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The 6'1", 215-pound Monk was courted by most of the big schools in the South, but he had difficulty convincing the coaches that he could play quarterback in college. Mike Archer, then the coach at Louisiana State, wooed the wide-eyed Monk mightily, but he made no mention of throwing passes, just intercepting them. Miami coach Dennis Erickson talked about playing in the wrong backfield as well. Mississippi State's Jackie Sherrill told him he could be the best defensive back ever to come out of Mississippi. Sherrill spoke of giving Monk a shot at quarterback during two-a-days in the summer, but Monk didn't trust him.
Monk had a dilemma: go to a big school and play defensive back, or go to a small school and play quarterback. There was no shortage of sentiments on the matter in Mount Olive. Powell Drug Store, at the corner of Main and Sixth downtown, is the kind of place where penny candy is still a penny and opinions come even cheaper. Powell's proprietor, Homer H. Powell, is an Ole Miss alum, class of '56, and he looks a great deal like the Rebel mascot, without the facial hair. "I've seen a lot of super quarterbacks, from Charlie Conerly to Archie Manning, and Steve is the best of 'em all," says Powell, a regular at Mount Olive games. "He could've gone anywhere. He could've won the Heisman if he'd gone to a school with some exposure."
As Powell spouts off, Dude Mangrum, whose nephew played with Monk at Mount Olive, wanders over from behind the rack of nail polish. "The key is that McNair wanted to play quarterback" Mangrum adds, "and to do that around here, a black kid has to go to a black school."
On the afternoon before signing day, Monk had finally decided on Southern Mississippi. But when slipping into bed that night, he was haunted by a legacy. "I sat up all night, and it was just something in my heart," he says. "I wanted to go where I knew I could play quarterback. It was the family tradition. I wanted to live up to that name: McNair." The next morning, on Valentine's Day, his 18th birthday, he signed with Alcorn State.
It didn't take McNair long to realize his ambition. He took over the quarterback spot in the first quarter of the opening game of his freshman season, as the Braves beat Grambling 27-22. McNair proved to be a potent offensive hybrid, a drop-back passer who could scramble. In two seasons he has rushed for 758 yards and 16 touchdowns and has thrown for 6,436 yards and 53 scores, many on bombs traveling as far as 70 yards.
Three times McNair has led Alcorn to comeback wins in the last two minutes of games. Last year at Grambling, McNair was carried off the field at halftime with a badly sprained ankle. He returned to throw three touchdowns and hobble across the goal line with a minute left to give the Braves a 35-33 win. Says Alcorn coach Cardell Jones, "I just knew at that point that God had chipped him out and said this will be a quarterback."
This summer when the SWAC coaches met in New Orleans, they turned it into a brainstorming session on how to take the air out of McNair.
"How about playing 12 guys on defense?" asked Mississippi Valley State coach Larry Dorsey. Then answering himself, he said, "Nan, that's not enough."
"I don't have a clue how to stop him," said Jackson State coach James Carson. "If you lay back, he'll pick you apart with the pass, but if you bring pressure, he becomes one of the best running backs in the conference. It's like choosing between a firing squad or the chair."
Said Grambling coach Robinson, "I remember when Jerry Rice played in the SWAC, my defense used to complain that he was laughing at them on his way to the end zone. Rice wasn't taunting them, he was just enjoying how good he was. That's the way this kid is."