Monday, July 6, 2009

On McNair

I have to admit, I never thought much one way or the other about Steve McNair; he was a professional quarterback, and he was, at times, a very good quarterback, and when I heard that he'd been shot to death over the weekend, I was suitably shocked. But it also kind of surprised me to hear, from a friend of a friend who lives in Nashville, that he had become a cult hero in that city. This is because, as someone who viewed his career from afar, what struck me about Steve McNair's career was how utterly normal it seemed.

And in saying that, I don't mean to discount McNair's extraordinary abilities or his mental/physical toughness or the fact that he led the Titans to a Super Bowl; even if McNair is not quite a Hall of Famer, there is a case to be made on his behalf. But I have this impression that McNair was of a generation of quarterbacks who essentially normalized the idea of the black quarterback, if that makes any sense. When he came into the league out of Alcorn State (a historically black school) in 1995, McNair was widely regarded as the best college quarterback in the country, and yet he was worried--his older brother, Fred, had been a star at Alcorn State and wound up bouncing around the CFL and the Arena Football League, and the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner, Charlie Ward, had gone undrafted and wound up in the NBA instead. "The doubts and stereotypes of black quarterbacks still exist," wrote J.A. Adande of the Washington Post, back in 1994; in fact, the major reason McNair wound up at Alcorn State was due to the fact that a number of major colleges recruited him as a defensive back.

These were not unreasonable concerns; we were only a decade removed from the odyssey of Doug Williams, and there was a very real perception that black quarterbacks were not given the same chances to succeed. I have little doubt that certain underlying prejudices still exist today, but--and I could be naive about this--I would like to think we have, at the very least, undergone a significant shift in the 15 years since McNair came into the league. And I would like to think McNair had quite a bit to do with this,* if only because he defied stereotyping, so much so that most of the obituaries I've read have essentially been color-blind. He was just a good quarterback, and while I'm sure this surreal ending to his life will inevitably alter his long-term legacy,** his football career was anything but surreal. And that's what made it great.

*"Just as critical, McNair wasn't another specific kind of guy: athletic - a running back lined up behind center," wrote former Baltimore Sun columnist David Steele. "The description that will stick to McNair for eternity is not 'athletic' but 'tough.' 'Leader' also fits, but the leadership came from the toughness. It was the one element of his game that could flip the old images on their heads."
**I am quite enamored by the fact that the blogosphere seems determined to solve this case by analyzing Facebook updates and posting cleavage-heavy photos of McNair's (now-dead) companion. "But don’t look for breaking news on this case from the sports media," one especially zealous blogger wrote (while also including a poll asking whether we, the audience, had "changed our mind" about the killings because of the new information his trolling of the Internets had brought to light). "It clearly can’t get away from the story fast enough. Thank goodness for blogs."
To which I ask: Is anyone who writes these things actually old enough to remember Richard Jewell?

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