Steve McNair Biography - Showed Early Signs of Greatness, Glory Years at Alcorn State, Signed with Oilers
Professional football player
The starting quarterback for the National Football League's Tennessee Titans, Steve McNair has developed into one of the most effective quarterbacks in the league. Following a spectacular college career, McNair progressed smoothly as a pro player. By 2003, he had led the Titans to the Super Bowl, though not to victory, and shared the title of the league's Most Valuable Player. Throughout his career, McNair has adopted a dependable and workmanlike approach rather than going for the flashy, high-risk play. McNair has the power to rocket the ball 75 yards downfield with pinpoint accuracy and is also one of the league's best scramblers, both inside and outside of the pocket.
McNair's life is a classic American success story. He was born on February 14, 1973. His father, Selma McNair, left the family when Steve was young, leaving McNair and his four brothers to be raised by their single mother, Lucille, in a ramshackle house in rural Mount Olive, Mississippi. She toiled as a factory worker, and money was scarce. Despite material hardships, she instilled an unshakable set of values in her sons—including loyalty, fairness, an appreciation for education, and a strong work ethic. Fred, the oldest brother and star athlete, served as the family's father figure, and carefully instructed Steve in every aspect of sports. Quoted in Sports Illustrated, McNair said, "Fred has taught me absolutely everything I know. I can't thank him enough for giving me a map and then showing me how to take the short road when he's taken the longer one." In fact, Steve's nickname, "Air McNair," was borrowed from Fred, who was the original "Air" in the family.
Showed Early Signs of Greatness
In a family with deep athletic gifts, Steve McNair was especially blessed—and not only with extraordinary talent (as well as huge hands), but also the determination and discipline to cultivate it. He had multiple options for pursuing a professional sports career. He starred in three sports at Mount Olive High: baseball, as a shortstop and outfielder, all-state four years running; basketball, at point guard; and football, in which he played both offense and defense. As cornerback, McNair set a state record for single-season pass interceptions (15) and tied the career mark (30). In 1989, he quarterbacked Mount Olive to a small-school state title when he was a junior. A strapping 6' 2", 220-pounder who could run 40 yards in 4.6 seconds and hurl a baseball 90 mph, McNair had both the strength and speed to play a multitude of positions. McNair was strongly tempted when the Seattle Mariners baseball team picked him in the 14th round of the amateur draft, but with some guidance from Fred and Lucille he opted to pass up that opportunity, as well as several college basketball offers.
McNair's first pivotal decision in football concerned his choice of college. Many of the powerhouse schools courted McNair, including Louisiana State, Miami, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Mississippi State. But they all wanted him as a defensive back, whereas he was determined to be a quarterback. Again, Fred's counsel helped him set a course, this time to Alcorn State, in Lorman, Mississippi, where Fred had starred as a quarterback and where Steve was guaranteed a shot at the position.
Alcorn, a predominantly black school, was the country's first black land-grant institution, the first black state-supported school, and the first to provide the NFL with a black player—Jack Spinks, drafted in 1952 as a fullback by the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is a member of the Division I-AA Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), which comprises other mostly black schools and has produced several football immortals, including all-time touchdown leader Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley) and all-time rushing leader Walter Payton (Jackson State). It was virtually a foregone conclusion that attending a Division I-AA school, rather than an I-A, would seriously impair or even scuttle McNair's shot at a Heisman Trophy and potentially hurt his chances for the NFL. But the assurance of a quarterback role and the proximity to home were major pulls for him, and he decided to take the chance.
Glory Years at Alcorn State
McNair's college career became the stuff of legend, a true story of the all-conquering hero. As a mere freshman, McNair set nine records and was named Southwestern Athletic Conference player of the year. In his sophomore year, he led the nation in total offense, average 405.7 yards per game. McNair racked up numerous 500-plus-passing-yard games, and many times he added another 100 or so rushing.
After his junior year, McNair again faced a choice—should he shoot for an NFL contract or stay for his senior year of college? Once he found out his draft status was first- or second-round, the enticement was especially strong to try for the kind of deal that Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler got when he left school early to sign with the Washington Redskins—$19.25 million over eight years. Steve wanted to take care of his mother and family financially and to get on with his professional career. But both Lucille and Fred urged him to finish his education—as well as strengthen his hand even further with one more outstanding college season.
McNair opted to remain in school, as he was quoted in Jet: "I am an Alcornite and will continue to be an Alcornite. I want my degree." During his senior year his game improved in several capacities. He learned how to hang in the pocket longer and find his receiver, while his rushing grew even more devastating. Among his other accomplishments that season, he finished with a phenomenal 44/17 touchdown/interception pass ratio.
Though McNair had a great year, his team fared poorly in post-season play. (Historically the SWAC champs had racked up an appalling 0-15 record in the I-AA playoffs.) In the first round of the playoffs, defending champion Youngstown (Ohio) State College destroyed Alcorn, 63-20. McNair showed great heart in playing with a badly-pulled hamstring. His rushing ability crippled, he still nailed 514 passing yards and three touchdowns. The game did not hurt his stature as a potential NFL draft pick, but it did not enhance his shot at clinching the coveted Heisman Trophy either. At season's end, McNair was third in voting for the prestigious award.
Signed with Oilers
On April 22, 1995, following a successful showing at the Senior Bowl and at the NFL scouting combine, McNair was chosen as the third pick in the first round of the draft by the Houston Oilers. Clearly, playing I-AA ball had not impeded McNair's standing. He became the highest-drafted black quarterback ever—a berth previously occupied by Andre Ware, who was chosen seventh in 1990 by the Detroit Lions. When the negotiations were finalized in August of 1995, McNair signed a contract for $28.4 million over seven years. At 22, he had become the Oilers' highest-paid player—not bad for the guy who had told Jet, "No matter what happens, I'm just Steve, the country boy from Mount Olive." Quarterbacks usually develop more gradually than other players. Not only is it the highest-profile position, with the most pressure, but it is also the most mentally challenging. NFL playbooks are vast, and reading the opposition's defense to make split-second play changes is incredibly complex. Plus, the pace of NFL play is far faster than in college ball and even the finest quarterback athletes can be intimidated by the speed of the action surrounding the pocket. As ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, discussing the development curve, said in USA Today, "With any quarterback, you really need to figure three years."
Oiler management made sure to cultivate McNair carefully; they did not want to rush him into play abruptly and expose him to damaging and unnecessary pressure. He was tutored intensively throughout the off-season by offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome, a premier quarterback teacher. Later, Les Steckel took on this role. During the 1995 and 1996 seasons, McNair's primary mission was to absorb knowledge and make the leap from the shotgun offense at Alcorn to the far more elaborate and turbo-charged conditions in the NFL.
Some of McNair's first games were rough initiations indeed, with the Arizona Cardinals blitzing him mercilessly in an exhibition game with as many as five pass rushers. But this merely fortified McNair's will; he knew this was part of his initiation. When starting quarterback Chris Chandler was injured late in McNair's first season, the rookie went into action. The results were impressive: in the December 11, 1995, game against the Detroit Lions, McNair entered after halftime with the Oilers down 17-7 and played out the game. He completed 16 of 27 passes for 203 yards, including a touchdown. In fact, McNair nearly pulled off a come-from-behind upset. There was little question in anyone's mind as to whether he could hack it as a pro. He started the next two games, helping the Oilers end the season with back-to-back victories over the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills.
In the 1996 season McNair played in ten games (starting in four), and completed an impressive 88 of 103 pass attempts for 1197 yards and six touchdowns. The team went 8-8, missing the playoffs by one game. In his first six starts, McNair threw seven touchdown passes with only two interceptions. However, his leadership most impressed the coaches. In a Sports Illustrated piece Steckel said, "Even though he's the most humble athlete I've encountered in pro sports, he's also a leader who exudes extreme confidence." Head coach Jeff Fisher said in the same article, "If you were going to put together a list of all the things you can't coach—poise, ability to lead, competitiveness, responsibility—he has them all."
In February of 1997, the Oilers traded Chandler to the Atlanta Falcons, and McNair's career as a starter began in earnest. Meanwhile, the franchise relocated to Tennessee that same year. With big changes afoot, there was a lot more pressure on McNair.
Rose to NFL Elite
As the steady starter at quarterback, McNair steadily accrued impressive stats on third-down conversions and pass completions, touchdowns per starts, and rushing, among others. In the 1997 season, for example, his 674 yards rushing was the third-highest for a quarterback in NFL history. By the end of that season, McNair had garnered the second-best overall rating of any quarterback drafted in the previous six years (trailing only the Jacksonville Jaguars' Mark Brunell). According to Bob Sherwin of the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, McNair is "a quarterback on the cusp of greatness," one who "is beginning to make his impact on the NFL." In the article, McNair said: "The last part of the  season it finally clicked for me."
From that point on, McNair has steadily become one of the league's best quarterbacks. At the end of the 1998 season, the Titans—the Oilers' new name—had placed second in the AFC Central. In 1999 McNair led to the Titans to an AFC championship. When he took the field as the starting quarterback against the St. Louis Rams, he became just the second black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. Though the Titans lost the game to the Rams, McNair's strong performance did not go unnoticed around the league, where McNair was considered a rising star. The Titans signed McNair to a six-year, $47 million contract extension in July of 2001.
McNair's rise to prominence has not come without a great deal of pain. During the 1999 season, McNair had midseason surgery on a ruptured disk in his lower back, then shocked football fans by returning to led his team through the playoffs. McNair's back pain had been so severe that season that he could not sit for more than 15 minutes at a time, yet he played like a champion in games. Coach Jeff Fisher told Sports Illustrated for Kids that during the 2001 season, "We literally had to help him off the plane when we landed because of his lower back and two or three other [injuries]. Twenty-four hours later, we're beating Oakland, with Steve running around making plays. That's how he is." McNair overcame great pain again in 2002, when turf toe, strained rib cartilage, and an injured thumb kept him from practicing throughout November and December, though he player in games. Michael Silver wrote in Sports Illustrated that "the mild-mannered Mississippian is becoming a mythical figure in a sport in which the athletes pride themselves on playing hurt," but McNair's wife Mechelle offered a softer image when she explained "he's a big baby at home.… He'll be limping, grimacing, complaining all week, saying there's no way he'll play, and then I'll see him on Sunday running around like nothing's wrong." Coach Jeff Fisher told Football Digest, "Steve is the toughest player I have ever coached."
In 2002, the Titans rebounded from a 1-4 start by winning 10 of their last 11 games and taking the AFC Central championship. The Football Digest gave much of the credit for the turnaround to McNair, who inspired his teammates by overcoming a series of nagging injuries. Team owner Bud Adams told the magazine: "[McNair] doesn't know what pain is. He's a warrior." Ever humble, McNair explained: "We are professionals. We had to start playing like it. We had to look into ourselves and find a way to win. We couldn't allow things to keep going the way they started off." Their spectacular comeback season was ended when they lost 41-24 to the high-powered Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship game. McNair came in third in league MVP voting, but was not named to the Pro Bowl.
McNair's shining reputation was somewhat tarnished in the summer of 2003 when he was arrested on drunken driving charges and also found to be in illegal possession of a loaded handgun. McNair quickly acknowledged his fault in the incident. According to Jet, McNair announced: "It's something you don't usually see out of me. But I put myself in a situation. I've got to get out of it, and I will bounce back from it."
During the 2003 season, McNair put the troubles of the summer behind him and embarked on the most successful year of his career. Starting in 14 games, McNair piled up 3,215 passing yards while completing 62.5 percent of his passes. With 24 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, he led the NFL in quarterback ratings with a rating of 100.4. With running back Eddie George playing a smaller role in the team's offense, McNair was now clearly the star. The Titans finished the regular season 12-4, but were eliminated from the playoffs in a game played in frigid, snowy conditions against the New England Patriots.
In January of 2004 McNair was named the league's co-MVP, along with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. McNair was the first black quarterback ever to win the NFL's highest honor. "I would like to thank the guys who paved the way for myself and a lot of other guys," McNair told Jet, naming quarterbacks Warren Moon, Doug Williams, and Randall Cunningham. "Those guys paved the way for us as Black quarterbacks to come into the league and be successful." Later, McNair was named the league's MVP by the Associated Press. By the end of the 2003 season, he was one of just five quarterbacks to have passed for 20,000 yards and rushed for 3,000 yards.
Reflecting on his successes in a 2003 interview with the Sporting News, McNair said: "This is all I've ever wanted to do, what I dreamed about in Mississippi, playing on Sundays in the NFL. I'm not surprised by what is happening to me now. I just want to enjoy it and have fun with it. The opportunity is here. I don't want to waste it." As 2004 season began, many Titans fans hoped that soon McNair would achieve the greatest NFL dream of all: a Super Bowl title.
Stewart, Mark, Steve McNair: Running and Gunning, Millbrook Press, 2001.
Football Digest, April 2003, p. 52; February 2004, p. 48.
Jet, January 31, 1994, p. 50; September 26, 1994, p. 49; January 26, 2004, p. 46.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 27, 1998.
New York Times, September 28, 1994, p. B11; January 22, 1995, p. 2.
Sports Illustrated, August 30, 1993, p. 76; September 26, 1994, p. 40; December 5, 1994, p. 85; September 1, 1997, p. 188; November 17, 2003, p. 56; September 6, 2004.
Sports Illustrated for Kids, November 1, 2003, p. 58.
The Sporting News, August 22, 1994, p. S8; November 28, 1994, p. 6; August 12, 1996, p. 42; January 3, 2000, p. 16; November 24, 2003, p. 14.
USA Today, April 12, 1995.
"Steve McNair," Tennessee Titans, www.titansonline.com (September 15, 2004).
—Mark Baven and
- Janet McNaughton (1953–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
- Larry (Jeff) McMurtry Biography
- Other Free Encyclopedias