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Loyal To His Roots
Tim Crothers
August 30, 1993
Alcorn State's Steve McNair spurned bigger schools so he could stay near home and play quarterback like his big brother
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August 30, 1993

Loyal To His Roots

Alcorn State's Steve McNair spurned bigger schools so he could stay near home and play quarterback like his big brother

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Make a left at the Piggly Wiggly, Monk had said, and go seven miles down Route 2, past Ora Baptist Church on the right, Mount Sinai Jesus Name Apostolic Church on the left, Sunset Baptist Church on the right, Sunset Jesus Name Holiness Church on the left and Cooley Springs Baptist Church on the right, then look for the wagon wheels. Beside the wagon wheels, on the rusty mailbox, there was once a crude sign, Monk explained, ink on cardboard, that signaled one's arrival at the Mount Pleasant Arena. Kids used to show up from towns all over this part of southern Mississippi to play ball with Monk and his brothers—Fred, Tim and Jason—at the imaginary stadium. They would play baseball and basketball in summer and winter, and football all year long.

Across Route 2 from the Mount Pleasant Arena is Clarence Deen Road—so named because Clarence Deen lives at its dead end. The third house on the right, behind the two pickup trucks on blocks with the stray dogs underneath, is where Alcorn State junior Steve (Monk) McNair lives with his family. Just inside the front door is the trophy room. Monk's two Southwestern Athletic Conference MVP awards mingle with dust bunnies on the floor. On the wall there's a newspaper story about Monk from when he played cornerback in high school, making his 30th interception to tie the state record. There are plenty of photos of Fred and Monk on the wall, too, and it's hard to tell the two apart; both are wearing number 9 and playing quarterback for Mount Olive High and Alcorn.

Monk doesn't dwell much on the trophies and mementos except to mention that visitors should look at them in the daytime because the lights don't work in this room anymore. When he's asked about winning another honor, the Heisman Trophy—Monk is this year's Cinderella candidate—he smiles and shrugs and then leads the way into the kids' bedroom. There are still more awards there, between the posters of Elijah Muhammad and Eddie Robinson. All four boys once slept in this glorified crawl space, two on a single bed and the other two in a bunk bed, until the night when the rapidly growing Monk, who was lying in the top bunk, came crashing down upon Tim in the bottom bunk.

As Monk gazes out the screen door that no longer deters the curious horseflies, he points out a cherry tree in front of the house. He tells the tale of how one day he and his brothers formed a human chain across Clarence Deen Road to keep the postman from meeting his appointed rounds. Their mother, Lucille, came out to scold them, but she couldn't catch Monk. "When he was escaping a whupping, Steve could climb that tree faster then any monkey I've ever seen," says Lucille, "so we just started calling him Monk."

A few hundred feet from the tree lives Monk's cousin Larry, who was the quarterback at Mount Olive in 1978, and at the base of the tree sits the trailer belonging to Monk's uncle Jimmy. Just beyond that trailer is another, which shelters Monk's aunt Gerline and his grandma Hattie, who has raised 10 kids along Clarence Deen Road. Monk has at least three dozen relatives who live within a square mile of his house, nearly enough to fill a section of bleachers at Mount Olive games. "This is my home," says Monk. "These are my kin. This place is who I am."

There are mama's boys and daddy's boys, but Monk is a brother's boy. Fred, who's four years older than Monk, looked after Monk after their father, Selma, abandoned the family, in 1981. Fred would baby-sit while Lucille worked 14-hour shifts at the local chicken hatchery. "A lot of nights I prayed and cried and wondered how this family would carry on," says Lucille. "Fred had to become the father in this house. When Fred told Monk and the others to jump, they jumped."

It was Fred who showed Monk how to hold a football, fingertips on the laces, and propel it in a tight spiral from one end of the Mount Pleasant Arena to the other. When Fred became the quarterback at Mount Olive, Monk would sit in the bleachers at practice every day, captivated by his brother's voice calling out the cadence. When Fred left for Alcorn, 85 miles west in Lorman, Monk took over as quarterback at Mount Olive and painted spats of Alcorn gold on his cleats to emulate his brother.

Monk even copied Fred's nickname. "One summer we were throwing the ball around, and Monk got this idea that I needed a flashy name," says Fred. "We thought of Fly and Sky, but we settled on Air. Monk told me, 'You'll be Air and I'll be Air II,' and that just stuck." The next fall Monk gave Fred a towel with AIR penned on it, and Fred kept it tucked in his uniform all season. Monk took to sporting his own towel with AIR II written on it. "Fred has taught me absolutely everything I know," says Monk. "I can't thank him enough for giving me a map and then showing me how to take the short road when he's taken the longer one."

Fred didn't win the starting quarterback position at Alcorn until his final year. He was the fifth-rated quarterback in Division I-AA in 1989, throwing for 1,898 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he wasn't selected in the NFL draft. Still, Walter Juliff, a Dallas Cowboy scout, had seen Fred play and signed him. But Fred was raw—he hadn't been tutored by an older quarterback-playing brother—and he was cut in training camp. He has played in the World League and the Canadian Football League since, and he's now hoping to hook on with a CFL team again.

When Monk began breaking Fred's passing records at Mount Olive, Fred started gently steering his brother toward Alcorn. He talked Monk, a shortstop, out of accepting a $5,000 bonus from the Seattle Mariners. He also persuaded Monk, a point guard, to pass on a few college basketball scholarship offers.

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