As the shock of his sudden death staggered friends and fans, the details quickly became muddled and disturbing. Why was McNair shot multiple times, including twice in the head? Who was the 20-year-old woman, found dead of a single gunshot wound to the head, lying near McNair's feet in the former quarterback's rented Nashville condominium?
The Tennessee Titans' signature player and a beloved figure in the Nashville community, gone at age 36.
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Then ... ugly, sinister facts emerged. The dead woman, Sahel Kazemi, turned out to be McNair's girlfriend of several months. It was an affair -- McNair's wife and college sweetheart, Mechelle, was said to be distraught and devastated.
All of it slapped us in the face, turning a July 4 holiday into a rumor-stoked requiem for a fallen -- and instantly scandalous -- NFL star.
Air McNair was a gifted, game-changing athlete, a metaphor for on-field toughness. He dazzled us, first at tiny Alcorn State in Lorman, Miss., setting Division 1-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision) records for passing yards and total yards.
McNair was the complete NFL package after he was drafted by the then-Houston Oilers in 1995, and he proved to be one of football's most durable, resilient, electrifying players in his 13 seasons. His career included four Pro Bowl selections, a co-MVP honor, two AFC championship appearances and a breath-stealing Super Bowl XXXIV comeback drive that fell one yard short of a Titans victory, foiled by the Rams' Mike Jones and his game-saving tackle.
Ronen Zilberman, AP
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John Russell, AP
Mark Humphrey, AP
Mark Humphrey, AP
Mark Humphrey, AP
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Years later, McNair and I shared a conversation about what drove him to ignore his often catastrophic injuries, the broken bones and torn tissues that would sideline other players.
It was an easygoing, revealing interview. I told McNair that, as a kid growing up in football-mad Houston, I was always a fan of nearby Texas Southern, Prairie View A&M and Southwestern Athletic Conference athletics. Alcorn State is an integral part of that exciting but perpetually underfunded conference, comprised of historically black colleges.
"I remember being really proud of SWAC football when you were drafted third overall,'' I told McNair.
He smiled. "So was I,'' he said.
And that responsibility, carrying the torch for a proud but little-known conference that bears the heritage of Grambling's Eddie Robinson, helped push McNair throughout his football career.
"I'm a country kid from Mississippi,'' he told me in that interview. "Where I came from, I couldn't afford to take a day off. Not even a practice. I had too much to prove. That I belong among the great quarterbacks, not just great football players. I still feel that way."
It has been sadly noted that gun violence is becoming all too common in NFL circles in recent years. The victims: Darrent Williams, Sean Taylor, Richard Collier and, of course, Steve McNair.
Plaxico Burress' idiocy of shooting himself in the leg with his own 9mm handgun in a New York City nightclub will likely cost him an NFL suspension by commissioner Roger Goodell. When we think about it now, it could have cost him a lot more.
Now, we're conflicted about how we view and remember McNair. Despite his tremendous accomplishments on the NFL stage, and his well-known acts of charity and service to the Nashville community and to Hurricane Katrina victims in his native Mississippi, the legacy has lost its luster.
Truth is, so many athletic legacies are messy. Next month, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will enshrine two players who departed this earth, in large part, because of their own poor judgment and mistakes.
Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas was a dominant force on the field, perhaps the NFL's most feared defender of his time. He died at age 33 from injuries he sustained in a car accident in 2000, after driving recklessly on icy Kansas City roads and not wearing a seat belt. Thomas left behind no will, seven children and five mothers to pick up the pieces of his sloppy personal life.
Cowboys wide receiver Bob Hayes was an Olympic gold-medal sprinter and an NFL playmaker who forced defenses to change the way they covered pass catchers. But Hayes could not outrun his drug and alcohol demons. He served 10 months in prison after pleading guilty in 1979 to delivering narcotics to an undercover police officer, and battled liver disease and prostate cancer before dying of kidney failure in 2002 at age 59.
Years after Thomas and Hayes left us, we're more inclined to recall their athletic legacies, not the sordid details of their demise.
With time, that should be what remains in our minds about McNair. He was an extraordinary talent and a good man. But he was also a flawed person who had multiple run-ins with law enforcement because of DUI and, in 2003, a gun charge that was later dropped.
His departure from Tennessee in 2006, via trade to the Ravens following a standoff with Titans officials, was uncomfortably awkward, and probably the most painful football injury McNair ever sustained. That particular hit didn't go to his shoulder, ribs, knees or his skull. It went straight to his heart.
Yet McNair always knew the NFL is a high-dollar time clock, and he took his battered body and unwavering spirit to Baltimore. Two seasons later, when McNair retired, he still refused to hold a grudge against his beloved Titans.
The NFL? That was just business. Football was his true passion.
Eventually, we'll embrace the fact that McNair never let us forget that.