The last time I spoke with Steve McNair was approximately three months ago. It was a brief conversation. His help was needed for an upcoming project and, as was his penchant, he was ready to oblige.
We set up a time to talk later this summer. Never thought it would be the last time we would ever speak.
|Steve McNair came out of Alcorn State in 1995 and became a pioneer in the NFL. (Getty Images)|
He ended the conversation: Talk to you this summer.
That was it. That was all.
And now he's gone.
You will always hear people speak about the dead in eloquent terms. Sometimes those nice words are forced, sometimes they aren't. With McNair, trust me on this, they are not.
This isn't to say all corners of his life were unblemished. McNair nevertheless was one of the great class acts in the sport.
McNair's personality was like his game on the field: rugged, unpolished and gritty. And, maybe more than anything else, understated. Beneath the strong Southern accent was a certain stoic eloquence and humbleness. He was just as smart as you were, but, unlike other athletes, never felt the need to jab you in the chest and let you know for sure.
We got to know each other when I worked for the New York Times and McNair was a Tennessee Titan. I saw him at Titans camps, we spoke on the phone once a month or so, about anything and everything. Others in the media knew McNair better, but I got to know him pretty well.
After Super Bowl XXXIV, when the Titans came inches from tying the score with no time on the clock, McNair told a small group of us "this close. This doggone close." He held his hands a short space apart. Whenever I would see him after that, I would repeat his gesture and he would play along.
Not many of our conversations passed without McNair defending the level of play at the Historically Black Colleges. He defended Alcorn State constantly and derided any notion that black-college football was inferior to any other.
When McNair was asked to leave the Titans' facility in 2006 over a contract dispute, there were private moments of anger but he never publicly lashed out. Because, above all, for the most part, McNair was classy.
He was also one of the toughest players I've ever seen in two decades of covering the sport. He took brutal shot after brutal shot and simply got back up. There was no whining. I used to joke with McNair that Jim Brown had been reincarnated as him.
It was that toughness which teammates admired most about McNair. A Tennessee offensive lineman once told me that McNair and Eddie George were the only players they considered one of them. If you ranked the greatest pure athletes in NFL history, McNair might make the top 10. If you ranked the toughest, he would definitely make the top 10.
I don't know what happened. I don't know why he's gone. That information will come later and be diced and sliced. Some of the information might make those of us who knew and admired him uncomfortable, or even sad.
But for now -- for right now -- I'll remember the man who always greeted me with a smile and a handshake. The man who always asked me about me -- and meant it.
In that last conversation, we chatted a little about the historic nature of the election of President Obama. As with many African-Americans, he felt it was a life-altering moment.
Few historical moments will reach that of Obama's, but it was McNair who allowed people like Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb and other black quarterbacks to enter the NFL and not face as many closed doors.
McNair always appreciated and knew that, but in typical McNair form he rarely felt the need to constantly point it out.
That was him.