As a child playing pickup games with his friends, Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair always thought of himself as Terry Bradshaw. McNair was only in grade school when Bradshaw and the Pittsburgh Steelers won their four Super Bowls, but "there was just something about him. I admired his leadership and I just liked the way he played."
A few years later, when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl, leading the Washington Redskins to their second title in the 1987 season, McNair was in high school, playing defensive back and quarterback for the Pirates of Pascagoula High in Mt. Olive, Miss. McNair wasn't paying all that much attention to Williams back then, he said the other day, but now admits, "I think about what he did a lot."
"He was the first, and now I'm the second," McNair said. "Now you're part of the history of the Super Bowl. It means a lot to me. It's very touching. We went to the same conference in college. Then you see what he accomplished in that game, see what he did. It's very inspirational to the next guy. I just hope I can have the same kind of success."
In his first two days in this chilly Super Bowl city, McNair already has been asked countless questions involving Williams and his legacy as he prepares to face the St. Louis Rams here Sunday. McNair, 26, is a bubbly, engaging young man who wears two pebble-sized diamonds in his left ear and keeps trying to tell his inquisitors that he is just a quarterback, the position he has played for most of his life.
"I can't worry about that," McNair said when the subject of race was broached after the Titans upset Jacksonville, 33-14, last Sunday for the AFC championship. "I'm a quarterback in the Super Bowl. That's the way I see it. But I know all about history."
At the moment, despite a very sore left big toe, he's playing at the level the Titans envisioned when they used the third overall selection in the 1995 NFL draft to make the Alcorn State star their quarterback of the future. They allowed him to spend his first two seasons mostly watching from the sidelines, playing behind Chris Chandler and learning the position. And now, he's living out the fantasies of those childhood and high school days back in Mississippi.
His Titans teammate, running back Eddie George, says McNair has more of the mind-set of a running back than a quarterback, and never was that more obvious than against Jacksonville in the AFC title game. Flushed from the pocket, he ran nine times for 91 yards and was the Titans' leading rusher that day, with two touchdowns, one of them set up by a 51-yard run. In the regular season, he gained 332 yards on 72 carries and scored eight times on the ground, averaging 4.8 yards a carry.
McNair often spurns the slide his head coach, Jeff Fisher, would prefer to see at the end of his runs. He is a big man at 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds, and often tucks the ball and lowers his head to fight for precious extra yards, the better to inflict a touch of punishment of his own.
"I don't worry about him whatsoever," Fisher said. "We call plays where we do ask him to run. There's a mutual understanding there. We do encourage him to protect himself and slide. But sometimes he just gets mad. He turns into a running back and wants to get the first down."
McNair said that attitude comes from his days as an aggressive cornerback who liked to mete out big shots in high school at the position most of the major schools recruited him to play. He went to the same high school as Miami Dolphins cornerback Terrell Buckley, but McNair turned down offers from schools such as Miami, LSU and Mississippi State and went to Division I-AA Alcorn, where his older brother Freddie also played quarterback.
"He was the type of player you get as a coach that is once in a lifetime," said his coach, Cardell Jones. "He was a guy who took total control of a game by himself. If you forced him out of the pocket, he was as dangerous as any running back in the country. If you didn't pressure him, he would eat you alive throwing the football."
In his four college seasons, McNair threw for more than 16,000 yards, more than any player in NCAA history. But when he was plugged into the Titans' offense as a starter in 1997, he was asked to run a controlled, short passing game coupled with the frequent pounding runs of George. McNair struggled at times, but the one constant in his game was his ability to avoid killer turnovers.
This year, he came to training camp, and according to General Manager Floyd Reese, "We thought he was playing in preseason at the level we had always expected. He was right on schedule. In our opening game [a 36-35 victory over Cincinnati], he made a real leap. And then he had the back problems and he just dropped off the charts. I'm not sure even today he's where he was coming out of the opener. But last week, he was back up there as a playoff quarterback."
McNair is over the back problems, but even at today's picture day session at the Georgia Dome, he was in full uniform but wearing a soft orthopedic boot on his left foot. He'll have to play on artificial turf Sunday, and that won't help matters much "but I've been able to block out the pain so far," he said. "No way will it bother me on Sunday."
The back injury and subsequent surgery to repair a disk kept McNair out of five games. He was replaced by Neil O'Donnell, who was 4-1 in his place, and when McNair struggled, he often heard boos even when the Titans were winning. He went a stretch of six games with only one touchdown pass, but the Titans kept rolling along and Fisher's confidence in his quarterback never wavered.
"He'll never get the credit he deserves because he doesn't meet the stereotypical, what we like to see in a quarterback," Titans offensive lineman Brad Hopkins said. "He's always going to be under scrutiny. If he's not like somebody, he must be doing something wrong."
McNair said he has read and heard much of the criticism and has tried to use it as a motivational tool to get better.
He also said Fisher, a former defensive back for the Chicago Bears, and offensive coordinator Les Steckel always have been positive in their approach to his game and ways to improve.
"It makes it sweeter for me because they believed in me, and because of all the negative things that were said about me," McNair said. "Coach Fisher believed I could take this team to the Super Bowl. I may not be putting up big numbers or leading the league in this or that. But I'm winning, and in this league, that's all that counts."