Steve McNair, gone far too soon

I was leaving a swimming pool in Baltimore this afternoon, with my wife and kids and parents, when someone I had never met before grabbed my arm. A local radio station, which was playing over the speakers at the pool, just broke into its broadcasting to say that Nashville television stations were reporting former NFL quarterback Steve McNair had been shot and killed in Tennessee.

The stranger, someone who had no idea who I was, was in shock. “Can you believe Steve McNair was murdered?” he said. Honestly, even having covered the tragic demise of an NFL star before, I couldn’t. Unfortunately, those reports were correct, and now the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans — the two teams he played for — as well as his legion of friends and former coaches around the NFL grieve his loss and remember him for his indomitable will on the field, and his winning personality off of it.

The Nashville police are not saying much at this point, with the investigation having just begun. McNair and a woman, as yet unidentified, were found dead of gun shot wounds in a downtown Nashville condo this afternoon. Police say they got a call at 1:35 p.m., Nashville time, which led to the discovery. So all we know for now is that a man, very much in the prime of his life at age 36, is no longer here to enjoy all that was still before him, and all of the loved ones he left behind. And the emotional reaction around Baltimore, Nashville and the rest of the league was a testament to the legacy that lives on.

” We don’t know the details,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement Saturday afternoon, “but it is a terrible tragedy, and our hearts go out to the families involved”

The moment I heard about McNair’s passing, it was impossible for me not to flash back to 2007, having covered the tragic murder of Redskins safety Sean Taylor on a minute-by-minute basis as a beat writer for The Washington Post. I’ve seen firsthand how profoundly a loss such as this grips teammates. McNair has only been out of the league since April 2008, and though he only spent two years with the Ravens, the news of his passing left several fans I know stunned and saddened, as well as people throughout every corridor of the organization.

The bulk of McNair’s outstanding career was spent in the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise, where he led the team to a Super Bowl appearance (and near win), won an MVP award, and where he continued to defy and obliterate any lingering backward stereotypes about African-American quarterbacks. He was giving and generous with his time, players and coaches say, and inspired another generation of young passers.

Jason Campbell, the Redskins’ starting quarterback, used to always rave about McNair, as a person, a mentor, a sounding board, a man. Campbell grew up attending McNair’s summer camps — I’ll never forget how proud Campbell’s parents were to show me their scrapbook photos of Jason and Steve together the first time I visited their house in Taylorsville, Mississippi — and remained in touch with McNair through his college and pro career. Both men were touched by the fact that by the end of the 2006 season they were the starting quarterbacks for teams merely an hour apart — Campbell with the Redskins and McNair with the Ravens.

“Air” McNair led the Ravens to a division title that season, as always readily absorbing abuse to his hefty frame, but they lost to the eventual Super-Bowl winning Colts at home. By 2007, injuries mounted rapidly, and he was limited to just six games. And so the playing career was over, with the former 1995 first-round pick from tiny Alcorn State looking forward to business ventures and a life beyond football.

He had mended fences with the Titans — there had been a rough patch prior to his trade to Baltimore — visiting the team back in August for training camp after his retirement. He was eager to catch up with coach Jeff Fisher and embattled quarterback Vince Young, who was picked by Tennessee in the first round in 2006 to be McNair’s replacement. McNair had begun counseling Young when he was a rising star in Texas high school football, and continued to be there for him even as he took his job.

It just seemed natural to McNair. It’s what you do to help a young guy out. And it’s part of the reason the NFL community will miss him so deeply.

– Jason La Canfora

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