Steve McNair owns, by his estimation, about 150 swords. Some folks collect stamps or cars; McNair collects swords. It's a fitting hobby for a man who rode into Baltimore three months ago looking—to local fans at least—like a knight in shining armor, willing to risk life and limb to rescue the Ravens from their prison of recent mediocrity.
Then again, risking life and limb is Steve McNair's specialty as a football player.
His coach in Tennessee called him the toughest player he'd ever coached. USA Today once ranked him number three on a list of the "10 Toughest Athletes in Sports."
That shining armor of his has absorbed dent after dent over his 11 years in the NFL. He bruised his sternum during the second week of the 2000 season . . . then went on to start the rest of the campaign, eventually requiring a bone graft to solidify the area. He also had an infection in his right shoulder that was so severe, it required 15 gallons of water to flush it out. In 2002, the Titans went on a 5-0 stretch despite his turf toe, strained ribs, and sore back.
Even with all of these knocks, he's one of only five players to rush for 3,000 yards and pass for 20,000 in his career. In 2003, he was co-MVP of the NFL with Peyton Manning. And in the 1999 season, Steve McNair took the Titans on an improbable run to the title game, where they lost by a single yard.
"I always kind of squirm at that term 'warrior' being attached to a football player—I think it's overused a lot," says David Climer, a sports columnist for The Tennessean. "But that's what a lot of people around the NFL called the guy, including guys in his own locker room. If there is a warrior mentality to an NFL player, I think Steve McNair embodies that."
Yet it's precisely that hard-as-nails style that may have ended McNair's career in Tennessee. Finishing a dismal 4-12 last season, the Titans had already started into a rebuilding of sorts. And at 33, a banged up McNair simply wasn't part of their plans. By the time the offseason arrived, the team knew they'd have a high draft pick, and with University of Texas quarterback Vince Young looking like Steve McNair 2.0—athletic, mobile, and gutsy—Titans owner Bud Adams felt he had his man. On April 3, as McNair arrived at the team's facility to work out, he was unceremoniously barred from entering. If he happened to sustain an injury while working out on Titans property, the team was responsible for paying his contract that year—something they were unwilling to do.
So Steve McNair, the tough guy known for playing through every kind of pain, was now Steve McNair, the walking injury liability.
When you see him in person, for the first time, you expect evidence of these horrible injuries. You expect to see scars. You expect to see a grizzled, limping veteran with stitches and duct tape holding him together.
It's not what you get. He's big, of course. His arms and hands are powerful, with vinelike muscles and veins snaking upward. There are no noticeable limps or tics when he moves. No ice packs strapped to his shoulder even though he's just finished a two-hour training camp practice.
He's soft-spoken, with large brown eyes that are expressive and watchful and when he's happy, he smiles with his whole face. He walks a little slowly—mostly a concession to the early-August heat and humidity. He's never nervous, but he keeps active as he talks, leaning one way, then the other, stretching his legs out, presumably to keep from tightening up.
Much of what he says carries conviction, even if the voice itself is a relaxed Southern drawl. His tone remains conversational, whether he's holding forth on his optimism for the upcoming season or his difficult experiences as young boy, when he would hear his mother crying because she feared she wasn't sacrificing enough to raise her children alone.
He remains so calm at all times, in fact, that during the pre-game hours when other players are taping up and nervously stomping about the locker room, shouting at each other and bumping chests, McNair finds a quiet corner, closes his eyes, focuses on the game plan, and then drifts off to sleep. "Kind of like meditating," he says. After one training camp session last month, Sports Illustrated's Don Banks marveled at McNair's "serene nature and otherworldly calm about him."
Tough, cool under pressure, and quietly confident. It seems like there was never a time when Steve McNair wasn't all those things.
Mount Olive, Mississippi is a tiny, rural town located about 50 miles southwest of Jackson with a population of less than a thousand people. It's here that Steve McNair was born, one of five boys. Raised by their mother, Lucille, the brothers stuck together the best they could and pushed each other to excel in sports.
"We believed in each other, regardless of whether anybody else believed in us or not," McNair says. "We'd go to church on Sunday and come back and have a good Sunday meal and that's all that mattered to us. People could say 'You all don't have a new pair of tennis shoes' or whatever. Material things didn't bother us. It was the fact that we had each other."
Lucille McNair worked herself to the point of exhaustion, doing anything she could to support her family. Still, she was racked with doubt and fear, and the boys would sometimes hear her crying alone in her room. "Am I being a good mother?" she'd wonder. "Am I doing the right things?"
"There were a lot of sad days in that household," McNair recalls. "A single mom raising all boys who were in athletics, keeping their grades up, and working from 11 at night to 7 in the morning. As a kid you don't realize how many sacrifices she made in dedicating herself to raising us in a good fashion."
McNair's oldest brother, Fred, came to this realization while in high school. He called the other boys—Tim, Jason, Michael, and Steve—into a huddle of sorts one night and laid things plain for them. "We've got to do something about this," he said. "She's making all these sacrifices for us. What can we do for her?"
The boys decided that they had to do their best in school, graduate, go to college, and make something out of themselves. "So that, in the long run," McNair says, "she could sit back and watch us work while she's sitting down relaxing after all the hard work she's done."
The five were as good as their word, all of them finishing school and continuing to play sports. Steve did well in class and even better on the athletic fields, earning All State in baseball, track, basketball, and of course, football, where he played quarterback and defensive back. Ever the close-knit brothers, Steve and Tim even came up with a "tight-end throwback" play which won the Mount Olive High Pirates the state championship on the game's final play.
After high school, McNair's decision to follow his brother Fred to Alcorn State University was a difficult one. The Seattle Mariners had drafted him in the 35th round of the Major League Baseball draft. And while other schools recruited him heavily as a defensive back, McNair wanted to be a quarterback. So he chose the much smaller Division I-AA school because they were willing to give him that chance.
The desire to play quarterback is indicative of McNair's strong will. For a young Steve McNair, there were far fewer successful black quarterbacks to look up to in professional football. Years later, while accepting his 2003 MVP award, he would specifically thank Warren Moon, Doug Williams, and Randall Cunningham for "making the ultimate path" for future black quarterbacks like himself.
"I wanted to be that leader," he explains. "That guy that touched the ball every time. Regardless of how good the school was, if they didn't want me at quarterback, I wasn't going."
His high school basketball coach helped make the decision for him, saying, "It's not where you go, it's what you do when you get there. As long as you put your best foot forward, do what you're supposed to do, and handle yourself in a manner in which everyone respects you, the NFL scouts will find you."
And find him they did, though he made it easy for them. McNair put up 16,823 yards of total offense in his four years at Alcorn. He set five collegiate records and twice as many I-AA records. Perhaps most impressively, he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1994, an award which almost always honors the superstar players at the large football-factory universities.
"My junior year, everybody was asking whether I was going to leave early," he says. "I would say 'Leave early for what?' And they'd say, 'Going to the NFL!' But I wanted to finish my commitment that I made to the school, to play four years."
In 1995, he was a third pick again. Only this time, it was the NFL draft and the then-Houston Oilers had selected him to play quarterback.
On the day he signed his first pro contract, McNair told his mother she was done working. Wanting to find the perfect spot to build her dream house, he drove around for two days, looking at land. He found a guy with 643 acres for sale and decided it was perfect. The next day, he chauffeured his mother to the farm and pulled onto the road leading in. That's when she began to cry. "Mom, what's wrong?" he asked, worried. "Do you like it?" She loved it, she assured him. "The thing about it is, this is where I started from," she said. "This is where I used to work. Where I used to pick cotton."
He sat on the bench for the first few years in Houston and then Tennessee, as the team moved and were renamed the Titans. Despite his immense natural talent and work ethic, life in the NFL was a struggle.
The starting quarterback, Chris Chandler, wasn't terribly friendly to McNair nor willing to show him the ropes. And the offense that McNair led in college was based upon his ability to run around and make plays. He was unused to the intricacies of an NFL offense, from taking snaps directly from the center to reading complex defensive coverages. He had a lot to learn.
So McNair did what he could to make the most of the starting and relief appearances that came his way in 1995 and 1996. The following year was his first as the full-time starter and he made it clear that he'd been studying hard. In one game, he ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more.
As a defensive end for the Ravens from 1996 through 2001, Rob Burnett faced McNair on some of his best days. "The ability to deliver the ball in tight places on third down is what made him so tough," says Burnett, who will serve as an analyst for this season's game broadcasts on WBAL and 98 Rock. "To make plays that most QBs wouldn't be able to make because they wouldn't have the chutzpah. Plus, he was the toughest guy on the team. For the quarterback, that's rare."
"He's gotten up from hits that I don't think more than a handful of quarterbacks in the history of the NFL have gotten up from," says David Climer. "He has taken some outrageous hits over the years."
His last season in Tennessee ended predictably: in the second to last game of the year, he was injured, straining a pectoral muscle. He left the game and didn't play the following week. A few months later, he was banned from the team facility and shortly after that, the Titans nabbed Vince Young with the third overall pick in the draft, just like Steve McNair 11 years earlier.
So he packed up his swords, hammered the dents out of his armor, and set off for Baltimore.
By the end of last year's 6-10 campaign, the Ravens had seen some improvement from their young quarterback, Kyle Boller. But this was a team laden with veterans—Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Edwin Mulitalo, and McNair's former teammate Derrick Mason—who were hungry for one last shot at the title. They wanted to win immediately. So when it looked like Steve McNair's days in Tennessee were at an end, team players and officials jumped at the opportunity to bring in a proven commodity—the final puzzle piece which would complete a picture of the Lombardi Trophy.
The Ravens knew McNair all too well from his days in Tennessee. The two teams were bitter rivals when they shared the same division, meeting in the playoffs in the 2000 and 2003 seasons, and nearly every game between them was marked by bickering and name-calling by players and coaches alike. The Ravens had seen up close how tough McNair could be on the football field. They couldn't help but respect him.
Mason, who had caught more than 400 passes from McNair in Tennessee and who had left the Titans for the Ravens a year earlier, was familiar with McNair's steely resolve, especially in pressure situations. "Steve's one of the few quarterbacks who, in the final two minutes of the game, can come in and lead your team to a touchdown," he says.
Nevertheless, at 33, McNair is nearly a senior citizen in a league where the average career is only about three years. His numerous surgeries and injuries have taken their toll on his body. And the tale of the tough, veteran quarterback taking a team to the championship before riding off into the sunset is more Hollywood script than reality.
But if there are concerns over these things in the Ravens organization, they're not apparent. The closest Offensive Coordinator Jim Fassel will come to admitting trepidation is when he acknowledges that no quarterback can simply walk right in and "go lights out." There is always a new system to learn and timing to develop, he says, shrugging. After all, nothing is risk-free, especially in pro football.
Instead, Fassel says, he stresses the hope that McNair brings. "There are 32 teams with optimism," he points out. "What this game's about is how your team comes together. Everybody has tough times. It's how you react to those tough times, and what you're looking for is strong leadership to get through those tough times. And when you have an experienced quarterback, that helps."
Savoring a few moments' relaxation during training camp, McNair appears comfortable with the path he's on. Sure, he says, he had started to think that he might finish his career in Tennessee, but in today's NFL, that's a difficult feat. Instead, he ditched much of his summer vacation to meet with Fassel, as the two hurried to get the quarterback up to speed with the game plan. Soon enough, his wife Mechelle arrived with their four boys to spend the season in Baltimore.
His mother and four brothers are still a team back in Mississippi. Fred coaches at Millsaps University, Tim coaches high school football, Jason runs the day-to-day operations of McNair's 643-acre ranch, Michael attends Alcorn State, and Lucille lives in her dream house on a hill overlooking the rest of the ranch.
In the offseason, McNair plans to return home to Mississippi, as his good friend, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, always does. There, he'll spend time on his ranch, but more importantly, he'll continue his work with the foundation he started, in an attempt to give people chances he wishes he'd had.
In truth, McNair's knight-in-shining-armor act is more accurate beyond the gridiron. He's refreshingly candid and sincere about his interest in helping others.
"That's where my heart is," he says. "That's why I help people. That's why I go out into the community, into the inner city. You have a lot of people out there who don't get a fair chance, so that's what I try to do. Whether it's dealing with kids, or with people with cancer, or with people with a disability, battered wives, battered kids, it doesn't matter. I just want to give people an opportunity."
The only question that remains about Steve McNair is whether he can provide his teammates and fans with opportunities. Opportunities to score touchdowns. Oppor tunities to silence boastful Steelers fans. Opportunities to return to the playoffs.
McNair's voice doesn't shift from its laconic pace when asked about whether he can handle that load. He remains as cool and calm as ever, confident in his ability to ride in and save the day.
"People can say 'Well, he's 33, maybe he's lost a step,'" he says. "I'm not out to prove them wrong. I'm just interested in trying to win ballgames for the Baltimore Ravens. Hopefully I'm the missing piece."