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McNair left Mt. Olive, but Mt. Olive never left McNair

Lucille McNair on Wednesday morning took a respite from her soaps to make a call. Her son, Steve, was on her mind. She was at home in Mt. Olive, Miss. Steve was in Baltimore.

It was not simply a mother's intuition or an uneasy feeling. It was much more, she said. The bond they share always surfaces in distinctive, mysterious ways. The distance never matters. Somehow, she said, she knew he needed to talk. That he needed a friend.

And there can never be a friend in McNair's life exactly like "Lucy Mae".

That is what he lovingly calls her.

A friend as much as a mom. The way she scrapped for the family, the odd jobs, the morning jobs, the late jobs, the long hours, the sacrifice, the advice, the wisdom, his gifts from his football fruits to her, the steadiness -- their appreciation for each other is cemented in trust and respect. In enduring love.

"Steve, how are you doing," she asked?

"I've been thinking," Steve answered.

"About what?" she asked.

"I've been thinking about hanging it up. My body and my mind just aren't there."

"You pray," she told her son. "And whatever you decide, I back you 100 percent."

And in typical McNair fashion, he pondered it all on Wednesday night and walked into the Baltimore Ravens complex on Thursday morning and told his teammates and Ravens management that he was done.

That home was calling.

But he never called Lucy Mae back.

Not that she expected it.

"When the news broke this morning, a friend who washes my car here in Mt. Olive told me about it," Lucille McNair said by phone Thursday. "Steve handles things. When he needs your advice, he'll ask for it, and then once he makes up his mind, he goes and does it. He wants to do things himself. He has been this way from a child to a young boy to a young man and on into manhood. He's just a man. His own man.

"Football was his life. Now he has decided it is time for him to raise his children the way he wants them to be raised. He feels he hasn't been there for them like a father should. With football, he couldn't. He loves his family. He can have us all more now. One thing -- this means I have to cook more."

She laughs. She sighs.

She knows that McNair left Mt. Olive, a town of 882 people, for the NFL's brightest lights but never truly left. That he is a person more comfortable feeding the chickens, pigs and goats on the farm than tossing a football.

That he wants more balance in his life with his wife, Michelle. With his four sons, ages 3 to 15. With his family. That it is time.

He talked in his Ravens news conference Thursday morning about leaving early in mornings with his sons asleep and coming home late from work to find his sons asleep. About his 10 major surgeries during his career. About the toll of 13 NFL seasons. About all of the work he has completed in recent weeks getting ready for this fall.

And, yet, getting that tug from home.

That tug at his heart. That reminder that he is, self-described, "always Steve, the country boy from Mt. Olive."

One-hundred and seventy-four NFL touchdown passes later, McNair will find his way back to Mt. Olive.

Oh, he might have played longer, his body might have lasted longer, had he played quarterback with less fight, with less daring. He threw himself into games -- mind and body. Oftentimes body first. He enjoyed the contact, winning his share of mano-a-mano battles. After 13 seasons, that contact, that style at quarterback, took its toll.

He found a new home in Tennessee with the Titans and another later in Baltimore with the Ravens. Plenty of adulation and awards and a Super Bowl appearance came his way. He remained humble. Steve, the country boy from Mt. Olive.

He is 35 now. He realizes his NFL time produced a sweetheart career. What would one expect from such a talent born on Valentine's Day? A quarterback who understood his role in NFL history.

As a black quarterback entering the league from a tiny school (Alcorn State), McNair defeated the doubts and stigmas long associated with black quarterbacks. He was the first black quarterback who was scouted universally with less bias, the first black quarterback to be selected among the league's top three draft picks, the first since Doug Williams to reach a Super Bowl.

McNair always had his eyes wide open about his place in history but only in quieter moments would he expound on it. And when he did, he wished for a day when none of it mattered while embracing the responsibility of extolling the virtues of black quarterbacks in a way that sought to move the conversation to, simply, quarterbacks. But each time he took the field, he said, it was another chance to dispel more myths. Create a path behind him for others to follow. Let his actions dwarf his words.

He leaves the game with enormous respect from his peers and coaches not only because of his approach and his talent but also because of his toughness. He was a model of toughness. And courage. This is what peers and coaches look for most in a football player. How tough is he? Can he take the hits? Can he dispense them? Seldom does a quarterback set the standard in physical play. McNair did. That made him a players' player. A coach's player. A man's man.

And while out front, while playing the game's most profiled position, McNair kept trying to keep who he was intact. The kid who graduated from a high school class of 42 people. The guy who loved riding on a tractor more than on a plane. A person who could make new friends and new neighbors.

But one who loved and longed for the ones of old.

Now he can find his way back to his family. Now he can find his way back home.

"He always took it with him," Lucille said. "Steve truly loved playing the game of football. He's walking away now. But look what he is walking to. His children and his family. His home."

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