Nashville is a young town when it comes to professional sports. For generations, most football fans here cheered for the University of Tennessee Volunteers…college ball was the sport of choice and the SEC was king. Professional football was in Dallas and Pittsburgh and Green Bay. But that all changed in 1997 when the Houston Oilers left Texas and headed north.
For the first couple of years, the team was known as the Tennessee Oilers. That first season, the games were played in Memphis. The next year they played at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville.
In 1999, the renamed Tennessee Titans took the field at their brand new stadium (now known as LP Field) on the banks of the Cumberland River and, it’s fair to say, that a love affair with the team began.
Back then, the team was led by a trio of charismatic athletes…Eddie George at running back. Frank Wychek at tight end and Steve McNair at quarterback.
I have to admit that in the early days I really didn’t pay much attention to the Sunday games. But as the years passed, I became more and more interested in what was happening there. To be sure, the NFL changed Nashville. No longer did the college world dominate local sports radio or the newspaper pages. I’ll never care for the Titans the way I care for the Vols, but I do have a soft place for them.
If you love football as much as I do, then you lament its short season. In college, 12 games are all you get. In the pros, it’s 16. Compared to the snoozefest that is baseball, the football season lasts a nanosecond. So gradually, I started taking more of an interest in the Titans. Soon it became clear that Steve McNair was a special player. He had a smile that lit up a room and tolerance for pain that was off the charts. Time and again he spent the weekdays on the sidelines or in rehab, watching his teammates practice. But every Sunday, there he’d be, no matter how bad he was hurting. He retired last year, after spending two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, but he and his family remained in Nashville.
That competitiveness, that drive to play no matter what, endeared Steve to his teammates and to his fans. Not only that, he was very visible in the community…loading trucks with supplies for the Mississippi coast after Hurricane Katrina…pitching in to clean up after tornadoes hit Nashville…donating items to silent auctions, signing autographs and just being a good guy.
But, as we learned on July 4, Steve wasn’t always the good guy we thought he was.
The married man and father of four was shot to death–murdered–by his 20 year old girlfriend, who then (it seems safe to say although the police won’t confirm it yet) killed herself.
Make no mistake about it, this is BIG NEWS around here. Far bigger than Michael Jackson’s death or Obama’s trip to Russia. This was our guy. The man who fell one yard short of scoring the tying touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIV. He fell short then, and he fell short on Saturday. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong person.
So what’s his legacy? Great competitor? Ole number 9 in the blue jersey? The big guy with the big smile?
Turns out, Steve McNair wasn’t Superman after all. He was human, just like the rest of us.
Charles Barkley once said that we shouldn’t make athletes into role models. Might just be the smartest thing he ever said.