You know how you can tell something stings?
Try being on your first day of vacation, readying for some fun and sun in the tropics, when you log onto CBSSports.com to check on the happenings around the world in sports, and the headline smacks you quickly back to reality.
Steve McNair: 1973-2009.
He's dead? Can it be?
Then I read on and saw that his was another life lost way too early to a bullet, his life ending in its prime. McNair, the former NFL quarterback for Tennessee and Baltimore, was killed in a Nashville condo along with a 20-year-old woman.
|Steve McNair led Tennessee to a 33-14 win at Jacksonville in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 23, 2000. (Getty Images)|
I didn't know McNair all that well, but I did talk to him many times, relating to football. He was always polite, accommodating and eager to help. In an era of the diva quarterback, he was far from it.
You needed 30 minutes, it was yours. Even when it went bad, and it did at times, he always showed up to face the music.
Some NFL big-shot quarterbacks could learn a thing or two from McNair.
As for his football, he was a damn good player, not a great one. I watched him grow as a quarterback as he learned to become a pocket passer, which he had to do.
When I covered the Jacksonville Jaguars as a beat writer, McNair played the Jaguars twice a season with the Titans. Early on, the Jaguars would simply play zone and force him to beat him with his arm, players on their team often saying they didn't think he could.
I termed it Dare McNair, a play on his nickname of Air McNair. It stuck for a while too.
In 1999, McNair shoved that right up the Jaguars' you-know-whats. He earned a spot in the Super Bowl by running over them for 91 yards in the AFC Championship Game. His 49-yard run, which included several Jaguars players bouncing off of him, set up one of his two touchdowns that day.
McNair overpowered the tacklers, his toughness, which defined him his entire career, there for all to see.
Eventually, McNair played his way out of the can't-pass label. He learned. He became a better downfield passer and he eventually was named co-MVP with Peyton Manning in 2003.
At the time, I wrote the "co must go" because I didn't think McNair deserved the award. I still don't, but you know what: I'm glad he got it.
Manning can still win many more. McNair's family now has that legacy to hold on to. Their daddy and son was an MVP in the NFL.
When McNair was coming out of Alcorn State, there was talk the Jaguars might take him with the second pick in the draft. I remember running after McNair and then-coach Tom Coughlin in the streets of Indianapolis as they went for a pre-draft meeting. They didn't draft him and he made them pay.
That Indy combine was 1995. Twelve years later, I watched McNair's last game. I was in Baltimore to cover the Ravens-Bengals game in November 2007.
McNair was dreadful that day. He threw for 128 yards, lost two fumbles and threw an interception. He was benched.
In the locker room that night, McNair was the last one to meet the media, a good hour after the game. That was his norm -- taking a long time to dress. As he pulled on his clothes you could see the pain he was feeling, all those hits breaking him down.
As he talked, you knew he was done.
"This is probably the lowest point in my career," McNair said that night. "What do I need to do about it? I don't know."
Retire is what he eventually did at the end of the season, leaving behind a nice career that one had to wonder how good it could have been had he been totally dedicated to the game.
The last time I saw McNair throwing a football was on some television show that pits former players against wannabes. He competed like a man trying to win a Super Bowl.
That was McNair. Once the game started, he was a warrior.
That's what I'll remember most about his football life. What I'll remember about his death is that even though I was a world away, it hit me as hard if he ran over me with his pads on.