McNair was magic

Steve McNair, the most entertaining college football player I ever witnessed and surely among the best, was murdered nine years ago on July 4.

He was born on Valentine’s Day, 1973, and died on Independence Day, 2009, at the much-too-early-age of 36. I can’t imagine what it is like for his family on those two days when Americans celebrate love and freedom.

It occurs to me now young people are reading these words who never saw him play — or, at the very least, were too young at the time to remember. And so, a history lesson follows...

He was magic.

I first saw him as a 16-yearold high school junior when he kicked off through the end zone to start the game, never came out of it, and almost single-handedly led his Mount Olive team to a state championship victory that day. He threw a touchdown. He caught a touchdown. He made nearly every tackle. He intercepted passes. He was everywhere.

I watched him play four years at Alcorn, where he was such a show I began skipping Saturdays at Oxford, Starkville, and Hattiesburg to go watch him play in Lorman. At Alcorn, he produced more offensive yardage and touchdowns than any player in the history of college football. He did it in a dashing style, often rallying the Alcorn Braves from behind to win at the end.

I ran out of adjectives to describe him and told my good friend, the great writer Willie Morris, he owed it to himself to go watch Steve “Air” McNair. He did, and he gushed. “Ineffable,” is the word Willie used to describe his Airness, who was, indeed, beyond compare. Willie wrote a long op-ed piece in The New York Times about him.

At The Clarion-Ledger, we began to write seriously about McNair’s chances of winning the Heisman Trophy, which is supposed to go to the most outstanding player in college football but has never gone to a small school player. We were like a cry in the wilderness until, in November of his senior season (1994), Sports Illustrated joined the campaign. The magazine put Mc-Nair on its cover with this blaring headline: “Hand Him the Heisman!”

Somebody should have. This past weekend, on Twitter, a national pundit posted a tweet asking about the biggest snubs in Heisman Trophy history. I suggested 1994, the year Colorado junior running back Rashaan Salaam won it and McNair finished third. (Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter finished second).

I voted for McNair, who was a better runner than Salaam or Carter, and could throw it better than Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins, who finished fourth. I covered the presentation in New York at the Downtown Athletic Club. At the pre-presentation press conference, somebody asked the finalists who should win. Miami defensive lineman Warren Sapp answered first, pointing to McNair and laughing. “Have y’all seen the film on this guy?” Sapp said, and his meaning was obvious: “Folks, it ain’t even close.”

As an aside, I also voted for Mississippi Valley State’s Jerry Rice 10 years earlier in 1984, the year Doug Flutie of Boston College won it. A Boston radio talk show host ridiculed me on his show and then called me up and asked how I could possibly vote for Jerry Rice over Doug Flutie.

I answered simply that the Heisman voting instructions say to vote for the most outstanding player in college football, and that’s what I was doing. Jerry Rice over Doug Flutie? Thirty-four years later, I rest my case.

The problem, of course, is that everybody with a TV saw Flutie throw a desperation pass to beat Miami late that season. Virtually nobody saw Rice catch 24 passes in a single game or saw McNair set college football’s all-time yardage record. The thing is, if you saw Rice or McNair (or Walter Payton, for that matter) in person, you knew. You just knew.

Walter’s senior year at Jackson State was 1974, Jerry’s at Valley was 1984, McNair’s at Alcorn was 1994 — nice symmetry there. All went on to prove in the NFL what we knew in Mississippi to be true long before. None won the Heisman, but all three were the most outstanding players in college football when they played.

Email syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at .

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