News of Steve McNair‘s death stunned the sports world this Fourth of July. That’s to be expected when talking about a 36-year-old former NFL quarterback.
McNair was a former MVP. He was on three Pro Bowl teams. He led the Tennessee Titans within a yard of the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in 2000. But his lasting legacy will be the toughness he displayed on the field.
That’s the image of McNair that came to my mind today after hearing the news. The QB who used to pick himself up off the ground and hobble back to the huddle was gunned down in a fatal shooting Saturday that also left a 20-year-old woman dead.
McNair – who retired in 2008 – was easy to like, easy to root for. He was the blue-collar, "lunch pail" guy that fans – and the media – are always yearning for. Even though he didn’t put up great stats, I found myself trying to get him on my fantasy football team every year. I didn’t care. He was tough, and I liked him for it.
His hard-nosed style was emblematic of another era of pro football, back when the NFL had Chuck Bednarik and lacked "roughing the passer" penalties.
When you really think about it, there aren’t that many players in the NFL that carry themselves without detraction. Take the Minnesota Vikings for example. Randy Moss was at times incredible, but he squirted a ref with his water bottle and had an incident with a traffic cop and played when he wanted to play. Daunte Culpepper had a great arm but fumbled too much. Adrian Peterson might be the best running back in the NFL, but HE fumbles too much. Everyone faces criticism.
But McNair? The worst thing I ever remember anyone saying about his playing career is he played too hurt too often. His desire to stay on the field was inspiring but also detrimental to the longevity of his career. How many players do you think wish that was the worst thing anyone said about them?
Gary Walker, who went to the 2002 Pro Bowl as a defensive end with the Houston Texans, once said McNair was Tennessee’s "best offensive lineman."
"To rush this guy," Walker said, "you have to have four people getting up the field and caging him in."
McNair wasn’t flashy or incredibly athletic (by NFL standards). But he was easy to like and easy to admire.
His shoes haven’t been filled yet in the NFL, and it will only be that much tougher to do so now that he’s gone.