do. By 2006, the city and McNair had come to a crossroads, it was time for the band to move in a different direction. McNair took his act to Baltimore but remained a Nashvillian at heart. On Nov. 12, 2006, McNair brought the hated Baltimore Ravens, then 7-2 into Nashville. The Titans fans stood and cheered McNair lustily when he was introduced. No matter what, you never forget your first love.
McNair put up 371 passing yards that game and led the Ravens to a one-point victory on a last-second field goal. For those of us who had watched McNair play for over a decade, we weren't surprised, every game he played was a fight, victory or defeat hung in the balance on every snap. He didn't beat other teams, he outlasted them.
That same season, the Ravens lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to Peyton Manning's Colts. One week later, McNair was back in Nashville. He would play one more season in Baltimore before returning to Nashville where he hosted a youth football camp every summer and had recently opened a local restaurant, Steve McNair's Gridiron9, just off the campus of Nashville's Tennessee State University. Just five days ago, McNair described his new restaurant: "We want to know [customers], their name, what they eat and drink. If I'm in town, I'll be here every day.''
No item on the menu was to cost more than $10.
On Oct. 22, 2008, McNair walked onto the field for the final time to the roar of Tennessee Titans fans. His No. 9 jersey was being added to the ring of honor surrounding the field. For the final time of his football career, the Tennessee crowd came to their feet and chanted his name, "Steve, Steve, Steve."
On that day two months ago at a bar called Loser's, McNair eventually pulled the orange peel out of his mouth and leaned against the dark wood bar. Every single person there knew who he was, but no one approached him. McNair seemed at ease with the space, a quarterback at home in his pocket. If he wasn't still a beloved quarterback, he had something more lasting in this city, admiration.
No one doubted him.
"Steve McNair," said one man that night, apprising the large quarterback from a distance, "he's just waiting for his second act."
He never got that second act in the city known for them.
On July 4, police found him dead on a hillside overlooking the city that he came to symbolize -- he was 36 years old. Crowds were already materializing on the banks of the Cumberland River for that night's fireworks show.
In the final moments of his life, McNair didn't even have to lift his eyes to see the empty football stadium on the other side of the river, burning bright in the afternoon sunlight.