When the Houston Oilers fled Texas for Tennessee more than a decade ago, the franchise needed a face to sell the NFL in a place where college football ruled for decades.
They found it in Steve McNair.
The talented, if somewhat unconventional, quarterback gave the rebuilding team a foundation to build on. He also helped turn the renamed Titans into one of the AFC’s most consistent winners during his tenure, a team built more on grit and toughness than eye-popping stats.
The image of McNair picking himself up off the turf and trotting – slowly sometimes – back to the huddle became a weekly fixture at Titans games, where his fearless play made him an icon in the tight-knit community.
It’s what made his death all the more shocking to his former teammates. McNair, 36, was found dead in a Nashville, Tenn., condominium Saturday with a gunshot wound to the head.
“It’s kind of like disbelief, like somebody was playing a cruel April Fools’ joke,” former Tennessee wide receiver Kevin Dyson said. “It’s just so surreal.”
Shock gave way to appreciation for the way McNair played during his 11 seasons with the franchise, leading Tennessee to the 2000 Super Bowl while evolving into one of the league’s most effective – if not always the flashiest – quarterbacks.
McNair threw for more than 31,000 yards during his career – including 27,141 with the Titans – and made the Pro Bowl four times, yet his trademark wasn’t his sometimes shaky spiral but the way he played, more like a linebacker than a quarterback.
All that physical play came with a price. Not that McNair complained.
No matter how many times he was bounced around, no matter how vicious the beating, he never broke, never placed blame. That simply wasn’t his style.
“He was so cool under pressure, so calm,” former Tennessee running back Eddie George told ESPN. “He never raised his voice, never lost his composure. Obviously, he had moments when he was disappointed, but he has such a short memory that you really couldn’t tell what Steve was thinking a lot of the time. He was never affected by a bad play. He was just the ultimate leader.”
The Titans needed that kind of leadership after making the move from Houston following the 1996 season. He guided the team through the sometimes rocky transition, becoming the unquestioned leader of a franchise in desperate need of an identity.
“His worth and what he meant to us as players, it’s almost immeasurable,” former Tennessee offensive tackle Brad Hopkins said. “He is recognized at Titans football and always will be. With this club and even the players you see today on the team, it all started with his group and it started with him.”
McNair steadily grew into one of the league’s most effective playmakers, using his feet as much as his arm to put opposing defenses on their heels. McNair didn’t have the speed of Michael Vick or the accuracy of Donovan McNabb, but his bruising, physical style won over teammates and opponents alike. McNair rushed for 3,590 yards and 37 touchdowns during his career.
“He started that mold as a two-way kind of guy, a tough guy that would do whatever it takes to win and was as hard to bring down as a fullback,” former Titans tight end Frank Wychek said.
McNair retired after ending his career with the Baltimore Ravens following the 2007 season, but his legacy will forever be linked to the Titans.