Air McNair

Sept. 26, 1994
Sept. 26, 1994

Table of Contents
Sept. 26, 1994

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
College Football
Horse Racing
Pro Football
Steve McNair
Alexi Lalas
SI 40th Anniversary
Point After

Air McNair

Steve McNair is the best quarterback—black or white, big school or small—in college football

You come, you better play. Otherwise, you'll be just like William Logan last year against Grambling, kicked out of the Alcorn State huddle when Steve McNair told him not to come back until he'd cleared his head. McNair can't afford mistakes on the football field; hell, he can't even afford family there. Tim McNair knows that. On the field Steve can look at his brother, a wide receiver, dead-on, and there'll be nothing for him, not a flicker of recognition. "Shine," Tim will say, using the name he gave Steve because of the way his nose gleams come wintertime. "Shine, look at the free safety." But there's no connection. The eyes are dead to everything but the game. "It's like he doesn't even know me," Tim says.

This is an article from the Sept. 26, 1994 issue Original Layout

This is how you get Steve McNair to know you: Do what he says. Or else you'll feel the way his teammates did after the Grambling game three weeks ago. Alcorn went to the locker room at halftime with the score 35-35; McNair had thrown for 268 yards and gotten nowhere but to the brink of tears. So he did something he never does. I le asked coach Cardell Jones if he could speak. He urged his teammates to start from scratch, to cut down mistakes. He asked his defense for help. I know we're the better team," McNair told them. "And if you're not sure, just follow me. Follow me, and I'll take you to the promised land."

He almost did. McNair threw for 217 more yards in the second half and finished with five touchdown passes. He also ran for 99 yards and another touchdown. It wasn't enough. Percy Singleton, a wide receiver, dropped the winning pass with 10 seconds left. Two other touchdowns were dropped along the way. Alcorn's defense surrendered 612 yards in the 62-56 loss. Steve looked at Tim afterward and said softly, "I guess they didn't want it. I promised to take them, and nobody wanted to help." Maybe because he so rarely asks.

The following week McNair sliced up Tennessee-Chattanooga with 647 yards and eight touchdown passes in a 54-28 Alcorn win for a Division I-AA single-game record for individual total offense, which was 171 yards better than No. 11 Alabama's team did against Chattanooga this year. In a 39-7 win over Alabama State last Saturday, he merely passed for 342 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 108 yards. McNair is averaging 577.6 total yards a game, and at this pace he will break Ty Detmer's NCAA record of 14,665 total career yards. He's 6'2", weighs 218 pounds. "He's perfect," says Alcorn offensive coordinator Rickey Taylor, and who's going to argue?

McNair's megaperformances this season have drawn the newspaper reporters and TV crews and NFL scouts to tiny Lorman, Miss., like never before; they have made the hustlers racing to the state's river-boat casinos slow down and point at the Alcorn exit; and they've confirmed that here, rising out of a school with an enrollment of 3,300, is an increasingly viable contender for the Heisman Trophy. No school this size and no black college has produced a Heisman winner, but here is one fact that changes everything: Steve McNair is the best college quarterback in the nation.

"Absolutely," says Arizona Cardinal scout Cole Proctor. "He's just a unique talent. He's got it all." Asked the last time he saw a quarterback with McNair's combination of arm strength, speed and discipline, Proctor says, "I haven't. I coached against Steve Young and Jim McMahon. I thought McMahon was the best quarterback; I thought Young was the best athlete. This guy's a combination of both."

"He's on the same level as the best quarterbacks I've seen since I've been scouting," says Dwight Adams, director of player personnel for the Buffalo Bills. "Testaverde, Bledsoe, Shuler, Mirer, Dilfer.

"He's the total package. If there's a better athlete—a guy who's got the arm and can scramble and evade and is more durable and more productive—I haven't seen him this year. I've watched him throw the ball on a rope 35 yards consistently, watched him throw 60 yards downfield, watched him run off and run through people. And his judgment...his touch. These guys don't have to break stride when they come out of their turns. The ball is there. This guy's unusual."

Says another AFC scout: "I've never seen one more physically talented for the requirements of the position. I did Rick Mirer two years ago, and to me there's no comparison. I love the kid."

They're not saying anything McNair doesn't know. Raised in a cramped shack by his mother, Lucille, who works the night shift at an electronic component factory, McNair doesn't brag about anything but his Nintendo prowess, doesn't dwell on his mammoth statistics. "I'm just a country guy from Mount Olive, Mississippi," he says, "trying to make it in life." But ask him how good he is, and the answer is firm: "When I get on the field, I feel unstoppable. The field is just a big pasture, and it's just me dodging everybody. I feel those people can't stop me."

Still, this season's Grambling loss haunts him. It didn't matter that no one blamed McNair, or that Eddie Robinson, Grambling's legendary coach, hugged him afterward and told him, "Son, you're a great quarterback. You are the best. I love you." Robinson's words felt wonderful, but this was one of the few times in McNair's football life that he had failed to deliver. "I wasn't happy," he says. "We lost." And McNair knows that words won't make up for any lapse. That's because he is a Division I-AA quarterback and he is black, and the world has seen too many such men who somehow couldn't get their due. Willie Totten? He threw for more touchdowns while at Mississippi Valley than any Division I-AA quarterback ever; he wasn't drafted. Doug Williams? He was a Super Bowl MVP, but he remains bitter because he's sure prejudice eventually cost him his career. And then, Steve McNair believes, there's his older brother.

Fred McNair, 25, preceded Steve as the quarterback at Mount Olive High but didn't win the starting job at Alcorn until his senior year, in 1989; then he threw for 1,898 yards and 14 touchdowns. Along the way, the two brothers shared a nickname—Air and now Air II—and Fred passed on to Steve everything he knew about quarterbacking. The two still spend telephone calls chatting about reads and audibles and coaches' mistakes. Fred is the only one Steve completely trusts when it comes to judging his own game. "He has one of the best arms I've ever seen," Steve says. So it hurts him to see what happened to Fred, how he bounced around from a Dallas Cowboy camp to the Canadian Football League to the World League back to the CFL to Arena football in Albany, N.Y., this year. McNair can't help but feel that he operates with an exceedingly slim margin for error.

"What I have to do is execute as well as I can, have an almost perfect game," Steve says. "I don't want to have any defects in my mechanics or how I read defenses. I want to have everything down pat. I don't want people saying, Hey, he's got to work on this or that. I want to have everything working."

By general agreement, he doesn't have to tinker much. Despite his production on the ground, McNair may be known best for his discipline; he rarely leaves the pocket until all his passing options have been exhausted, and he can read coverages, see the field, like few others. "Steve has the intelligence of a Montana, the release of a Marino, the scrambling ability of an Elway," says Alcorn's Taylor. 'He's got all that like I've never seen in an athlete before. This is my 19th year, and I've seen a lot of great players. I've been in 12 different pro camps, and I see what they have there. I haven't seen anybody yet I can compare this kid with."

Such talk has experts pegging McNair, 21, as a certain top-five pick in the NFL draft next April and, depending on how the expansion teams decide to build, perhaps the first player chosen. It also makes him, one hopes, the standard-bearer for a new generation of black NFL quarterbacks, the first who will enter the league without needing to break some shabby stereotype about their capacity to lead. Williams's triumph in the 1988 Super Bowl and Warren Moon's stellar consistency over the past decade forced this change, but there's one final step to go: There have to be "so many black quarterbacks that it no longer seems like a novelty," says Minnesota Viking defensive coordinator Tony Dungy, "or a charismatic type, a Joe Montana who wins so many Super Bowls that the issue just fades away."

And suddenly both possibilities seem within reach. College football has spawned many winning black quarterbacks over the past three years—Colorado's Kordell Stewart, Nebraska's Tommie Frazier, Virginia Tech's Maurice De Shazo; even Ole Miss, of all places, started Lawrence Adams last year. And now here's McNair, out of the same conference that quietly produced Jerry Rice and Walter Payton, carrying superstar intangibles like leadership and grace under fire.

Of course, people said Florida State's Charlie Ward possessed those characteristics. But once the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner refused to commit to the NFL over the NBA, his supposed deficiencies—too short and lack of a cannon arm—made him anathema. He wasn't drafted, and that created an intriguing divide: It was easy to conclude that Ward must not be good enough for the NFL, but a significant number of blacks felt, as Dungy put it, "slapped." Ward was taller than McMahon, with a stronger arm than Montana's, in a two-sport quandary similar to that faced by John Elway as a college senior. His snub confirmed the suspicion that the NFL still takes fewer chances on black quarterbacks than on white ones. "If you're black," Williams once said, "you have to walk on water or be gone."

Ward never even got the chance to try for that miracle. "I remember the day it happened," says Los Angeles Raider tight end Jamie Williams, who is black and who last year wrote and produced a documentary film on the media's treatment of black quarterbacks. "My wife looked at me, and her eyes were watering. I almost cried. The guy did it all in college, and he didn't get drafted. I was training with Jerry Rice and Ricky Watters, and they were like, I can't believe that happened.' It hit an emotional chord with black Americans. It gave everybody a sour taste."

The snub of Ward stunned McNair and left him disturbed, not only because the same thing could happen to him but also because of his belief that it had already happened to Fred. "It's very hard, because I know for a fact what he taught me is paying off for me now," McNair says of his older brother. "What hurts is that he didn't have someone to help him like he helped me."

Fred takes comfort in his brother's success. This summer in Albany he mulled over retirement after losing his starting job. But every day before practice he lifted himself out of the doldrums by watching a highlight video of Steve throwing touchdowns, Steve running, Steve winning. "It just drove my whole day, kept me going," he says. "He's the greatest quarterback ever to come through the SWAC."

And that's saying something, though most Heisman voters—who, lacking a clear front-runner, always seem to turn their eyes toward South Bend—will hold it against McNair. The Southwest Athletic Conference is small, underfunded and unable to lure recruits with big-time television, yet it has sent a steady stream of players, from Buck Buchanan to Payton to Charlie Joiner to Rice, to the NFL. Much has been made of the fact that McNair chose Alcorn because Division I schools wanted him as a defensive back, but the fact is, he was more accomplished as a defender out of high school. Jones and Taylor brought him along in a prostyle offense, and there aren't any defenses he can't handle now. "I look on film, and he's seeing it all: man, zone, combination, inside-outside, outside bracket," says Buffalo's Adams. "He sees everything you could imagine."

Last year McNair threw for 3,197 yards and 22 touchdowns and ran for 633 yards and eight more scores. He came close to leaving Alcorn for the NFL; he knew he was ready. But he also feared that the NFL would use the SWAC or a lack of experience or anything at all against him. He didn't want to give them any chance. "It was scaring me, too," says Tim McNair. "There was a lot of fear of that. I said, 'You know how good Fred was in college. If he can get bumped around, you can too. You need to stay one more year.' "

It worked. If possible, McNair has gotten better at two acts seemingly at odds: He has learned to stick in the pocket and search for the pass, even when running will keep him out of trouble; but he has also become more dangerous once he decides to bolt. "To be honest, everything has gotten better," McNair says. "I'm feeling comfortable with the offense. I know I can take advantage of defenses. I'm better with drop-back passing; I can sit back there as long as I want; I've got a great offensive line, receivers catching the ball. And once you've got those things clicking, it makes things easier."

He'll watch Division I-A games now and won't see much he can't do. "I know I could do better than that," McNair says. "I've matured enough. I've developed into a great quarterback."

The only thing left, of course, is leading Alcorn to the SWAC title, winning the Heisman, then moving on. But he won't be accomplishing any of this alone. Back when he was in high school and Fred was at Alcorn, the two used to call each other on weekends; if Steve threw for 300 yards and ran for 200 in Mount Olive on Friday, Fred had to do the same in Lorman on Saturday. "I carry a lot of Fred every time I play," Steve says. "If I win the Heisman, it'll be a great inspiration to dedicate it to him."

Saturday night after the Alabama State win, Fred McNair and Lucille and a couple of dozen neighbors from Mount Olive are sitting on a rise a quarter of a mile from Alcorn's Jack Spinks Stadium. A grill burns barbecue, the stadium lights still blaze. Tim is here already, and now they're waiting for Steve to come striding along, waiting to hand him a beer and a plate of catfish. Fred isn't sure he'll play football again, but he is at ease with this. He can't wait to talk over the game with Steve.

"We're looking forward to seeing him on another level," Fred says. "Nobody in his right mind can overlook this kid. Me, I know my career was a long row to hoe. It's something I say to him: I don't want you to go through what I've gone through.' And I don't think he will."

He smiles at that; it is dark, but you can hear the smile in his words. First home game of the year. He has been setting up under the pecan trees since he was a freshman himself, and this is the ninth and best year yet. Steve'll be coming soon.

"We're going to be out pretty late tonight," Fred says. "The later it gets for Tim and Steve, the better it is. The stars come out late, and when they come out, they start to rise. They sit above everything. We say, 'This is our boy. The stars are shining on us.' It's all we need."

PHOTOBILL FRAKESPHOTOBILL FRAKESPatience being one of his virtues, McNair is adept at staying in the pocket until he finds his target.PHOTOAL TIELEMANSAn ex-Alcorn star himself, Fred (above right, with Lucille) is Steve's inspiration and No. 1 fan.PHOTOBILL FRAKES[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWilliams (top) won a Super Bowl and Ward a Heisman, but their stories worry McNair.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER[See caption above.]PHOTOBILL FRAKESBesides piling up huge yardage, McNair (9) commands respect for his leadership ability.