As an alumnus of Jackson State University, it is not common for one of us to have fond football memories of someone who did not don the "Blue and White" uniform, especially one of the dreaded Purple and Gold members of the Alcorn State University Braves. Steve "Air" McNair was the exception.
From 1992 to 1994, McNair was the most feared quarterback in college football, leading Alcorn to three SWAC Championships and to this day is the all-time leader in passing yards and total offensive yardage in Division 1-AA Football. He finished third in the 1994 Heisman Trophy voting and won the Walter Payton Award as the best player in Division 1-AA NCAA Football, now known as the FCS Division. He had a stellar 13-year career in the NFL, primarily with the Tennessee Titans, leading them to their only Super Bowl appearance, was a Co-MVP of the league in 2003 and a 3-time Pro Bowler.
He was a winner on and off the field, and that is why his tragic death comes as a shock to all of us who had the chance to watch him play and know him as a fellow Mississippian. My memories of Steve comes from talking with him whenever Jackson State played Alcorn, from him helping my candidate Ronnie Musgrove work the press box at Jack Spinks Stadium, and from his efforts, along with Brett Favre, to lead the NFL's aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina, including their own families.
However, I have to admit that my greatest memories of him come from the playing field. One game that received national attention was when he took on the Jim Tressel-led Youngstown State University Penguins on their march to the Division 1-AA Championship that year. McNair played valiantly in a game where Alcorn was clearly outmatched. Tressel feared McNair so much, that he only rushed three down linemen on every play, dropping eight men down field to keep McNair from hurting him with his deadly accurate passing.
But the game I cherish the most, and I felt truly defined Steve's championship demeanor, was the last game Alcorn played Jackson State in Spinks Stadium. This team, led by James "Big Country" Johnson, was JSU's best chance in the three years McNair guided Alcorn to win the annual "Soul Bowl", now known as the Capital City Classic. JSU had the ball first, with Alcorn's defense stopping Big Country five yards behind the line of scrimmage on the first play. The very next play, Johnson ripped off a 20 yard run that ignited JSU's first scoring drive.
McNair then had his turn to have the ball and he led a drive that answered JSU. This was an early indication that whoever had the ball last on offense was going to win that epic game. Guess who had the ball last? If you said Alcorn you were correct. McNair willed Alcorn to win that game 42-35. It was one of the greatest college football games I had ever witnessed in person and it gave me such an appreciation of talent of one Steve"Air" McNair.
After the 2007 NFL season, battered and bruised, McNair decided to end his football career. He had moved on from football to fully engage himself in a business venture that started earlier this year in Nashville. Unfortunately, he did not get to see the fruition of this new chapter in his life, but that reminds me of the last verses of one of the aforementioned scriptures:
"If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them."
That verse is from the eleventh chapter of Hebrews which defines how strong faith may not lead to earthly gains but it will lead to the ultimate reward of eternal life with God. If Steve wanted to go back to the NFL, he could have. But he stepped out on faith to life after football, to watch his oldest son play football, to grow his new business venture. It is my hope that his faith in God and his service to his fellow man outside of football has allowed him to receive that ultimate reward, despite not seeing the things that he had placed a new focus on here on this earth.
I will miss Steve "Air" McNair, the player whose number 9 jersey was the first my son ever wore, and the man who pleased his God so much that He could not bear to be without him anymore. May God continue to bless, be with and keep the McNair family in His favor.