Loyal To His Roots

Alcorn State's Steve McNair spurned bigger schools so he could stay near home and play quarterback like his big brother
August 29, 1993

Make a left at the Piggly Wiggly, Monk had said, and go seven miles down Route 2, past Ora Baptist Church on the right, Mount Sinai Jesus Name Apostolic Church on the left, Sunset Baptist Church on the right, Sunset Jesus Name Holiness Church on the left and Cooley Springs Baptist Church on the right, then look for the wagon wheels. Beside the wagon wheels, on the rusty mailbox, there was once a crude sign, Monk explained, ink on cardboard, that signaled one's arrival at the Mount Pleasant Arena. Kids used to show up from towns all over this part of southern Mississippi to play ball with Monk and his brothers—Fred, Tim and Jason—at the imaginary stadium. They would play baseball and basketball in summer and winter, and football all year long.

Across Route 2 from the Mount Pleasant Arena is Clarence Deen Road—so named because Clarence Deen lives at its dead end. The third house on the right, behind the two pickup trucks on blocks with the stray dogs underneath, is where Alcorn State junior Steve (Monk) McNair lives with his family. Just inside the front door is the trophy room. Monk's two Southwestern Athletic Conference MVP awards mingle with dust bunnies on the floor. On the wall there's a newspaper story about Monk from when he played cornerback in high school, making his 30th interception to tie the state record. There are plenty of photos of Fred and Monk on the wall, too, and it's hard to tell the two apart; both are wearing number 9 and playing quarterback for Mount Olive High and Alcorn.

Monk doesn't dwell much on the trophies and mementos except to mention that visitors should look at them in the daytime because the lights don't work in this room anymore. When he's asked about winning another honor, the Heisman Trophy—Monk is this year's Cinderella candidate—he smiles and shrugs and then leads the way into the kids' bedroom. There are still more awards there, between the posters of Elijah Muhammad and Eddie Robinson. All four boys once slept in this glorified crawl space, two on a single bed and the other two in a bunk bed, until the night when the rapidly growing Monk, who was lying in the top bunk, came crashing down upon Tim in the bottom bunk.

As Monk gazes out the screen door that no longer deters the curious horseflies, he points out a cherry tree in front of the house. He tells the tale of how one day he and his brothers formed a human chain across Clarence Deen Road to keep the postman from meeting his appointed rounds. Their mother, Lucille, came out to scold them, but she couldn't catch Monk. "When he was escaping a whupping, Steve could climb that tree faster then any monkey I've ever seen," says Lucille, "so we just started calling him Monk."

A few hundred feet from the tree lives Monk's cousin Larry, who was the quarterback at Mount Olive in 1978, and at the base of the tree sits the trailer belonging to Monk's uncle Jimmy. Just beyond that trailer is another, which shelters Monk's aunt Gerline and his grandma Hattie, who has raised 10 kids along Clarence Deen Road. Monk has at least three dozen relatives who live within a square mile of his house, nearly enough to fill a section of bleachers at Mount Olive games. "This is my home," says Monk. "These are my kin. This place is who I am."

There are mama's boys and daddy's boys, but Monk is a brother's boy. Fred, who's four years older than Monk, looked after Monk after their father, Selma, abandoned the family, in 1981. Fred would baby-sit while Lucille worked 14-hour shifts at the local chicken hatchery. "A lot of nights I prayed and cried and wondered how this family would carry on," says Lucille. "Fred had to become the father in this house. When Fred told Monk and the others to jump, they jumped."

It was Fred who showed Monk how to hold a football, fingertips on the laces, and propel it in a tight spiral from one end of the Mount Pleasant Arena to the other. When Fred became the quarterback at Mount Olive, Monk would sit in the bleachers at practice every day, captivated by his brother's voice calling out the cadence. When Fred left for Alcorn, 85 miles west in Lorman, Monk took over as quarterback at Mount Olive and painted spats of Alcorn gold on his cleats to emulate his brother.

Monk even copied Fred's nickname. "One summer we were throwing the ball around, and Monk got this idea that I needed a flashy name," says Fred. "We thought of Fly and Sky, but we settled on Air. Monk told me, 'You'll be Air and I'll be Air II,' and that just stuck." The next fall Monk gave Fred a towel with AIR penned on it, and Fred kept it tucked in his uniform all season. Monk took to sporting his own towel with AIR II written on it. "Fred has taught me absolutely everything I know," says Monk. "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."

Fred didn't win the starting quarterback position at Alcorn until his final year. He was the fifth-rated quarterback in Division I-AA in 1989, throwing for 1,898 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he wasn't selected in the NFL draft. Still, Walter Juliff, a Dallas Cowboy scout, had seen Fred play and signed him. But Fred was raw—he hadn't been tutored by an older quarterback-playing brother—and he was cut in training camp. He has played in the World League and the Canadian Football League since, and he's now hoping to hook on with a CFL team again.

When Monk began breaking Fred's passing records at Mount Olive, Fred started gently steering his brother toward Alcorn. He talked Monk, a shortstop, out of accepting a $5,000 bonus from the Seattle Mariners. He also persuaded Monk, a point guard, to pass on a few college basketball scholarship offers.

The 6'1", 215-pound Monk was courted by most of the big schools in the South, but he had difficulty convincing the coaches that he could play quarterback in college. Mike Archer, then the coach at Louisiana State, wooed the wide-eyed Monk mightily, but he made no mention of throwing passes, just intercepting them. Miami coach Dennis Erickson talked about playing in the wrong backfield as well. Mississippi State's Jackie Sherrill told him he could be the best defensive back ever to come out of Mississippi. Sherrill spoke of giving Monk a shot at quarterback during two-a-days in the summer, but Monk didn't trust him.

Monk had a dilemma: go to a big school and play defensive back, or go to a small school and play quarterback. There was no shortage of sentiments on the matter in Mount Olive. Powell Drug Store, at the corner of Main and Sixth downtown, is the kind of place where penny candy is still a penny and opinions come even cheaper. Powell's proprietor, Homer H. Powell, is an Ole Miss alum, class of '56, and he looks a great deal like the Rebel mascot, without the facial hair. "I've seen a lot of super quarterbacks, from Charlie Conerly to Archie Manning, and Steve is the best of 'em all," says Powell, a regular at Mount Olive games. "He could've gone anywhere. He could've won the Heisman if he'd gone to a school with some exposure."

As Powell spouts off, Dude Mangrum, whose nephew played with Monk at Mount Olive, wanders over from behind the rack of nail polish. "The key is that McNair wanted to play quarterback" Mangrum adds, "and to do that around here, a black kid has to go to a black school."

On the afternoon before signing day, Monk had finally decided on Southern Mississippi. But when slipping into bed that night, he was haunted by a legacy. "I sat up all night, and it was just something in my heart," he says. "I wanted to go where I knew I could play quarterback. It was the family tradition. I wanted to live up to that name: McNair." The next morning, on Valentine's Day, his 18th birthday, he signed with Alcorn State.

It didn't take McNair long to realize his ambition. He took over the quarterback spot in the first quarter of the opening game of his freshman season, as the Braves beat Grambling 27-22. McNair proved to be a potent offensive hybrid, a drop-back passer who could scramble. In two seasons he has rushed for 758 yards and 16 touchdowns and has thrown for 6,436 yards and 53 scores, many on bombs traveling as far as 70 yards.

Three times McNair has led Alcorn to comeback wins in the last two minutes of games. Last year at Grambling, McNair was carried off the field at halftime with a badly sprained ankle. He returned to throw three touchdowns and hobble across the goal line with a minute left to give the Braves a 35-33 win. Says Alcorn coach Cardell Jones, "I just knew at that point that God had chipped him out and said this will be a quarterback."

This summer when the SWAC coaches met in New Orleans, they turned it into a brainstorming session on how to take the air out of McNair.

"How about playing 12 guys on defense?" asked Mississippi Valley State coach Larry Dorsey. Then answering himself, he said, "Nan, that's not enough."

"I don't have a clue how to stop him," said Jackson State coach James Carson. "If you lay back, he'll pick you apart with the pass, but if you bring pressure, he becomes one of the best running backs in the conference. It's like choosing between a firing squad or the chair."

Said Grambling coach Robinson, "I remember when Jerry Rice played in the SWAC, my defense used to complain that he was laughing at them on his way to the end zone. Rice wasn't taunting them, he was just enjoying how good he was. That's the way this kid is."

McNair is sometimes compared to Rice and to Walter Payton, both of whom grew up in rural Mississippi, stayed at home for college and put up stratospheric numbers in relative obscurity. Sitting on the slab of plywood that Monk calls his front porch, he genuflects slightly at the mention of his predecessors. "Walter Payton and Jerry Rice grew up in small towns with plenty of competition," McNair says. "They both had the community behind them like I do, and they put down the foundation for me. When I look at what they have done, I say, 'Why not me?' "

No player from a Mississippi school has ever won the Heisman. In 1992 McNair got a grand total of three points, to tie for 38th place. He is not exactly the focus of a public relations blitz at Alcorn: The sports information director was recently fired, and only one Brave game will be televised this season.

Yet a few miles south of the Alcorn campus, on Route 33, at the edge of the town of McNair (pop. 25), there are indications that a grass-roots movement has already begun. Above the word MCNAIR on the green sign, a young hand has scrawled AIR II; below it, FOR HISEMAN.

PHOTOJOHN CHIASSONMount Olive was fertile ground for developing McNair's skills. TWO PHOTOSKEN GEIGERSteve looked to Fred for a nickname, a number and a college. PHOTOJOHN CHIASSONSteve's brothers—here it's Tim—groomed him for success. ILLUSTRATION

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