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Air McNair
S.L. Price
September 26, 1994
Steve McNair is the best quarterback—black or white, big school or small—in college football
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September 26, 1994

Air Mcnair

Steve McNair is the best quarterback—black or white, big school or small—in college football

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Still, this season's Grambling loss haunts him. It didn't matter that no one blamed McNair, or that Eddie Robinson, Grambling's legendary coach, hugged him afterward and told him, "Son, you're a great quarterback. You are the best. I love you." Robinson's words felt wonderful, but this was one of the few times in McNair's football life that he had failed to deliver. "I wasn't happy," he says. "We lost." And McNair knows that words won't make up for any lapse. That's because he is a Division I-AA quarterback and he is black, and the world has seen too many such men who somehow couldn't get their due. Willie Totten? He threw for more touchdowns while at Mississippi Valley than any Division I-AA quarterback ever; he wasn't drafted. Doug Williams? He was a Super Bowl MVP, but he remains bitter because he's sure prejudice eventually cost him his career. And then, Steve McNair believes, there's his older brother.

Fred McNair, 25, preceded Steve as the quarterback at Mount Olive High but didn't win the starting job at Alcorn until his senior year, in 1989; then he threw for 1,898 yards and 14 touchdowns. Along the way, the two brothers shared a nickname—Air and now Air II—and Fred passed on to Steve everything he knew about quarterbacking. The two still spend telephone calls chatting about reads and audibles and coaches' mistakes. Fred is the only one Steve completely trusts when it comes to judging his own game. "He has one of the best arms I've ever seen," Steve says. So it hurts him to see what happened to Fred, how he bounced around from a Dallas Cowboy camp to the Canadian Football League to the World League back to the CFL to Arena football in Albany, N.Y., this year. McNair can't help but feel that he operates with an exceedingly slim margin for error.

"What I have to do is execute as well as I can, have an almost perfect game," Steve says. "I don't want to have any defects in my mechanics or how I read defenses. I want to have everything down pat. I don't want people saying, Hey, he's got to work on this or that. I want to have everything working."

By general agreement, he doesn't have to tinker much. Despite his production on the ground, McNair may be known best for his discipline; he rarely leaves the pocket until all his passing options have been exhausted, and he can read coverages, see the field, like few others. "Steve has the intelligence of a Montana, the release of a Marino, the scrambling ability of an Elway," says Alcorn's Taylor. 'He's got all that like I've never seen in an athlete before. This is my 19th year, and I've seen a lot of great players. I've been in 12 different pro camps, and I see what they have there. I haven't seen anybody yet I can compare this kid with."

Such talk has experts pegging McNair, 21, as a certain top-five pick in the NFL draft next April and, depending on how the expansion teams decide to build, perhaps the first player chosen. It also makes him, one hopes, the standard-bearer for a new generation of black NFL quarterbacks, the first who will enter the league without needing to break some shabby stereotype about their capacity to lead. Williams's triumph in the 1988 Super Bowl and Warren Moon's stellar consistency over the past decade forced this change, but there's one final step to go: There have to be "so many black quarterbacks that it no longer seems like a novelty," says Minnesota Viking defensive coordinator Tony Dungy, "or a charismatic type, a Joe Montana who wins so many Super Bowls that the issue just fades away."

And suddenly both possibilities seem within reach. College football has spawned many winning black quarterbacks over the past three years—Colorado's Kordell Stewart, Nebraska's Tommie Frazier, Virginia Tech's Maurice De Shazo; even Ole Miss, of all places, started Lawrence Adams last year. And now here's McNair, out of the same conference that quietly produced Jerry Rice and Walter Payton, carrying superstar intangibles like leadership and grace under fire.

Of course, people said Florida State's Charlie Ward possessed those characteristics. But once the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner refused to commit to the NFL over the NBA, his supposed deficiencies—too short and lack of a cannon arm—made him anathema. He wasn't drafted, and that created an intriguing divide: It was easy to conclude that Ward must not be good enough for the NFL, but a significant number of blacks felt, as Dungy put it, "slapped." Ward was taller than McMahon, with a stronger arm than Montana's, in a two-sport quandary similar to that faced by John Elway as a college senior. His snub confirmed the suspicion that the NFL still takes fewer chances on black quarterbacks than on white ones. "If you're black," Williams once said, "you have to walk on water or be gone."

Ward never even got the chance to try for that miracle. "I remember the day it happened," says Los Angeles Raider tight end Jamie Williams, who is black and who last year wrote and produced a documentary film on the media's treatment of black quarterbacks. "My wife looked at me, and her eyes were watering. I almost cried. The guy did it all in college, and he didn't get drafted. I was training with Jerry Rice and Ricky Watters, and they were like, I can't believe that happened.' It hit an emotional chord with black Americans. It gave everybody a sour taste."

The snub of Ward stunned McNair and left him disturbed, not only because the same thing could happen to him but also because of his belief that it had already happened to Fred. "It's very hard, because I know for a fact what he taught me is paying off for me now," McNair says of his older brother. "What hurts is that he didn't have someone to help him like he helped me."

Fred takes comfort in his brother's success. This summer in Albany he mulled over retirement after losing his starting job. But every day before practice he lifted himself out of the doldrums by watching a highlight video of Steve throwing touchdowns, Steve running, Steve winning. "It just drove my whole day, kept me going," he says. "He's the greatest quarterback ever to come through the SWAC."

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