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COMMENTARY : Alcorn State’s Steve McNair Rated College Football’s Best

THE SPORTING NEWS

An hour before the game, Steve McNair cried. “It hit me,” he said. It could have been his last college football game. “I love these guys,” he said. And so, an hour before kickoff, he stood before his Alcorn State University teammates in the locker room and said his piece. We let Grambling slip away, he said. We can’t let JSU slip away, too. There weren’t many dry eyes, his coach said, when Steve McNair finished talking.

And in the first seven minutes, McNair and his buddies scored three touchdowns. In the resulting 52-34 victory over Jackson State, McNair completed 29 of 54 passes for 533 yards and five touchdowns. On this day, little white boys wearing Ole Miss caps also wore Air McNair T-shirts, integration of a kind. Everywhere Steve McNair went, a Mississippi state trooper walked at his side, sometimes carrying the hero’s helmet for him. And why not? Steve McNair is a good one. He’s Charlie Ward times two. He’s so good that his every move on a football field is analyzed by men who put a dollar sign on the muscle. So good that if you see him from the sideline you believe there’s no better quarterback in any college anywhere.

That last sentence is not meant to patronize the poor, li’l ol’ forgotten schools of the South that get notice only when someone remembers: Walter Payton! Jerry Rice! Doug Williams! Eddie Robinson and Grambling! No patronizing here, no giving Steve McNair anything he hasn’t earned. This man can play. A Mississippi sportswriter said, “He is the Truth.”

There’s only a small chance McNair can win the Heisman Trophy because too many voters disparage his surroundings and competition. He plays in Division I-AA, a far distance below the I-A’ers who strut in elite-media adoration.

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Still, while the talent in McNair’s league is only occasional, that talent can be startling. Payton and Rice are proof great athletes are born with gifts undiminished by place. Sometimes they are even driven by a need to certify their worth before a yowling chorus of doubters.

To turn this argument into a question, who would you rather have at quarterback, a pampered prodigy or a hardscrabble gunslinger? Quarterbacks have won the Heisman who have had nothing in common with Hose Manning, the Oklahoma studhorse who threw the hoghide deep for the New York Giants the year Billy Clyde Puckett carried them to the Super Bowl.

Anyone who laughed his way through Dan Jenkins’ classic novel, “Semi-Tough,” remembers Hose Manning, a quarterback with stringy hair and acne scars and one kidney after the car wreck. Hose threw with a quick release, and his ball was easy to catch because it flew with the nose up. “Best milker on the farm,” is what Jenkins wrote about Hose.

Steve McNair’s football work has been done in hardscrabble magnifying-glass towns, places you can’t find without putting a map under Grandma’s sewing glass. The day he showed up for ninth-grade football in Mount Olive, Miss., the coach, Maxwell McGee, took one look and said, “There’s one.” Eight years later, the coach explains what he meant: “You could see it coming.”

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You could see Steve McNair, born to his art. For Coach McGee and Mount Olive High School, McNair played shortstop, point guard and quarterback. The coach first noticed McNair’s vision in basketball. He could see everyone on the court. “Like he had eyes all around his head,” the coach says.

Good kid, too. “No trouble. Not sent to the principal’s office . . . " Here the coach smiles and says with a certain fondness: “Not often at all.”

McGee had come to Mississippi’s Veterans Memorial Stadium, an old chunk of concrete near the state capitol in Jackson. Most days the hulk just sits there, forlorn while football’s elitists preen in finer places named Auburn and Athens, Tallahassee and Tuscaloosa.

That’s most days. Not this day, for on this day a thrill moved through the place. Never before had Mississippians seen one as good as Steve McNair, and on this day they would see Air McNair one more time, likely the last time in Mississippi. There were 62,512 people in the old concrete stadium, not a seat empty, even the aisles thick with thousands standing to see it.

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What they saw was wonderful. McNair can throw it any way you want it thrown: long or short, soft or hard. From the right hash mark, he once threw to the left sideline stripe--an astonishing 40 yards downfield, a pass the pros call an “out,” which is the ultimate test of a quarterback’s arm.

On this day he also made eight or 10 bad throws, some defiantly into coverage, some thrown wild high, a few incomplete because of timing problems with receivers. And while those mistakes were real, they were of the sort that will be remedied by a quarterback who, with experience, teaching and more talented teammates, has the physical tools to be a professional star.

There is this as well: McNair surely is the fastest quarterback alive. And not only straight-ahead fast. He does things only the best running backs do--such as that Barry Sanders sideways hop in which the little guy disappears and rematerializes five feet over. McNair dances that dance. On the run, he leaves Steve Young a furlong back.

Larry Blakeney coached 12 years at Auburn. He coached Bo Jackson. He now is head coach at Troy State. Listen to Blakeney after a 47-44 loss to Alcorn in which McNair threw for 476 yards and ran for 110: “Steve McNair is the best football player I’ve ever seen. . . . He’d be the best player on Colorado’s team or Nebraska’s team, too. He’d be the best player on any team in Division I-A. He’s that good. . . . He can do more to beat you with his abilities than anyone else I’ve ever seen. That includes Bo.”

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If that’s not enough evidence of McNair’s value, this is: Suiting up for the big game, Tyler Cleveland, 8 years old, had decisions to make. His father, the Jackson sports columnist Rick Cleveland, asked Tyler, “Aren’t you going to wear your Jackson ballcap?” To which Tyler said, “No, Daddy, I’m for Air.” He sat in that old concrete ballpark wearing his Air McNair T-shirt.


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