Saturday, July 4, 2009

Steve McNair: He earned Nashville fans' respect

When people pass on, there's a natural inclination to glorify their achievements. So let me preface this by saying that I had thought about writing these comments about a year or two ago, well before today's terrible and shocking news.

The relationship between Nashville and Steve McNair is not just one of a town and a famous athlete. For those of you outside Nashville, let me explain a little bit about it.

I remember when the NFL's Houston Oilers first moved to Nashville to become the team that is now the Tennessee Titans. Back in those days, the team just wasn't very good. They had some potential, but they struggled constantly. This team we're getting from Texas, I thought to myself, they're not much to celebrate about.

I remember in particular that the team had two young men vying for the starting quarterback's job: Two guys named Neil O'Donnell and Steve McNair. They both had potential, but like their teams, they seemed to struggle constantly. I remember one particularly bad outing for McNair -- I can't remember whether this was in Memphis or at Vanderbilt Stadium -- but the home-field fans booed him for poor performance. I remember my friend and mentor Dwight Lewis wrote a column about it.

Today, it is hard for most of us to remember, or even believe, there was ever any doubt whether Steve should have been starting QB. And I don't recall the people of Nashville ever booing Steve McNair on the field ever again, as I recall.

Steve McNair earned the respect of the people of Nashville. And he didn't just do it by being part of a winning team. He worked his behind off for it.

Steve McNair wasn't one of those overpaid star quarterbacks who took off running for the first down and then slid toward it when a defensive player came within 20 yards of him. Steve would go running for that first down marker, and when those two defensive players grabbed him, he'd keep on running. He'd take those guys with him another 5 yards or so and just keep going. It'd take another defensive guy or two to pull him down. And even then, he didn't make it easy for them.

As a passer, Steve wouldn't ground the ball when the linebackers started to close in on him. I remember seeing linebackers grabbing him and hanging on to him as he looked around for a barely-open receiver downfield, and he'd still pull off some miracle completion.

Steve wasn't some athlete who made a zillion dollars a year and sat around on his behind and then whined about being disrespected. Steve worked. Steve earned his fans' respect by going out there and always giving his all, even when he was hurt and the odds were just unbelievable. Steve earned his pay every Sunday. Everybody knew who led that team on the field to all those just-barely and how-did-they-do-it victories.

Not only was he a really good quarterback, but Steve played hurt nearly every game in some of the Titans' best seasons, and I don't mean with some little small injury. Steve often played with serious injuries that would have sidelined most people. But he nearly always went out there, and if he went on the field, he played his heart out. It was as if you expected to read in the paper on Wednesday that he'd broken his back and was in traction but was expected to practice with the team Saturday for Sunday's game. Sometimes he was so hurt, as I recall, he wouldn't be well enough to practice with the team at all in the days before the next game -- but he'd still go out there on Sunday and pull off an incredible victory, usually at some great physical cost to himself.

And he'd go out there and he'd practically break his neck for the win. Just because he was hurt, he didn't give an inch. You'd see him limping sometimes, running back to the sidelines, and you knew he was in pain, but it never seemed to cause him to throw passes shorter, or to run slower, or to give it any less than he would physically than if he were healthy.

For all of that, Steve earned the Nashville fans' respect.

Now, Steve was not a saint. Very few people are, of course. As I recall, Steve got caught drinking and driving a few years ago. That's wrong. He shouldn't have done that. And when he was found to be drinking and driving, Steve may have gotten preferential treatment shown to him by local police officers because of his football hero status. That's also wrong. And, if what is being reported is true, it sounds like Steve was dating a woman while also still married to his wife. Also wrong.

But his achievements were still many. And that's why he's a huge sports hero to the people of Nashville.

We still don't know what happened. As of this writing, The Tennessean is saying that police say it appears to have been a murder-suicide -- Steve was shot several times, while the woman he was with was shot once.