Now Where, McNair?
A small hot-air balloon floated over the field in Youngstown, Ohio, for much of last Friday afternoon, carrying an ESPN camera and giving the football snobs one more chance to look down on Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair. He would have one more chance to take his case to the nation, to show that at the very least, he was capable of playing with the big boys of Division I-AA—defending champion Youngstown State. But when the game, a first-round matchup in the national playoffs, was over, the results were mixed: McNair showed why he will be an outstanding choice for some NFL team but an unlikely choice for Heisman voters.
McNair, the NCAA's alltime leader in total yardage, with 16,823 yards, amassed more mind-numbing passing totals, completing 52 of 82 attempts for 514 yards, but in the end his gaudy numbers looked about as legit as Ricki Lake's rap sheet. By halftime the game had deteriorated into something you would see at the corner sandlot, and Youngstown State went on to destroy Alcorn 63-20.
McNair's Heisman candidacy was crippled by a quirky offense that ran 97 plays, all but one of them from the shotgun. At one point Alcorn reeled off 35 straight pass plays; at another, Youngstown reeled off 35 straight points. McNair could only watch his overmatched defense and hope the Heisman voters didn't hold his latest 500-yard game against him. "Hopefully this game didn't hurt me," he said. "I hope I'm still in the hunt and I'm at least one of the candidates for the Heisman."
McNair handed the ball off five times and was sacked six times. He tried to scramble on occasion, but a sore left hamstring made him look as if he were wearing leg irons. "That was not Steve McNair out there," said Alcorn wide receiver Tim McNair, Steve's brother. "He was maybe 60 percent. Before the game, he said, 'I just hope I can make it through this.' "
McNair did more than make it through. He showed he has heart and determination to go with the arm, a point that was surely noted by several pro scouts who were among the crowd of 17,795 at Stambaugh Stadium. The hamstring injury forced him to drop straight back and throw out of the pocket, and even in pain, he looked as if he could have been performing in an instructional passing video. "I'm ready to move on and compete at another level," said McNair after the game. "That's what it's all about: proving yourself against the competition."
Alcorn was not much competition for Youngstown. Alcorn was 8-2-1 in the regular season but has never had much luck in the playoffs. Two years ago Northeast Louisiana nipped the Braves 78-27 in the first round. Their conference, the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which produced Walter Payton and Jerry Rice before McNair, is now 0-16 in the playoffs. Youngstown, on the other hand, has won two national championships in the last three years.
Would a healthier McNair have made a difference on Friday? Said Youngstown coach Jim Tressel after the game. "McNair might have been fortunate he had the hamstring. If he'd been running, he would have been tattooed."
Regardless, his college career is over, and McNair says he will concentrate on getting healthy and picking an agent. Soon he will be in the best football league in the world, and no one will ever again question the quality of his competition. No one will wonder how he would do at a higher level.
"A lot has been held against me all year," said McNair. "I did all I could do, all anyone could do. It's sad to see this day come, but I'm ready for whatever comes next."