Building bridge back to that rare, humble athlete from Alcorn State

"Cherish the bridge that brought you across. And we believe if you put God first, everything will work out. And so far, it sure has." -- Lucille McNair, on her son Steve's NFL draft day, April 22, 1995, in New York City

And it is still working out, mind you, for Lucille McNair, even in her crater of pain.

She remained in Mt. Olive, Miss., in her home on Thursday while three of her remaining sons -- Fred, Tim and Jason -- oversaw memorial services for McNair in Nashville, Tenn. The youngest of her sons, Michael, stayed close by her side. He insisted, she said. He would not leave her.

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McNair's final funeral service on Saturday in Mississippi is enough for his mother. Yes, one goodbye will suffice. One rite will do.

Though Mt. Olive is a tiny town, it cannot wholly insulate her from the raw side, the austere views of her son's murder. The view that focuses on his cheating in marriage costing his life. The one that insists his murder was not a "mistake" but a declaration of his moral integrity. The focus that his love and honor and fortune and fame were engulfed by his hypocrisy.

This mother's loving bond with her son was so strong that those ideas can never be part of the bridge she cherishes. They can stick with her no more than rapid wind that blows through smoke.

"My heart and my mind are on the positive things and I know that some people will be like me and remember him as the person he was, a really giving and caring person who really loved kids," she said. "I have received many calls like that. The doorbell has rung with people who come to say that. The Baltimore Ravens coaches called me and talked about that. Ray Lewis called and said it. Lots of calls. People who feel my pain. They don't know what I am going through -- but I think they can begin to understand it."

Understand the bridge that brings her entire family across.

*  * *

"When you are in the middle of the country, you don't need much. You just need each other." -- Steve McNair, in our Aug. 28, 1994 interview

In August 1994, while I was a national pro football writer for the New York Times, esteemed sports editor Neil Amdur approached me with an idea. He had been in contact with then Alcorn State coach Cardell Jones. The initiative was to chronicle the senior season of this young African-American quarterback who looked destined to become a historical figure in the National Football League. Jones and McNair agreed to grant us rare access to his practices, meetings, preparation and life. We would call the series "Small College, Big-time Dreams."

Thus, I set off for the first of nine trips from August 1994 through April 1995 to Mississippi to tell the story of Steve McNair.

The series began with meeting him at a practice field that was more like a cow pasture at Alcorn State in Lorman, Miss. It finished on draft day in 1995 in three connecting suites he and his family held on the 44th floor of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.

I saw McNair on the Alcorn State campus, saw him play at Grambling against iconic coach Eddie Robinson, saw him on Homecoming welcome back the alums who came to see this quarterback who was providing a halo over their beloved school. I met his mother and her extended family and neighbors in Mt. Olive. Saw McNair play in the Senior Bowl.

For a star, and already he was that, he was humble, so quiet, so reserved. And his family and especially his mother was his absolute joy.

He was to become the first African-American quarterback universally scouted by NFL teams minus all of the drawbacks. No questions about arm strength, or ability to run a pro-style offense or ability to read defenses. And the NFL responded, specifically the Houston Oilers. McNair would be the No. 3 overall selection in 1995, then the highest-ever draft spot for an African-American quarterback. His new franchise's owner, Bud Adams, told him that day: "Son, you are our man. You are our future."

He entered a game against Grambling as a freshman and brought Alcorn State from behind for a 27-22 victory. The legend was born. He won three straight against Robinson before losing 62-56 at Grambling in his senior season.

Afterward on that warm night, Robinson and I stood outside the stadium long after the football fireworks and discussed McNair's astonishing 633 yards of total offense and five touchdown passes in defeat.

"The kid knows a thing or two about this game," Robinson said. "He is a strong individual. He never talks about himself. You have a franchise player in the making in this kid."

McNair was always more comfortable talking about growing up working on a farm, feeding the chickens and pigs and goats, and tending the peas and squash and okra. He was most at ease talking about his mother, who he affectionately called "Lucy Mae."

His oldest brother, Fred, was a quarterback considered to be more talented. That fueled McNair. He decided he would become better than Fred. He did. That was an early sign of his fierce competitiveness.

His loving link to "Lucy Mae" guided him through his career and in his decision on NFL retirement in April 2008. He called to talk it over, made the decision but never called her back. She learned he was retiring through Mt. Olive friends who told her of news reports.

McNair shared so much. He relied on his family back in Mt. Olive and on his wife Mechelle and on his sons. But there was always a part of him reserved just for him. No one cracked it. He admitted it. He thought this the essential evolution of a man.

*  * *

"No matter how much ability you have or how far you go, eventually your time in football is going to run out. If I'm fortunate enough to play in the NFL, I want a career after I retire. I want to help kids." -- McNair, in our Oct. 23, 1994 interview

McNair gained his college degree in recreation because of his desire to play a role in the lives of children. His camps across the country and his various charity work was driven by this desire.

He once said of his father, who was estranged, "We do communicate, but it is not the type of relationship you would dream of."

His mother experienced her father's death when she was 12.

Now his four sons -- Steve Jr., Steven, Tyler, and Trenton -- experience their own such painful loss.

When Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said this week that the Steve McNair he knew would want to say I am sorry, I was not perfect, that is a message that McNair would want most to resonate to his sons. Sure, to his wife and to his mother and to his brothers and all that loved him, but most to his sons. His passion for children included his sons, his mother insists, regardless of his failings.

Judge or bless the dead? she asks.

"The scouts are asking me about Steve's character," Jones, his Alcorn coach, once told me. "All of us that know him know how solid that is. I think of him as an eagle. You know, an eagle just isn't any bird."

It was his character that we knew, that we saw, that lifted him to a remarkable reputation as a warrior-like quarterback who played 13 NFL seasons through pain. It was that character that made him a willing vessel, to a large extent, when among his fans.

McNair in retirement involved himself in various businesses, including opening a Nashville restaurant. But he struggled with the sudden loss of the game's allure, its bright lights and competition and sheer passion and joy. He had mulled ways to stay closer connected to it. He was considering ways to enter broadcasting or other ways to comment upon and share his football knowledge.

Though he finished his career with the Baltimore Ravens, his football identity, in his analysis, remained in Nashville. It was not Mt. Olive, but for this self-proclaimed "country boy," he sought to make it a facsimile.

He did not feel at all that way when in 1997 the Oilers moved their franchise from Houston to Tennessee and changed their name.

He did not feel that way when in the middle of his Titans career he received hate mail and death threats simply because he was an African-American quarterback.

But he would find acceptance. And he would give it.

*  * *

"You know why this day is so great? It's great for Mt. Olive and for the people at Alcorn. They are all like family. They all deserve this much more than me. And there is my mom. She deserves the recognition. She's the one who got me here. Those are the people I want to live up to. That is the biggest challenge for me more than football. In football, I will outwork other guys. I will prepare better than the next guy. So, football isn't the greatest challenge for me, because that is something I know I can and will do. It's the other things." -- McNair, in our 1995 NFL draft-day interview

Steve McNair had few illusions. He knew when he left Mt. Olive, when he left Lorman, that huge challenges were ahead. He left the comfort of his adored roots for an NFL career and for so long was able to navigate many troubled waters and become the face of a franchise.

He now serves as a reminder for every NFL player about the transition from the football field to a resounding life after it. Really, the game never stops. It might be a new one, but it can be as valuable.

From a cow pasture to Times Square. Afterward Super Bowl XXXIV and, seemingly in a blink, his retirement. For 15 years we shared stories and we shared history. He was born on Valentine's Day and we used to talk about how that day always became one for others he loved in his life more than for him because, well, that is a day for total love.

His burial on Saturday happens to be on my birthday.

I, too, cherish the bridge.

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