As we celebrate Independence Day, we honor and pay homage to the brave men and women who fought for us…and lost their lives…so that we may be able to enjoy the freedom(s) that we have today.
We humbly applaud and salute you all.
For Tennessee Titans fans, it’s also a time to reflect on the life…and tragic death of our founding father…quarterback Steve McNair, who’s life was cut short on this day eight years ago in downtown Nashville.
One of the highlights of my young adulthood was the Titans magical 1999 season, a team of blue collar overachievers led by McNair. I remember buying single game tickets to every home game (upper deck tickets were only $15.00 back then), and I went home happy every time.
Tennessee went undefeated at home in their inaugural season, and McNair was the catalyst.
While we all remember his physical toughness, it was his mental toughness…his will to win…that eventually won over the city.
Key word being…eventually.
I was there on opening day against the Cincinnati Bengals in 99. I saw McNair struggle…I heard the boos…I heard the calls for backup qb Neil O’Donnell.
I then watched McNair rally the team from a 9 point fourth quarter deficit, and escape with a thrilling 36-35 come from behind victory.
If we only knew how much of a foreshadowing that was when it happened.
McNair severely injured his back shortly thereafter, causing him to miss four games early that season. Backup qb Neil O’Donnell, a traditional pocket passer with a Super Bowl appearance on his resume, led the team to an impressive 3-1 record, and played quite well.
As the wins continued to roll in, pleas for O’Donnell to remain the starter grew louder and louder.
McNair was cleared to return in week 8, just in time to face the juggernaut, and undefeated St. Louis Rams in Nashville. When then head coach Jeff Fisher named McNair the starter, fans lost their minds. But in their defense, it was hard to image McNair, who had missed so much time, being effective against a team that good.
I sat in the stands and watched McNair score three first quarter touchdowns, leading the Titans to an upset win over the Rams.
He went on to lead the team to the Super Bowl that season, and put on a second half performance for the ages.
Images of him rallying his team back by sheer will, throwing off 300 pound would-be tacklers, running around and making plays, still gives hard core Titans fans goose bumps.
At that point we all knew there was something special about this qb.
I remember when McNair’s body started to wear down midway through his career, the result of vicious hits accumulating over time. The physical, running style of play that made him a house hold name was now threatening his career.
And what he did next made him a Nashville legend.
Instead of riding off into the sunset, being satisfied with being known as the best running qb of all time, he reinvented himself…and became Air McNair.
It was like Tennessee traded McNair for….McNair. A running qb for a pocket passing qb. Air McNair continued to not only lead the team to the playoffs, but earned Co-MVP honors with Peyton Manning in 2003.
Something no one would have predicted.
The numerous come from behind victories, the critical drives extended with his arms and legs, the million dollar confident smile, the pointing to the sky as he ran onto the field with 67,000 fans going wild…all believing that with him, we could beat anyone.
All the things that won over the city, and cemented McNair as the greatest player in the history of the (new) franchise.
From 1999 – 2005, the Titans were relevant. They were making playoff runs and playing on national television, due in large part to McNair.
As we look forward to the Marcus Mariota era in Tennessee, let’s not forget the life and death of our fallen hero. Especially today.
RIP Steve “Air” McNair….February 14, 1973 – July 4, 2009