During my career in sports, I have coordinated interviews with many athletes who I watched and respected for both their on and off-field performances and endeavors. Names of those whose styles I tried to emulate when I was on the gridiron, hardwood, track or gym, and people whose careers hold personal and cultural significance for me.
I have been fortunate enough to speak with many of these athletes, including Doug Williams, Shaq, Jamelle Holieway, Ronnie Coleman and Michael Vick. There are many others on this list, but there was one name who I was in the process of reaching out to when he was suddenly, and tragically, taken from this world too soon.
His name is Steve McNair.
I remember hearing about “Air” McNair while he was still at Alcorn State, terrorizing defenses with both his arm and legs. He was generating statistics that only a select few could create or comprehend at that time. We have featured the stories of many successful Black NCAA QBs in our series “College Football Narratives”, with a few more big names coming this fall, but to me the series will never feel complete because we won’t be able to feature McNair.
Born and raised in Mississippi, McNair was All-State in football and was named a Super Prep Magazine All American. He was recruited by the Florida Gators and given a scholarship to play running back, but McNair wanted to play quarterback so decided to stay in Mississippi and play at Div 1-AA HBCU Alcorn State of the SWAC, and that’s when his legend began.
McNair dominated on the college level. In his sophomore year, he threw for 3,541 yards and 29 touchdowns while also rushing for 10 more scores. His junior year he threw for over 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns and was named First-Team All-SWAC for the third year in a row.
But it was his senior season that blew the doors off, earning him national recognition and magazine covers.
That year he generated almost 6,000 passing/rushing yards combined with 53 touchdowns. He was named an All-American and finished third in the Heisman voting behind Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam and Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter. He also won the Walter Payton Award, given to the top player in 1-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision) that year, and for his career, he set records that still stand today: 14,496 yards passing and 16,283 total yards (both FCS records).
McNair was drafted by the then Houston Oilers with the third pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, becoming the highest selected African-American QB in history at the time. Two years later, when the team moved to Tennessee, McNair was named starting QB. In 1999, when the team officially became the Tennessee Titans, McNair returned to the starting role after missing five games due to an inflamed disc and helped the team finish with a 13-3 record.
The Titans would go on to win the AFC crown, which included a victory in the “Music City Miracle” over the Bills, and moved on to face the St. Louis Rams in 2000 at Super Bowl XXXIV, which they lost on the last play of the game when Kevin Dyson came up inches short of the goal line on the last play of the game.
McNair would have an NFL career that spanned 13 seasons, amassing 31,304 yards passing with 174 passing TDs and 3,500 yards rushing with 37 rushing TDs. He was also named as the League’s co-MVP, with Peyton Manning, in 2003, a year in which he threw for 3,215 yards and 24 TDs.
To me, his legacy puts him in the fold of Randall Cunningham, a Black QB who broke the mold captivating young kids of color and giving them a signal-caller they could look up to and emulate on fields across the country.
Spinning, juking and throwing to receivers on the run. He was the original model for Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jameis Winston; a silent assassin who could hurt you with his playmaking ability. And despite not having Michael Vick type afterburners for wheels, he would somehow elude pursuing defenders and gain the crucial yards his team needed.
He retired in 2007 after spending his last two seasons with the Ravens. He was an original, and another great name in the long line of incredible Black college quarterbacks whose on-field performance elevated them to legendary status.
But two years later, on July 4th, 2009, McNair was the victim in a murder-suicide committed by Sahel “Jenni” Kazemi, the 20-year-old woman whom McNair was having an affair with. It was a moment that devastated his community, friends, family, and fans who followed McNair from Mississippi high school star to Heisman candidate and pro quarterback.
Steve “Air” McNair was a football legend and will always be remembered for his career and how he touched people.