It's no wonder that the death of Steve McNair became an instant rush of speculation. There were the bullet wounds: Two in his head, two in his chest, one in the skull of a 20-year-old woman nearby. There was the woman: a waitress, not his wife, arrested for DUI just two days before in an Escalade registered to her and McNair, then sitting in the passenger seat. There was the Nashville condo where they were found: rented by McNair and a buddy, in an upscale neighborhood, into which the 36-year-old McNair, a father of four, and the waitress, Sahel Kazemi, were seen entering between 1:30 a.m. and 2 a.m. on the Fourth of July.
But to Frank Wycheck—the former tight end who had played beside McNair for nine seasons, seen him shrug off back surgery and painful bouts of turf toe, endure a bruised sternum, pop back in dislocated fingers and yet lead the Titans to win after win—all the sordid details were beside the point. What was most shocking was that the quarterback died at all. "I was totally blown away," said Wycheck, "because I always felt that Steve McNair was indestructible."
Indeed, Air McNair threw for 31,304 yards and 174 touchdowns over a riveting 13-year career with Tennessee and Baltimore in which he made three Pro Bowls and was co-MVP in 2003. But more than anything it was that tough, self-sacrificing demeanor that defined his career. Both soft-spoken and supremely confident, with a throwback attitude and a disciplined mobility that set a new standard for black—and white—quarterbacks, the country boy out of Mount Olive, Miss., and Alcorn State inspired awed devotion from hard-core fans and universal admiration from teammates and opponents. "He'd run around, make someone miss, run someone over and get absolutely blasted by a defensive lineman, and his helmet would be all crooked," Wycheck said. "Then he'd look at us and say, 'Isn't this fun? Smile, guys: This is fun.'"
"He appreciated everybody's job," said Kevin Dyson, the former Titans receiver who in the 2000 Super Bowl caught the last of McNair's passes during a comeback in which McNair marched the Titans 87 yards to the Rams' one as time expired. "I dropped my fair share of balls; we all ran the wrong routes, missed blocks. But Mac'd take a shot he shouldn't have took, dust himself off, get in the huddle and didn't complain. Just, Let's go. He'd come right back to you, trust you again. Now you see quarterbacks throw their helmets down, run down the field screaming at a guy. But never once—watch tape of every game he played—would you see him do that."
Years of battles convinced Ray Lewis, Baltimore's combustible and self-loving linebacker, that McNair was the one QB whose intensity matched his own; he personally recruited him to the Ravens in 2006. But all the injuries, all that mileage, had begun to show. McNair got benched, retired after two seasons there; for those who'd seen him, so unstoppable, so strong, at Alcorn State, it seemed he had given his body to the game. McNair, as usual, didn't complain.
Even before last Thursday he'd had alcohol-related scrapes with the law. He was charged with DUI and illegal gun possession in 2003 and DUI by consent in 2007, when he was a passenger in a car driven by his brother-in-law, who was charged with drunken driving. But charges against McNair were dropped in both cases, and any dings in his image never lasted. Maybe they just reinforced what we secretly like to see in a hard-charging QB.
Over the past few months friends found McNair relaxed, happy with days spent fishing with friends or sons, relaxing on his Mississippi farm—"seemingly at peace," Dyson said, "with being retired." He opened a Nashville restaurant in June. He was playing in a softball league on Tuesday nights. He would help his son Steve Jr., a highly touted high school receiver, sort through scholarship options. In public, anyway, nothing hinted at the horror to come.
"Everybody makes mistakes," McNair said after his arrival in Baltimore in 2006. "Just because [someone] got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time doesn't mean he's a bad guy."
True. Sometimes it means that he's just terribly human. And all too capable, it turns out, of being destroyed.