Asleep on the Job
Steve McNair liked his naps.
In fact, prior to every game – mere minutes before taking the field – he could be found lying on the floor in front of his locker enjoying a snooze. In Steve's mind, that was the perfect way to focus and prepare.
On more than one occasion during his two seasons in Baltimore, I found myself stepping over him as I made my way in and out of the locker room while tending to pre-game duties. One time before a road game at Kansas City's hostile Arrowhead Stadium, Chad Steele (our director of media relations) burst through the locker room entrance and whipped around the corner, only to trip over – and awaken – a sleeping No. 9.
"Geeeez, Steve!" I recall Chad saying as he explained the encounter to me following our 20-10 victory. "I didn't see you. I'm so sorry."
In typical McNair fashion, with a soothing tone unique to him, he shrugged his shoulders and flashed his trademark grin. "If I have a bad game, well then it's your fault," he quipped to Chad.
That was Steve McNair… Calm, charismatic and light-hearted.
Whether he openly stated it, I really don't know. But by most accounts, Nov. 12, 2006 proved to be one of the most electrifying and memorable days of Steve McNair's career. It was on that hazy afternoon that Steve returned to the city that embraced him for 11 seasons to battle the very franchise he had become – and to this day remains – the face of.
I vividly remember our caravan pulling up to the Titans' LP Field. For away games, I always ride the first bus to the stadium, just as Steve did every week we were on the road. As we unloaded and started walking to the locker room, a swarm of TV cameramen backpedaled down the tunnel – all of them with their lenses zeroed in on the man who was coming "home." Usually, our quarterback has a couple cameras fixed on him as he gets off the bus, but that day, there were more than I've ever seen before.
Prior to the game, as the teams warmed up on the field, the Titans played a video montage of Steve's career in Tennessee. Capped with a "thanks for the memories" (or something to that effect) salute, many people felt it was a classy, moving tribute. However, there were also some who believed the homage was nothing more than an emotional ploy to infiltrate Steve's mind and disrupt his focus prior to kickoff.
Whatever the case, McNair didn't blink.
Though the Titans jumped out to a 26-7 lead – with everything seemingly going their way early on – McNair and Co. refused to yield. Staging what ultimately would become the greatest comeback in Ravens franchise history – a turnaround that saw Baltimore score 20 unanswered points – Steve poured in 373 passing yards and three touchdowns on the afternoon.
For Tennessee fans, it was a familiar sight… Yet this time around, No. 9 delivered the knockout punch in a different colored jersey.
Down by six with just 5:09 remaining, the Ravens got the ball back at the 50-yard line following a Tennessee punt. While preparing to take the field, several of our players erupted with anticipation and repeatedly screamed, "Let's do this! C'mon! Time to make some plays!"
Finally, one player belted out, "This is ours! We've got five minutes!!!"
In typical McNair fashion, with a soothing tone unique to him, he shrugged his shoulders and flashed his trademark grin. "It won't take that long," he offered with reassuring ease.
Before a single person in that stadium actually realized what the Ravens' field general was orchestrating, Derrick Mason snatched a McNair laser in the end zone to tie the game. All Steve needed was four plays, 1 minute and 34 seconds.
Matt Stover's PAT put the Ravens ahead by one, while Trevor Pryce sealed the deal by blocking a desperation field goal attempt on the Titans' final drive. Final score: 27-26.
Aided by a cast of teammates who rallied around him, McNair willed Baltimore to victory in one of the NFL's all-time nail-biters. Simply put, the former Titans hero was brilliant that day, as ever so casually, he put on the performance of a lifetime.
That was Steve McNair… Determined, composed and compelling.
**The First Pitch
Following his retirement press conference last year on April 17, Steve was invited by the Orioles to throw out a ceremonial first pitch against the Yankees. To help escort him and facilitate interview requests, I went down to the ballpark early to make sure everything was set.
Told that we must be on the field by 6:45, I gave Steve directions and instructions on where to park, and we agreed to meet in the executive/player lobby at 6:30. Around 6:15, I called him, and he informed me that traffic on I-695 was brutal. Still, he assured me it wouldn't take long to break through. At 6:25, I called back to see where he was, and this time he said he was stuck on I-95. Again, he assured me it wouldn't be much longer. Five minutes later, I called back to find out his location, but this time he didn't answer. Growing more concerned by the second, I put in several more calls that all went unanswered. Finally, I reached Steve a little after 6:40. He was exactly where he shouldn't be – on Pratt Street headed towards the Inner Harbor. "I missed the turn," he explained. "Sorry, but traffic is awful and the streets are confusing. Don't worry, though. I'll make it."
Immediately, I thought disaster:* There's no way he's going to throw out that pitch.*
After scrambling to get revamped directions from a nervous Orioles staffer, I stayed on the phone with Steve and guided him to the park. Eventually, around 6:50, he drove into the parking lot. To everyone's amazement, he pulled it off and we had time to spare.
I met Steve at his car and told him we had to hurry. Never one to rush – unless a defensive end was hovering over him – Steve sauntered over to the gate as if he had hours to spare. He shook hands and signed autographs for every fan that passed along the way. Eventually, nowhere near being on schedule – yet somehow still having enough time – we made it into the park and on the field. Once there, Steve lined up along the backstop and signed many more autographs. I swear the line to reach him spanned the entire section of stairs leading up to the concourse.
After viewing a video tribute to him on the scoreboard, Steve sauntered (of course) out to the mound. And I'll be damned, just like he assured me several times over the phone, he threw out that first pitch.
To view the game, Steve sat in the stadium's best seat – right next to the opposing dugout where he was basically eye level with all the Yankees. Several players came up to congratulate him, and I even think he jawed with a few between pitches. Around the sixth or seventh inning, Steve had to get going. Escorted by a police officer, he was practically mobbed as he walked up the stairs and through the concourse. Once again, he shook hands and signed every autograph along his path. Sensing that it might take awhile for him to reach his car, I asked if he wanted me to help keep people at bay.
In typical McNair fashion, with a soothing tone unique to him, he shrugged his shoulders and flashed his trademark grin. "Naw, I'm fine," he affirmed, seemingly enjoying the frenzy around him. "This is OK. Thank you for your help tonight."
That was the last time I ever saw Steve in person. In a strange way, that night – without a football in hand – he showed me exactly why he'd become a great NFL quarterback and an even better teammate. Simply put, it was how he made things happen, the manner in which he carried himself and the way he inspired everybody around him.
Indeed,* that* was Steve McNair… Calm, charismatic and light-hearted. Determined, composed and compelling.
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