Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Titan on the Plane

Nashville police continue to probe the circumstances surrounding the July 4th death of former NFL quarterback and Tennessee Titans football player Steve McNair.

In 2006 it happened that I wrote a brief story about an encounter I had had with him in 1998. The story was written as a composition assignment in a Spanish class I was taking. I re-wrote the remembrance in a fuller version, and in English, for the April edition of the newsletter of my running club, the Nashville Striders, a club containing several Titans fans.

And that was it until this July. I was in Spain when I heard about his death. I called my wife back in Tennessee and asked her to search my desktop computer for the story file (I didn't even remember the title.) She found the file and e-mailed it to me. His death had suddenly made the story timely. I read the piece and, without a single change, submitted it to the newspaper. It ran in the following Sunday edition under a note from the editor.

While fans mourned his death, the story served as a gentle reminder of his life. The story did something else. It offered a glimpse of the quarterback at the peak of his power, and, while it was only a snapshot, the view was a different and surprising one. Subsequent events made it poignantly prescient. From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, July 12, 2009.

At the Houston airport in May of 1998, my mother and I were boarding a Southwest flight bound for Nashville. Prior to that trip Momma had never ridden on a jet, and she wanted to sit where she could look out. She took a window seat at the front, and I sat down next to her.

Soon a tall black man took the seat next to me and nodded. I thought I recognized him, a football player. I asked him if I was right. He smiled kindly and extended his hand—it was thick and tough like a farmer’s. A gentle manner reflected his Mississippi rearing.

It had only been a year since the Houston Oilers had moved to Nashville, eventually changing their name to the Tennessee Titans. I asked him if he still owned a house in Houston.

“No, I live in Nashville now,” he said, expressing with that answer what I took to be a commitment extending beyond his personal residence to his team’s new home as well. He’d been to Mexico on a vacation, he told me.

During their first year in Nashville the Titans’ stadium had been under construction. Without a place to play their home games, team management had considered a number of local college stadiums, but finally decided on playing at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.

That choice proved a disaster. Political tension, if not outright enmity, had long existed between Memphis and Nashville. Fans from the Bluff City were not anxious to embrace a team that belonged to Music City.

The Titans had found few friends by the riverside. At one game, against Pittsburgh, the visiting team had actually enjoyed more fans than the home team, a humiliating rejection for the Nashvillians.

I told him I hated that they’d had to play in Memphis and that it would be much better once they started playing in Nashville.

“Yeah, it was pretty tough playing in Memphis,” he said.

“You’d been better off playing at a high school than playing in Memphis.”

He laughed at the irony in that comment, absurd yet true.

After that, I dropped the conversation, realizing he probably endures boring talks with fawning fans all the time. Three young women occupying the seats facing ours carried on a raucous conservation, hoping for his attention—and getting none. Instead, the man leaned back and took a nap.

I’d felt a bit uneasy talking with such a celebrity. We had little in common: He was half my age, twice my weight and a hundred times as rich. And, by comparison, I owned scant athletic credits.

In college, I’d lettered on the rifle team, breaching the national top twenty, and winning my team’s most valuable player award. While I treasure that, it seemed to pale beyond mention. And shooting glory had been a long time ago.

Perhaps a better athletic link was carried by the message on my T-shirt, a bold ad for the Golden Eagle 10K in Cookeville, an event of only the previous month which had been my first ever road race. In that first race, I had won two trophies—first in my age group and first master (over 50 there)—and discovered at the age of 57 a talent I didn’t know I had, one that has since led to numerous age-group titles and over two dozen state records.

Looking back now, I think my timidity was unfounded, and that I deserved to talk to the man as an athlete, one to another. Our difference was one of degree, not principle: He plays football, I run, we both compete.

In any case, he was courteous to me that day. And I fondly recall shaking his hand—the hand of a man who earns his living throwing a football. He does it well enough to be called by the name “Air.” Two years later he would lead his team to the Super Bowl. Three years after that, he would earn the League’s co-Most Valuable Player Award.

When we reached Nashville, it was late that night; not many people were around the airport. I glimpsed the quarterback as he headed down the concourse. He was framed by the harsh light and receding walls.

Steve McNair walked alone, shoulders slumped, eyes down. It seemed the image of a lonely man.


  1. Among his many accomplishments, your story is what I would like to remember about Steve "Air" McNair, instead of his tragic death. Thanks for posting it.

  2. I think he was fundamenally a decent man who somehow lost his mooring after his career ended.