By then, football insiders were taking notice. McNair finished third in the 2002 MVP voting, and players around the league scoffed at his exclusion from the Pro Bowl. "It's like, 'What's wrong with this picture?' " Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent says. "People compare Steve with guys like Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb because of his running ability, but to me he's almost a mirror image of [the Green Bay Packers'] Brett Favre. They approach the game the same way, they're extremely difficult to bring down, and man, they are tough."
Favre and McNair, who in the off-season live down the road from each other in the Hattiesburg, Miss., area, absorb as much physical abuse as Johnny Knoxville and his Jackass gang, but you won't hear either quarterback complaining. Nor does McNair express bitterness about the Pro Bowl snubs ("You can't miss what you've never had," he says) or the relative tardiness of the acclaim that's finally coming his way ("I'm a patient man. Patience is what's gotten me this far").
McNair isn't much for muss or fuss and dreams of retiring to the 643-acre ranch he owns in his hometown of Mount Olive, Miss., where he'll "sit in a rocking chair and look out at my cows and horses grazing in the pasture." Says Mechelle, who met her husband when the two were students at Alcorn State, "He tries to convince me that rabbit and raccoon are good meat. I tell him, 'I'm not eating roadkill.' "
Steve and Mechelle also have different sleeping habits. Most nights, Mechelle says, she sleeps alone upstairs in the couple's bed, while Steve sits on the couch downstairs, drifting in and out of slumber while watching Gunsmoke, Matlock, In the Heat of the Night or Walker, Texas Ranger. It's not a stretch to say that McNair's soundest sleep comes at the stadium on Sunday mornings. He insists on taking pregame naps that usually last around an hour—he snoozed for two hours on an X-ray table before the game against Miami—using a rolled bath towel as a pillow. On the road, finding a dark, quiet place can be an adventure. "One time in Detroit we pulled out some mobile lockers and created a two-foot space, and I slept behind them on the floor with my feet sticking out," McNair says. "I like to lie there and visualize what might happen in a game, until I'm in a deep fog."
Once the game begins McNair, who has missed only seven starts in the last six years, achieves a transcendental state in which he is oblivious to pain. Often he can't remember the specifics of how he sustained an injury. "It's like I get so focused on winning," he says, "that I block everything else out." Usually about 12 hours after a game, McNair is jolted back to reality. "All week long my wife will see me hurting, and she'll preach to me that I shouldn't play [the next game]," he says. "Then I'll go out there anyway, and when the pain pops up again at 3 a.m. and I wake her up, she'll say, 'Why didn't you listen to me?' "
Mechelle's opinions aren't born solely of spousal concern; she recently became a registered nurse, a vocation that, for her husband, is exceedingly convenient. (Among other things she has wrapped his fingers in splints and applied ice to his feet.) "Sometimes Steve will be downstairs at 3 a.m. and will call me—his cellphone to the phone next to the bed—to ask me to bring him something," Mechelle said after Sunday's game. "At times he'll even ask our son [Tyler, 5] to get him a glass of water. I swear, I have two children."
As Steve and Tyler, roaming the locker room in matching olive suits, began to walk her way, Mechelle turned serious. She recounted the severe infection her husband contracted in his throwing shoulder early in 2001, one that required emergency surgery, a 15-gallon saline flush and twice-daily IV antibiotic treatments that lasted for two weeks. "One night I remember him crying and asking me for help, begging for more pain pills when I'd already given him the maximum amount," Mechelle said. "I was panicking, fearing the worst; his football career wasn't even a consideration."
Now the Titans are riding that right arm and gunning for their first NFL title. Due to deliver the couple's second son on Jan. 30, two days before Super Bowl XXXVIII, Mechelle says that if a conflict arises, she would be willing to tough it out in the delivery room without the Titans' most important player. "I'll be fine," she recently told her husband. "Just make sure you bring back the ring."
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