Steve McNair is gone and I almost want to cry. The man who provided thrill after thrill for Tennessee Titans fans—including taking the team to Super Bowl XXXIV—is now a Baltimore Raven, a situation fraught with irony and reeking a little from the stench of his now-former team's callous, all-business approach to the whole affair. In recent years, McNair (pictured left, then, and right, now) was asked repeatedly by the Titans franchise to re-structure his contract, so the team could free up salary-cap money to sign younger players and free agents. So he did so, continuing to play with pain and courage, through one NFL MVP-winning season (2003) and two more recent dismal seasons where the team went a combined 9-23, making one wonder what Titans general manager Floyd Reese did with that Monopoly money McNair handed him. At any rate, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and McNair was due a huge payoff for all that team spirit. So what did the Titans do? They trumped up a semi-bogus reason to bar McNair from working out at team-owned facilities—something about the team not getting a potential insurance pay-out if he got hurt—then they trade him to the Ravens, of all teams, a past major nemesis of the Titans in their glorier days of 1999-2003. All they got for him was a 4th-round 2007 draft choice.
It's tough to really feel sorry for big-time athletes. They make a lot of money, and we all know it's a cold, hard business beneath all the on-field heroics. Now McNair is $11 million richer via a bonus from the Ravens, and will begin 2006 as their starting quarterback at a salary of $1 million. It's all good for Steve. The Ravens have a defense with the potential to rebound to top form, plus they've got quality athletes at tight end (Todd Heap) and wide receiver (including Derrick Mason, McNair's former Titans teammate) and, when he's on his game, a bulldozer running back in Jamal Lewis. If he gets some blocking up front, McNair, 33, is in a situation where he can excel and lead a team with promise to the playoffs. Which probably beats another season in Nashville striving to avoid mediocrity (and fast-moving defensive ends) and hearing fans chant for Vince Young, the rookie quarterback from Texas with the superstar label.
In the late '70s and '80s, I had the pleasure of living in Chicago and following the career of Walter Payton. Week after week, Sweetness performed magnificent deeds on football fields. His intensity and his absolute uncompromising determination marked him as a force of nature. To watch Payton was not only a simple pleasure of sports entertainment, it was also an inspiration. Payton was as great an athlete as the game has ever produced: consistent, versatile, committed, unrelenting, daring, fearless, bone-crunchingly physical and imaginative. He was the kind of rare athlete who could actually make you rise from your seat on a Sunday afternoon. All over Chicago and elsewhere, couch-potato football fans were forced out of their chairs when Payton made something happen. Usually it was breaking off a completely improbable run, plowing through defenders, juking would-be tacklers out of their jocks, cutting back against the grain, and storming victoriously into the end zone. They were blue-collar yards that Payton amassed, but boy were they exciting. He could also catch and throw passes and he never avoided his duties as a blocker. Payton was the real deal, and he did it all, and he made you cheer like a little kid while he did it.
McNair isn't Payton. But both were Mississippi boys who played at smaller, historically black Mississippi colleges—Payton at Jackson State, McNair at Alcorn State—and gained the big-time attention of pro teams because their abilities couldn't be denied. Since Payton's heyday, McNair is the first player I've had the pleasure to watch on a regular basis who evokes that same sense of excitement, the kind that gets you off the couch and finds you hollering out loud—even if you're sitting there alone. Like Payton was, McNair is a risk-taker, a leader, and a man unafraid of the physical challenge. If he stays healthy, he could have a great ride in Baltimore, and you can be sure that Titans fans will be following his every move.
It's sad that McNair has left Nashville, a place that revered him for every good reason—then even secretly cheered for him when he successfully beat a controversial DUI rap a few years ago. McNair was (hopefully, is still) a great quarterback. And, while the Titans set out trying to figure out how soon Vince Young can become an NFL starter, the Ravens will presumably have already launched the new season with a key ingredient added to their post-season plans.
Typically, stories like these always have a coda. On November 12, the Ravens come to Nashville for a midseason showdown that could likely pit the old master versus the hot young wannabe tapped to replace him. If McNair wins, there could be some "I told you so"-ing around town. But mostly, I think Titans fans will smile begrudgingly—maybe burned from yet another loss—and be glad to know that McNair can still play the game.
Steve McNair a Raven? A black-hearted, purple-and-black-helmeted thug playing for crabby Brian Billick and chatting on the sidelines with the biggest thug of all, Mr. Doo-Rag himself, Ray Lewis? Maybe this is how Luke Skywalker's dad became Darth Vader. But that's the business of football.
And don't look now, but some of us might even be secretly cheering for the guy that day.