In the long history of the National Football League, few men were tougher than Steve McNair.
The quarterback -- a three-time Pro Bowler who played for the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens -- was grittier than a nickel steak. He was so bad-ass he could make Bear Grylls cry uncle. Google “Steve McNair” and “tough” and your computer starts to smoke.
Patriots’ fans know what I’m talking about: In his 13 seasons in the NFL, he took some truly ferocious hits (including many from New England defenders like Rodney Harrison and Willie McGinest), but he’d always get up. You couldn’t get him out of a game. One writer compared him to a movie bad guy -- Jason or Freddy. You could chop off arms and legs, and he’d still be coming at you.
You name it, he injured it: Bruised sternum. Bone spurs. Multiple shoulder injuries. Calf. Hamstring. Thigh. Ankle. Back. There wasn’t a trainers’ table that could hold him. But come Sunday, more often than not, he’d be back out there, rallying his team.
Despite the litany of injuries, he kept winning. He made the playoffs five times, appeared in one Super Bowl and was a co-MVP in 2003. He finished with 31,304 yards passing and 174 touchdowns, many of which came at the expense of the Patriots. For many, he epitomized the warrior spirit it takes to succeed in the NFL.
So when word reached Gillette Stadium Saturday afternoon that McNair had been shot and killed at the age of 36, it hit hard, especially for New England’s senior football advisor Floyd Reese.
Reese served as Tennessee GM when McNair played with the Titans.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of today’s tragic news regarding the death of Steve McNair,” Reese said in a statement issued by the team. “He was a player who I admired a great deal. He was a tremendous leader and an absolute warrior. He felt like it was his responsibility to lead by working hard every day, no matter what.
“I don’t think there was a player who played with him or against him that didn’t look up to him and respect him. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family, his friends and the many teammates who loved and admired him.”
Most fans knew about the near miss against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, coming up a yard short against St. Louis. (If Mike Jones doesn’t tackle Kevin Dyson on the one-yard line as time runs out, those great Rams teams probably win ZERO Super Bowls. Think about that for a second.)
He really burst into the consciousness of New England football fans in 2003. In a year where he would go on to win co-MVP honors, McNair posted two of the great performances any quarterback could hope to pull off against a classic Patriots’ defense.
In Week 5 at Gillette Stadium, he was flat-out amazing, completing 23-of-45 passes for 360 yards, including three tosses that went for over 40 yards. Showing the full range of his abilities, he also rushed for a pair of touchdowns in a 38-30 loss. No quarterback -- not Peyton Manning, not Byron Leftwich, not Jake Delhomme – threw for more yards in a game against the Pats that year.
But it was that divisional playoff game between New England and Tennessee where McNair was at his best. The end of that season, he didn’t practice much -- if at all -- during the week, preferring not to risk his body until game time because of a painful bone spur. Oh, and then there was the brutal cold. Like the kind of cold you get at the polar ice caps. The kind of cold that makes you think Al Gore is a stone liar.
These were two of the toughest teams in the NFL at their best, grinding their way through the elements. (Want to go back and remember? Put on a parka and watch this. My favorite sequence is where the Tennessee lineman confesses he’s “freaking out” because he can’t feel his hands or his feet.)
McNair very nearly led his team to victory against a superior foe, going 18 of 26 for 210 yards and a touchdown. (A late fourth-down heave came up short when wide receiver Drew Bennett simply dropped the football.) While the Patriots emerged with a narrow 17-14 victory, it was McNair who earned the respect of the New England football cognoscenti with his ability to very nearly put his team over the top.
“When he started limping, everyone was like, ‘C’mon Steve. Everyone knows you’re OK,’” Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said after the game. “He gets hit and keeps coming.”
He enjoyed some good seasons later in his career -- in his first year with the Ravens (2006), he was a Pro Bowler, throwing for 3,050 yards and 16 touchdowns. But he never reached the same level again -- injuries (what else) cut his career short after the 2007 season, and he hung up his pads at the age of 35.
In the end, there were no Super Bowl rings. He wasn’t Brady or Manning. But his ability to will a team to new heights through sheer force of will -- damn the injuries, less-than-dependable receivers or opposition -- is a legacy that will long be remembered in the halls of Gillette Stadium, and one that should be celebrated by the NFL for generations to come.