Many friends and colleagues know that in a past life, I enjoyed a 10-year sportswriting career with the Orlando Sentinel. I was lucky enough to cover college football at its highest level, thanks to being assigned the Florida Gators beat during Steve Spurrier’s glory years in the 1990s.
In 1994, the Gators had an Oct. 1 date in Oxford, Miss., with the Ole Miss Rebels. I covered all Florida’s road games, and to add value to my travels on the Sentinel‘s dime, I would look for other stories in the area that might interest our readers.
And that fall, the biggest story in southern football was Alcorn State quarterback Steve “Air” McNair.
I flew a day early into Memphis (the closest airport to Oxford), rented a car and made the trek south to tiny Lorman, Miss., to pay McNair a visit. It was not a simple side trip; the trek from Memphis to Lorman was a good five hours, including a long stretch on the Natchez Trace parkway before making a final approach into Lorman.
But the drive didn’t bother me. I was a 25-year-old kid, on my way to see a future NFL superstar who was shaking up the Heisman Trophy race by throwing up ridiculous numbers at Alcorn.
As I pulled into Lorman, though, I wondered what I was getting myself into. “Tiny” didn’t begin to describe the place. The campus of Alcorn State, an historically black school, seemed to be the only sign of civilization in the middle of vast farmland. It was not hard to find the football practice fields in such a setting.
The timing of my arrival was good (I thought). The football team was completing its Friday afternoon walk-through, so I parked and went to look for my sports information contact. Once I found him, he had bad news — Steve was not there. He was in nearby Vicksburg doing rehab on a sore shoulder. A feeling of panic sank to the pit of my stomach as I silently wondered how I would get my interview with Steve, and whether I had just wasted an entire afternoon driving the length of Mississippi.
I made the most of Steve’s absence. I talked with his coaches, his teammates, and finally with his brother Tim, a wide receiver on the team. I found out that Tim also shared a dorm room with Steve, and Tim offered to let me hang with him there until Steve got home.
From there, things got a bit surreal. I waited for Tim to shower after practice, then drove him back to the hotel-style dorms, where it suddenly hit me that I was probably the only white guy around. Not that I felt uncomfortable; I had covered Bethune-Cookman College football prior to my Gators assignment, so HBCU campus life had a familiar feel. Friday night parties were well underway in the dorms across the parking lot, but this was the football dorm, and things were relatively quiet.
Tim guided me to their room, opened the door, and a giant image of Emmitt Smith seemed to be racing off the wall and over what I came to find out was Steve’s bed.
“Is that your poster?” I asked Tim, telling him that I had covered Emmitt during his three seasons with the Gators in the late 1980s.
“No, that’s Steve’s,” Tim said. “He idolizes Emmitt.”
Tim sank into a chair, and I stretched out on Steve’s bed — the balls on me! — as Tim flipped on the TV. For the next hour, we watched re-runs of “Family Matters,” the show with that annoying nerd Steve Urkel. Tim howled throughout the show (apparently he was a big Urkel fan), and during commercial breaks we talked about his relationship with Steve.
Finally, as dusk was falling, Steve arrived, and I got my interview.
What follows is the story I wrote about Air McNair. One of the most poignant quotes in the article: “Twenty years from now, we’ll be sitting up in Canton where he’s dusting off his bust.” McNair may find his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but unfortunately he won’t be doing the dusting.
QUARTERBACK STEVE MCNAIR OF DIVISION I-AA ALCORN STATE HAS PASSED FOR 2,704 YARDS AND RUSHED FOR 672 SO FAR THIS SEASON TO TRY TO CHALLENGE I-A STARS AS A CONTENDER FOR THE HEISMAN TROPHY.
Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair eased his Toyota Celica into the dormitory parking lot — an “AIRII 9″ vanity plate gave away the driver’s identity — slid out and listened to a veritable chorus of admirers.
“Yo, Steve!” one yelled from atop a stairway.
“Hey, Steve, what-up!” came a voice from across the lot.
As McNair worked his way up two flights of stairs, however, he was in no mood to talk. An afternoon of rehabilitation in nearby Vicksburg, his fifth consecutive day of rehab for a sore throwing shoulder, had taken its toll.
The sight of a reporter outside McNair’s dorm-room door — the night before a big game Oct. 1 against Mississippi Valley State, no less — was the last thing he wanted or needed.
Politely, though, McNair — a sentimental favorite to become the first Heisman Trophy winner from Division I-AA, college football’s second tier — invited the visitor inside the cinder-block rectangle he calls home, one wall adorned with a giant poster of Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.
McNair tuned the TV to ESPN’s SportsCenter and ignored the ringing phone and countless messages on his answering machine.
A small-town kid from Mount Olive, Miss., McNair — who goes by the nickname “Air II” and wears jersey No. 9 — has grown accustomed to life in the spotlight and its accompanying demands.
“I know this (media attention) is something that’s going to help me,” said McNair, an engaging senior whose shoulder separation last month did not prevent him from setting the NCAA’s record for career yardage with 14,400 yards. “I just have to be patient.”
McNair is trying to buck Heisman history at a historically black school of 3,000 students.
Still, the campus population dwarfs that of the rest of Lorman, a town composed of a single blinking yellow light, a general store, a bar, a post office and a few ramshackle houses – a speck of a settlement along the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Against that backdrop, McNair cannot get enough attention in his quest for the Heisman.
And for someone labeled as modest by coaches and teammates, McNair is a pro at self-promotion.
“To describe my ability, I’d put Barry Sanders’ legs with Joe Montana’s arm. That’s the type player I think that I am,” said McNair, who is the odds-on favorite to win the Walter Payton Award as the nation’s top Division I-AA player.
“I feel like no one can stop me.”
McNair, 6 feet 3 and 218 pounds, has the numbers to back his bravado. Against Prairie View A&M last Saturday, he had 494 all-purpose yards, threw for five touchdowns and ran for three.
Through seven games, he has completed 170 of 300 passes for 2,704 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and rushed 70 times for 672 yards and six scores.
That is an average of 482 yards and nearly five touchdowns a game.
“He is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete,” said Dave-Te Thomas of The NFL Draft Report, an independent scouting agency. “No one in the NFL can hold a candle to this kid. He is the prototype quarterback of the future.
“Twenty years from now, we’ll be sitting up in Canton (Ohio at the Pro Football Hall of Fame) where he’s dusting off his bust.”
Not since two-way player Gordie Lockbaum of Holy Cross has a I-AA player received so much attention in the Heisman race.
Despite a campaign for Lockbaum by Sports Illustrated magazine, he still finished third in the 1987 balloting behind Tim Brown of Notre Dame and Dan McPherson of Syracuse.
The magazine started a similar campaign for McNair in its Sept. 26 issue, when it featured him on the cover with the headline, “Hand Him the Heisman.”
McNair’s skills as a quarterback have not always been so highly regarded.
Alcorn State — a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which produced such NFL stars as Payton, former Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Doug Williams and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice — was the only college interested in McNair as a quarterback.
During his high school years in Mount Olive, McNair tied a Mississippi record set by former Florida State cornerback Terrell Buckley with 30 career interceptions.
McNair also was the Most Valuable Player in a state all-star game as a defensive back.
Even Alcorn coach Cardell Jones acknowledged that McNair had better credentials as a defensive back.
However, Jones wanted a marquee quarterback.
So, with the help of McNair’s older brothers — Tim, a fifth-year senior wide receiver at Alcorn, and Fred, the original “Air McNair” as Alcorn’s starting quarterback in 1989 — Jones persuaded Steve McNair to become an Alcorn State Brave.
“If you watch just one of our ballgames, you’ll swear it’s a tape of a lot of ballgames put together,” said Rickey Taylor, Alcorn’s offensive coordinator. “One guy couldn’t be doing this, looking this good play after play. . . . This guy is a box-office draw. If he was a movie star, he’d be in a class with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone.
“Steve could have gone to Florida State and been great, but Charlie Ward couldn’t have come to Alcorn State and been great. That’s how unbelievable Steve is.”
Ward, however, won the Heisman last season by posting eye-catching statistics against I-A competition.
McNair is putting up better numbers, but not against the likes of Notre Dame, Miami and Florida.
And he knows that hurts his chances of winning the Heisman.
“Right now, my name is out there,” McNair said. “It’s just a matter of getting my face familiar with people who vote and letting them see me do the things I can do on the field. I think that will solve a lot of the problems you have winning the Heisman coming from this small division.
“I have to put up numbers every week to catch people’s eyes because I’m from a small school — and a black school. But I know people are recognizing the ability that I have.”