July 4th is a special day of excitement in the United States remembering the independence and founding of the country from British rule. Yet four years ago today as McNair was found dead in a tragic double murder, giving the day a tragic tone as one of the NFL’s stars of the 2000’s died far too soon.
July 4 is typically the slowest news day all over the sports world, but on the afternoon of Independence Day 2009 reports emerged that former Titans and Ravens quarterback Steve McNair had been found dead at the age of 36.
McNair was shot execution style in an rumored love triangle gone wrong with a younger mistress in an out of character end to his life. Police concluded that the killer was a 20-year-old girl who had purchased the gun two days earlier from a convicted felon. She then turned the gun on herself.
It didn’t add up then, and it still doesn’t add up today and it doesn’t change the fact that McNair was indeed killed, and that his family has been dealing with the aftermath of his passing for four years now, and the NFL lost one of its most underrated legends far too soon, a kind spirit that at times was considered too mild mannered to be great was taken away from the world in the hands of a gun.
McNair became legendary for his ability to play through injuries, and to play well in the process, instantly becoming a fan favorite of many after coming from small Alcorn State to the bright lights of the NFL with the Titans who went from Houston to Tennessee and along with McNair and former Heisman winner Eddie George, became one of the best teams in the AFC.
McNair’s combination of toughness, a cannon arm and the ability to leave the pocket made him one of my favorite players growing up. His rough and tough style may have kept him from reaching better numbers and staying in the league a handful of extra seasons, but it is what made McNair great.
That desire to win led the Titans to having the highest point of success in their franchise’s history, and with McNair doing whatever it took to keep getting the Titans to the playoffs, it was only a matter of time before he led the small market Titans to a Cinderella trip to the Super Bowl.
He led the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV and came up against the St. Louis Rams “Greatest Show on Turf” led by Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk. In a battle between the high powered Rams offense and the blue collar Titans, McNair gave everything he had to give the Titans their first Super Bowl.
After keeping things close for the whole game, McNair willed the Titans to the Rams red zone on their final drive of the game, nearly forcing overtime against the Rams with a furious late-game drive that fell inches short of the goal line in one of the most famous Super Bowl moments of all time. The Titans came literally one yard short of winning the Super Bowl, and despite sharing the 2003 MVP with Peyton Manning, it would be the highest point in McNair’s career.
Saddled by a long list of injuries, his divorce from the Titans was an ugly one. Frozen out of the facility in 2006 due to a huge cap number the team didn’t want to carry if McNair suffered a season-ending injury while lifting weights, McNair eventually filed a grievance in order to force the team’s hand. He won, and the Titans traded him to the Ravens, ending McNair’s stay in Tennessee and ushering in the Vince Young era while McNair went to attempt to continue to push the Ravens into the playoffs.
With a new chance on a new team built to win, McNair started 16 games in 2006 leading the Ravens to the second seed in the AFC playoffs. Leading the Ravens to the AFC North title, McNair would run into his old AFC South rival in Peyton Manning in the playoffs. In a defensive battle, Adam Vinateri’s field goal clinic would be enough for the Colts to overcome the Ravens defense as the Ravens lost 15-6 in McNair’s last defining playoff moment.
Banged up and no longer as explosive as he was before injuries grounded the “Air” in McNair’s high powered quarterbacking play, McNair would play one more season with the Ravens before being pushed out for another rookie in Joe Flacco. Banged up from leaving everything on the field for nearly a decade and passed by for two younger quarterbacks, McNair finally decided to hang it up and left as a quarterback who will be hard to judge as future generations come into the game. Yet if you were a fan of the NFL when McNair was playing you would know just how special of a talent he was at the time.
McNair has no Super Bowls, he didn’t have a college career at a major school, and besides for the split 2003 MVP, he will always lack the numbers of his contemporaries due to his high number of missed games and injuries holding him back. Still for a point in time, McNair was “the guy” in the NFL and for a generation of NFL fans my age, there was no greater player to watch with something on the line than Steve McNair.
There will never be a body of work of statistical numbers to get Steve McNair into the Hall of Fame and with his murder, there is bound to be a time where McNair is sadly forgotten. Still for many, “Air McNair” led them to the game and was the template for everything a football player should be. Tough, selfless, athletic, fast, smart, and someone that would leave everything on the field by the time the clock read :00. The fact that he did all of those things at quarterback made him a once in a generation player. He pave the way for many of the strong athletic black quarterbacks we see in the NFL today by becoming a superstar in a time where mobile African American quarterbacks will still getting locked out of the league. There will likely never be another Steve McNair, we shouldn’t forget him. So four years later on the fourth of July, we can all take some time to remember a true star who always left us on the edge of our seats. R.I.P. Steve
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