Saturday, July 04, 2009

Steve McNair: Slain NFL MVP bridged a generation of black quarterbacks

The media tends to overemphasize the importance of someone being the first or last of his kind.

Steve McNair, the former NFL MVP who was murdered Saturday in Nashville, would fill the middle chapters of a book about the progress of the black quarterback in pro football. He was important, as someone who was taken in the first 10 picks of the draft. McNair, who "won’t get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but was one of the league’s toughest players," (Biloxi Sun-Herald, June 28), spanned a generation when black quarterbacks went from novelty to normative to being at risk of becoming a novelty once again. That is important.

(P.S. Interesting comments from the ex-boyfriend of the slain young woman, Sahel Kazemi.)

McNair came up the hard way, playing at Alcorn State in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which Sports Illustrated described in 1994 as "small, underfunded and unable to lure recruits with big-time television, yet it has sent a steady stream of players, from Buck Buchanan to (Walter) Payton to Charlie Joiner to (Jerry) Rice, to the NFL."

In that sense, he was the last of his kind, reaching back to a bygone era when the big-time football schools were not open to blacks. One macabre irony of his death is that McNair had just opened a restaurant on Jefferson Street near Tennessee State University. That is the alma mater of one of his predecessors in the NFL, Joe Gilliam, who also died young. Gilliam's nickname was Jefferson Street Joe.

McNair was a few years ahead of the trend in major-college football toward the spread offence, which has spawned a new breed of star, the dual threat quarterback. (He was more of a drop-back, pro-style passer, but since people think in images, he probably would have got a shot in the spread.) Here one thinks of several exemplars who are both black and white, such as Tim Tebow at Florida, Vince Young when he played at Texas, Alex Smith at Utah, current Pittsburgh Steelers backup Dennis Dixon, who if not for a knee injury would have led the Oregon Ducks to the BCS title game in 2007 and, of course, Michael Vick. Scouting and recruiting networks even in the early 1990s were nothing compared to today. Someone would have discovered him in this day and age, when in 30 seconds you can find YouTube footage of a quarterback from the University of Montana who might be signing with the Saskatchewan Roughriders (Cole Bergquist, remember the name).

Less than 20 years ago, people still noticed when you turned on a NFL game on Sunday and saw a quarterback who was black. In January, when the NFL playoffs were on, a writer named David D. at The Smoking Section mused that it might seem passé to dwell on this issue with Barack Obama now in the White House. However, it still draws a lot of water, especially with how Young, Vick and Daunte Culpepper have struggled:
"Aside from perhaps the hockey goalie, the Black quarterback is one of the last frontiers of major sports. The fact that the quarterback is responsible for the cerebral field has historically made general managers and coaches hesitant to put the keys in the hands of an African-American who is characterized as merely a instinctual athlete good for running out of the pocket, with questionable accuracy and limited ability to think on his feet."
If you read the S.I. cover story from the fall of 1994, you can understand the banner McNair carried into the NFL.
"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.'

" ... 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 record should show McNair carried the standard pretty well, guiding the wild-card Tennessee Titans to within one yard of forcing overtime in the Super Bowl in 2000 and sharing MVP honours with Tom Brady Peyton Manning in 2003. Brady Manning deserved it hands-down, but the voters made a huge deal of McNair's toughness and leadership, which shows how attitudes have improved.

Meantime, talk about an awful, unnecessary death. No one deserves to leave this mortal coil at such a young age, 36 years old. Ultimately, in the short time he had, McNair made a lot of progress, for that he should be remembered no matter what.

Update: Mocking The Draft wrote a very nice tribute:
"Still today, McNair remains one of the greatest quarterback prospects of all time. He was not wasted potential like Ryan Leaf, Todd Marinovich or Vince Young. He was like John Elway and Steve Young – incredible athletes who went on to NFL glory. Much like Jerry Rice and Walter Payton, he was the rare star from the Southwesten Athletic Conference.

"It took 13 years for an NFL team to take a Division I-AA quarterback in the first round when Baltimore took Joe Flacco. It's only fitting that McNair's roster spot in Baltimore to be theoretically used by Flacco after his retirement in April 2008.

" ... What was even greater about McNair was that he seemingly broke that last quarterback color barrier. Doug Williams won the Super Bowl. Warren Moon sustained greatness for a whole career. McNair was the first to be a top draft pick. It's impossible not to think, then, McNair's success played a factor in Philadelphia's decision to take Donovan McNabb second overall in 1999."
Update II:Jeff Pearlman has some good stuff:
"McNair was genuine. Teammates loved him. I mean, really loved him. He was gritty and tough and hard-nosed. He played through pain and thrived at overcoming odds."

McNair defined the magic of the NFL Draft (Mocking The Draft)
Air McNair; Steve McNair is the best quarterback — black or white, big school or small — in college football (S.L. Price, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 26, 1994)


Anonymous said...

Great read!

Hate to be a pest, but it was Peyton Manning that he shared the award with.


sager said...

Thanks. Good catch, AJ.

Ryan said...

Steve rocked as a QB. To bad he went down like this.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and somewhat conflicting reports on this tragic incident.
Apparently McNair was shot several times while the woman was shot only once, with a gun found near her.
That would seem to suggest that she may have perpetrated a murder-suicide but Nashville police insist they don't believe it was a murder-suicide.

sager said...

Thanks. That is well-covered over at Deadspin and TMZ. I don't much care what the circumstances were. I just know two people are dead.

Dennis Prouse said...

Some interesting twists and turns in this case. At first it seemed like an open and shut murder-suicide, but the police are reluctant to characterize it as that yet. That ex-boyfriend better have an air-tight alibi.

Interesting comments as well on Twitter from Holly Robinson Peete. Let's just say that Rodney Peete better not stray unless he wants to end up being Bobbitted.

sager said...

Now there are reports the gun recovered at the scene was purchased by the young woman — but again, remember the guy how he lived.

sager said...

Nice article on how McNair motivated Peyton Manning.

"McNair and the Titans had the edge on the Colts early on. The Titans beat the Colts 19-16 in the playoffs following the 1999 season, with McNair an efficient 13 of 24 for 112 yards while Manning was a frustrated 19 of 42 for 227 yards.

"McNair's next two wins over Manning were lessons in efficiency. McNair's two-game totals were 33 of 42 passing for 319 yards and two touchdowns. Manning tried to counter with nonstop passing (63 of 92 for 624 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions).

"As Manning became more careful with the ball, the Colts tipped the series balance. Manning won his final six meetings against McNair – the last coming when McNair had joined the Baltimore Ravens.

"It was a tribute to McNair's skills that Manning's best game in the Colts-Titans series came when McNair was injured and unable to play. Without the threat of McNair on the other side, Manning completed 25 of 33 passes for 425 yards and three scores in a 51-24 win in 2004."

Dennis Prouse said...

Neate, I liked Steve McNair the player. Now that I know he had a 20 year old mistress on the side, even though he was a married father of four, I like Steve McNair the man somewhat less. That's a moral failing which, to me, is difficult to overlook or brush aside.

sager said...

Fair enough. I would suggest no one truly knows anything about someone whom they never met.