MikeCheck: Ten years after Steve McNair’s death, unbreakable brotherly bond brought Alcorn State coach back as Titans retire No. 9 jersey

NASHVILLE – When Fred McNair first learned the Tennessee Titans would be posthumously retiring his younger brother’s No. 9 jersey, he quickly searched for a calendar.

The potential conflict lunged off the page like a blitzing linebacker.

As head football coach at Alcorn State, Fred McNair’s Braves faced a road game at McNeese State in Louisiana that Saturday night. The next day, the Titans would be honoring the late Steve McNair and Eddie George during the noon Sunday kickoff of their home opener in Nashville.

“I kind of always knew it was going to happen, but you just didn’t know when,” Fred McNair told Grind City Media earlier this summer. “Momma will be there, and she’s excited to go. Steve’s wife and sons will be there. For the Titans to retire that jersey is a tribute to the whole McNair family. I’ve got to find a way to make it work and get up there, too. Hopefully, I’ll figure something out.”

Eddie George speaks during jersey retirement ceremony

Former Tennessee Titans running back, Eddie George #27, speaks during a halftime presentation to retire his jersey number and that of teammate Steve McNair at Nissan Stadium on September 15, 2019. Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images.

McNair didn’t simply figure something out this past Sunday. He navigated a nearly impossible travel turnaround to get to Nashville, then stood with his family clad in No. 9 jerseys to deliver an emotional speech at the halftime ceremony in honor of the iconic Titans quarterback.

Running on fumes, McNair was still coping with his own team’s devastating loss the previous night, when Alcorn State’s star quarterback and all-conference tailback were lost to injuries. Hours after Alcorn State’s game, McNair scrambled to Baton Rouge to board a 5:30 a.m. flight that got him to Nashville’s Nissan Stadium in time for the festivities that included George’s No. 27 jersey retirement.

For McNair, who established the family’s quarterbacking legacy at Alcorn well before Steve later arrived on campus, this was another chance to be there for his little brother.

And big bro wasn’t going to miss it for anything.

No player will ever wear No. 9 again for the Titans. And that, too, will be the case at Alcorn State in rural Lorman, Mississippi when the university officially retires that jersey number in an October ceremony. McNair was killed July 4, 2009 in a Nashville apartment by an alleged mistress in what police determined was a murder-suicide. The case rocked the city and shocked the sports world.

It just doesn’t seem that long ago. You’ve gone through the memorial services and tributes and all the things that people do to remember you. But it just doesn’t seem like it’s been 10 years.

Fred McNair

Fred was the original “Air McNair” who slung the football all over the field at Alcorn State in the mid-1980s before a pro career in the CFL, NFL Europe and Arena Football League. Then Steve came along in the early 1990s, shredded his big brother’s college passing records, finished third in 1994 Heisman Trophy voting and was selected third overall in the 1995 NFL Draft by the Houston Oilers.

The Oilers relocated to Tennessee and became the Titans, and Steve McNair would spend 11 of his 13 NFL seasons with the franchise. Ten years after the tragedy, McNair remains a beloved figure for the humility and generosity he showed off the field and the prolific production and toughness he delivered on it. A decade later, not a day passes when Fred McNair doesn’t in some way feel the presence of his famous NFL brother’s spirit. The two were born five years apart.

“I really do miss him,” Fred said of Steve as his eyes drifted into a far-away gaze. “You know, I pass by his gravesite every day I drive in to work at Alcorn. I pass right by it on Highway 84. And I let my arm out the window, almost like I can reach out and touch him. Just to sense him and the memories he shared with us as a brother, a son, a father, you can’t forget those. It’s always tough when you lose a sibling. The things we shared, it was always real competitive in nature. He always wanted to analyze me and always looked up to me for advice. It was a very special bond between us we shared our whole life together.”

Steve McNair on the cover of Sports Illustrated

McNair on the cover of the Sept. 26, 1994 issue of Sports Illustrated. After breaking numerous records and winning the Walter Payton Award as the best offensive player in Division I-AA, McNair finished third in the 1994 Heisman voting.

The Titans took root in Tennessee just as McNair was settling into stardom as a starting quarterback. The NFL got the version of a player who would eventually pass for 31,304 yards and 174 touchdowns while also leading 20 game-winning drives in the regular season and playoffs.

Blending a lethal combination of size, speed, mobility, arm strength and durability, McNair was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and the NFL’s Co-MVP with Peyton Manning in 2003. He also led the Titans to the franchise’s lone Super Bowl appearance in 2000. Yet for as great as McNair was a pro, his NFL highlights pale in comparison to the heroics he displayed every Saturday in college.

He was the evolution of those great black quarterbacks in the NFL who preceded him, in equal parts Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham and Doug Williams. And, his game foreshadowed those who came after him – the likes of Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb and Cam Newton.

The Titans’ conservative system under coach Jeff Fisher tamed some of the more dynamic aspects of McNair’s game during his peak NFL seasons. But occasionally, the magical college McNair would bust loose. He’d flash the fireworks that thrust him onto the cover of Sports Illustrated back in the day, which sent NFL scouts flocking to a tiny HBCU campus on the reservation in Mississippi.

The McNair brothers most enjoyed breaking down those moments after Steve’s games.

“He had to play to their expectations in the system,” Fred recalled. “Sometimes, you could see a little of that in him on the field in Tennessee, when the old Alcorn days would come back out of him. And some of the stuff he did, you can’t teach. At first, they had the reins on him a little bit. But those flashes back to those Alcorn days, man, those were the moments. After those games, he’d come around and we’d sit there and talk. And I’d say, ‘Hey, you had one of those (Alcorn) moments in that game, huh?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, I had to pull that one out,’ And we’d just nod and laugh about it.”

It’s always tough when you lose a sibling. The things we shared, it was always real competitive in nature. He always wanted to analyze me and always looked up to me for advice. It was a very special bond between us we shared our whole life together.

Fred McNair

As Fred McNair stood near midfield during the ceremony at last Sunday’s Titans-Colts game, he thanked the Titans for taking a chance on Steve. He spoke of how the Titans helped transform Steve’s life and how much of an impact his success on and off the field affected the rest of the family.

In a private moment afterward, Steve’s widow, Mechelle McNair, shared with Grind City Media how much the moment would have meant to Steve and how special it was to their two sons, including one who returned home from college for the occasion.

Fred still finds it hard to believe a decade has gone by since his brother passed just two years after retiring from the NFL. That’s evident when he recounts memories of their final phone call.

“The last conversation we had was about two weeks before that Fourth of July,” Fred revealed. “I was going to go up to Nashville. With that brotherly love, you just sense when something is going on. I just wanted to go up and talk with him, be there with him. So I called and told him I’d come up as soon as I got some free time and would spend time with him. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to do that.”

An understandable scheduling conflict got in the way.

Fred was set to coach his own son’s Dixie League youth baseball team for a tournament in Waynesboro, Mississippi. It was the same weekend as that fateful Fourth of July holiday in Nashville.

“I knew something was bearing on him, but I just didn’t quite know what,” Fred said of Steve. “But it’s one of those things man, and unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to do it. It just so happened that I was in Waynesboro with my son at the tournament. And then I got the news.”

Eddie George and Steve McNair

Tennessee Titans teammates Eddie George #27 and Steve McNair #9 celebrate together after a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams at Adelphia Coliseum on October 31, 1999. The Titans defeated the Rams 24-21. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.

Fred paused briefly to gather his thoughts, and then continued.

“It seems like it was just yesterday, in a sense, this kid lost his life,” he said softly of Steve, who died at age 36. “It just doesn’t seem that long ago. You’ve gone through the memorial services and tributes and all the things that people do to remember you. But it just doesn’t seem like it’s been 10 years.”

Beyond the touchdowns, accolades and big games, Fred believes Steve still resonates warmly with fans because of the quality of person he was in addition to being a great player. It’s how he helped people with the Steve McNair Foundation. He won the Titans’ Walter Payton Award in 2005 for his work in communities from Nashville to his native Mississippi, and beyond

McNair’s touch as a quarterback made him an NFL star. However, his personal touch made him special.

“Some of the things people saw most in Steve was the kind of person he was and how humble he was,” Fred surmised. “He may forget names sometimes, but faces, he’d never forget. In his profession, he met a lot of people he never forgot. And when he saw you, he’d always bring those memories back to when y’all had a good time together. That’s just the kind of person he is.”

Celebrations like last Sunday’s help frame things in proper perspective.

For the McNairs, it honored the legacy of a family that has endured with grace.

For the Titans, it preserved with dignity a legend’s number they will never replace.

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