And that's saying something, though most Heisman voters—who, lacking a clear front-runner, always seem to turn their eyes toward South Bend—will hold it against McNair. The Southwest Athletic Conference is small, underfunded and unable to lure recruits with big-time television, yet it has sent a steady stream of players, from Buck Buchanan to Payton to Charlie Joiner to Rice, to the NFL. Much has been made of the fact that McNair chose Alcorn because Division I schools wanted him as a defensive back, but the fact is, he was more accomplished as a defender out of high school. Jones and Taylor brought him along in a prostyle offense, and there aren't any defenses he can't handle now. "I look on film, and he's seeing it all: man, zone, combination, inside-outside, outside bracket," says Buffalo's Adams. "He sees everything you could imagine."
Last year McNair threw for 3,197 yards and 22 touchdowns and ran for 633 yards and eight more scores. He came close to leaving Alcorn for the NFL; he knew he was ready. But he also feared that the NFL would use the SWAC or a lack of experience or anything at all against him. He didn't want to give them any chance. "It was scaring me, too," says Tim McNair. "There was a lot of fear of that. I said, 'You know how good Fred was in college. If he can get bumped around, you can too. You need to stay one more year.' "
It worked. If possible, McNair has gotten better at two acts seemingly at odds: He has learned to stick in the pocket and search for the pass, even when running will keep him out of trouble; but he has also become more dangerous once he decides to bolt. "To be honest, everything has gotten better," McNair says. "I'm feeling comfortable with the offense. I know I can take advantage of defenses. I'm better with drop-back passing; I can sit back there as long as I want; I've got a great offensive line, receivers catching the ball. And once you've got those things clicking, it makes things easier."
He'll watch Division I-A games now and won't see much he can't do. "I know I could do better than that," McNair says. "I've matured enough. I've developed into a great quarterback."
The only thing left, of course, is leading Alcorn to the SWAC title, winning the Heisman, then moving on. But he won't be accomplishing any of this alone. Back when he was in high school and Fred was at Alcorn, the two used to call each other on weekends; if Steve threw for 300 yards and ran for 200 in Mount Olive on Friday, Fred had to do the same in Lorman on Saturday. "I carry a lot of Fred every time I play," Steve says. "If I win the Heisman, it'll be a great inspiration to dedicate it to him."
Saturday night after the Alabama State win, Fred McNair and Lucille and a couple of dozen neighbors from Mount Olive are sitting on a rise a quarter of a mile from Alcorn's Jack Spinks Stadium. A grill burns barbecue, the stadium lights still blaze. Tim is here already, and now they're waiting for Steve to come striding along, waiting to hand him a beer and a plate of catfish. Fred isn't sure he'll play football again, but he is at ease with this. He can't wait to talk over the game with Steve.
"We're looking forward to seeing him on another level," Fred says. "Nobody in his right mind can overlook this kid. Me, I know my career was a long row to hoe. It's something I say to him: I don't want you to go through what I've gone through.' And I don't think he will."
He smiles at that; it is dark, but you can hear the smile in his words. First home game of the year. He has been setting up under the pecan trees since he was a freshman himself, and this is the ninth and best year yet. Steve'll be coming soon.
"We're going to be out pretty late tonight," Fred says. "The later it gets for Tim and Steve, the better it is. The stars come out late, and when they come out, they start to rise. They sit above everything. We say, 'This is our boy. The stars are shining on us.' It's all we need."