Titans quarterback Steve McNair making a case for NFL MVP - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
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Tough Customer

Playing with courage and unwavering confidence, Titans quarterback Steve McNair is making a case that he's the league's MVP

Needles do not scare Steve McNair, a man whose heroics on the
football field have been made possible by IV lines and
pain-killing injections. So at halftime on Sunday, when the
Tennessee Titans' gritty quarterback was told by team doctors
that he'd need three stitches to close a gash on his chin, McNair
did not flinch. Having already staked the Titans to a
three-touchdown lead in their AFC showdown with the Miami
Dolphins, McNair stoically assumed his familiar reclining
position on the training table. "Patch me up, Doc," the
30-year-old McNair said, sounding like Marshal Matt Dillon or one
of the other gunslingers he watches religiously on late-night TV.
Ninety minutes later, after Tennessee (7-2) had sewed up a 31-7
victory over Miami and moved into a first-place tie with the
Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South, 68,809 fans left The
Coliseum with an impression of McNair that is rapidly spreading
through the NFL--that he is fearless and peerless. "He's the
MVP, no question," Dolphins linebacker Junior Seau said as he
trudged off the field. "He's so comfortable now, and that's
causing headaches for the whole league."

Because he so routinely plays with pain--since becoming a starter
in 1997, McNair has had back, chest, finger, thumb, shin, head,
shoulder, knee and toe injuries--the mild-mannered Mississippian
is becoming a mythical figure in a sport in which the athletes
pride themselves on playing hurt. In McNair's words, "I'm not
about to let my team down. My motto has always been that you
never let them see that you're hurt."

Alas, McNair doesn't live up to that credo when he's in the cozy
confines of his suburban Nashville house. "He might be tough when
it comes to football, but he's a big baby at home," says Steve's
wife, Mechelle. "Believe me, I see how hurt he is. It's, 'Honey,
can you bring me this? Can you get me that? Can you give me a
rub?' He'll be limping, grimacing, complaining all week, saying
there's no way he'll play, and then I'll see him on Sunday
running around like nothing's wrong."

Until recently McNair's Sunday best has been largely overlooked
outside of Tennessee. Though he has won more games since the
start of the 1999 season than any other quarterback (chart, page
61), McNair has never played in the Pro Bowl--named an alternate
in 2000, he was extended a late invitation as an injury
replacement but declined because of a shoulder problem--and last
year finished 10th among AFC passers in the fans' voting. Earlier
this season Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Plaxico Burress referred
to McNair as "the most underrated player in the league, bar none."

On Sunday, against Miami's highly regarded defense, all of his
talents were on display. McNair, who completed 17 of 23 passes
for 201 yards and two touchdowns, connected with seven receivers
and didn't turn the ball over, as the Titans broke the 30-point
barrier for the sixth straight game. He threw picturesque passes,
including a 46-yard strike to Derrick Mason, his favorite target,
on Tennessee's fourth play from scrimmage, and patiently
delivered the ball on underneath patterns that resulted in
first-half touchdown passes to wideouts Tyrone Calico and Justin

Folks in Music City have grown accustomed to such virtuoso
performances. "Trust me, this is nothing new," running back Eddie
George says of McNair's play in 2003, including a league-best
107.3 passer rating. "If you haven't been watching, that's your
fault, because you've missed out on some special things."

After a record-setting career at Division I-AA Alcorn State,
McNair was drafted with the third pick in 1995, by the Houston
Oilers (who moved to Tennessee two years later), but was brought
along slowly by Houston coach Jeff Fisher. When he became a
full-time starter in 1997, McNair was feared more for his
scrambling ability than his passing. Buoyed by Fisher's
unwavering support, however, McNair blossomed in '99 after he
returned from early-season back surgery and guided the Titans to
the AFC title. He was a revelation in the final minutes of
Tennessee's Super Bowl XXXIV loss to the St. Louis Rams, as he
came within a yard of finishing off what would have been one of
the most dramatic game-tying drives in NFL history.

Still, even in Nashville, the chiseled 6'2" 235-pounder couldn't
shake the skeptics. Against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Titans'
2000 home opener, McNair left the field on a cart after suffering
a severely bruised sternum, and backup Neil O'Donnell entered the
game to loud applause. "Steve heard that as he was going up the
tunnel," Fisher recalls, "and it was overwhelming."

Tennessee next faced the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and McNair,
still having trouble breathing, replaced an injured O'Donnell
late in the fourth quarter and marched the Titans to a
game-winning touchdown. He has been moving up the NFL's food
chain ever since, becoming a wiser, more accurate passer while
replacing the battle-scarred George as the team's offensive focal

Last season, after Tennessee slogged to a 1-4 start, McNair "took
over the team," Fisher says. The Titans rebounded to win 10 of
their last 11 regular-season games and advanced to the AFC
Championship Game, even though McNair was unable to practice from
before Thanksgiving until after New Year's Day because of a badly
strained rib cage. Unable to throw pregame passes of more than 10
yards, McNair took a pain-killing injection before Tennessee's
pivotal Dec. 1 road game against the New York Giants. The shot
began to wear off during the third quarter, but McNair (30 of 43,
334 yards, three touchdowns) pressed on, overcoming a 12-point,
fourth-quarter deficit, forcing overtime by running for a
two-point conversion and completing three of four passes for 47
yards to set up Joe Nedney's game-winning field goal.

By then, football insiders were taking notice. McNair finished
third in the 2002 MVP voting, and players around the league
scoffed at his exclusion from the Pro Bowl. "It's like, 'What's
wrong with this picture?'" Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Troy
Vincent says. "People compare Steve with guys like Daunte
Culpepper and Donovan McNabb because of his running ability, but
to me he's almost a mirror image of [the Green Bay Packers']
Brett Favre. They approach the game the same way, they're
extremely difficult to bring down, and man, they are tough."

Favre and McNair, who in the off-season live down the road from
each other in the Hattiesburg, Miss., area, absorb as much
physical abuse as Johnny Knoxville and his Jackass gang, but you
won't hear either quarterback complaining. Nor does McNair
express bitterness about the Pro Bowl snubs ("You can't miss what
you've never had," he says) or the relative tardiness of the
acclaim that's finally coming his way ("I'm a patient man.
Patience is what's gotten me this far").

McNair isn't much for muss or fuss and dreams of retiring to the
643-acre ranch he owns in his hometown of Mount Olive, Miss.,
where he'll "sit in a rocking chair and look out at my cows and
horses grazing in the pasture." Says Mechelle, who met her
husband when the two were students at Alcorn State, "He tries to
convince me that rabbit and raccoon are good meat. I tell him,
'I'm not eating roadkill.'"

Steve and Mechelle also have different sleeping habits. Most
nights, Mechelle says, she sleeps alone upstairs in the couple's
bed, while Steve sits on the couch downstairs, drifting in and
out of slumber while watching Gunsmoke, Matlock, In the Heat of
the Night or Walker, Texas Ranger. It's not a stretch to say that
McNair's soundest sleep comes at the stadium on Sunday mornings.
He insists on taking pregame naps that usually last around an
hour--he snoozed for two hours on an X-ray table before the game
against Miami--using a rolled bath towel as a pillow. On the
road, finding a dark, quiet place can be an adventure. "One time
in Detroit we pulled out some mobile lockers and created a
two-foot space, and I slept behind them on the floor with my feet
sticking out," McNair says. "I like to lie there and visualize
what might happen in a game, until I'm in a deep fog."

Once the game begins McNair, who has missed only seven starts in
the last six years, achieves a transcendental state in which he
is oblivious to pain. Often he can't remember the specifics of
how he sustained an injury. "It's like I get so focused on
winning," he says, "that I block everything else out." Usually
about 12 hours after a game, McNair is jolted back to reality.
"All week long my wife will see me hurting, and she'll preach to
me that I shouldn't play [the next game]," he says. "Then I'll go
out there anyway, and when the pain pops up again at 3 a.m. and I
wake her up, she'll say, 'Why didn't you listen to me?'"

Mechelle's opinions aren't born solely of spousal concern; she
recently became a registered nurse, a vocation that, for her
husband, is exceedingly convenient. (Among other things she has
wrapped his fingers in splints and applied ice to his feet.)
"Sometimes Steve will be downstairs at 3 a.m. and will call
me--his cellphone to the phone next to the bed--to ask me to
bring him something," Mechelle said after Sunday's game. "At
times he'll even ask our son [Tyler, 5] to get him a glass of
water. I swear, I have two children."

As Steve and Tyler, roaming the locker room in matching olive
suits, began to walk her way, Mechelle turned serious. She
recounted the severe infection her husband contracted in his
throwing shoulder early in 2001, one that required emergency
surgery, a 15-gallon saline flush and twice-daily IV antibiotic
treatments that lasted for two weeks. "One night I remember him
crying and asking me for help, begging for more pain pills when
I'd already given him the maximum amount," Mechelle said. "I was
panicking, fearing the worst; his football career wasn't even a

Now the Titans are riding that right arm and gunning for their
first NFL title. Due to deliver the couple's second son on Jan.
30, two days before Super Bowl XXXVIII, Mechelle says that if a
conflict arises, she would be willing to tough it out in the
delivery room without the Titans' most important player. "I'll be
fine," she recently told her husband. "Just make sure you bring
back the ring."

Michael Silver's Open Mike, every Thursday at si.com.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER (MASON) HANDYMAN Mason set the tone early against the Dolphins, hauling in a 46-yard pass on the Titans' opening possession.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS POISED FOR SUCCESS With 15 touchdown passes and only three interceptions, McNair is having the finest season of his nine-year career.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (CALICO) FLEXIBLE FLYER Calico chipped in three receptions against Miami, including his fourth touchdown grab of the season.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER STACKED UP The Titans' top-ranked rushing defense held the Dolphins' Ricky Williams to 37 yards on the ground.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER ON A ROLL McNair has 17 victories in his last 20 regular-season starts.

Just Win, Baby

Other NFL quarterbacks may produce more eye-catching statistics,
but since the start of the 1999 season no one has won more games
as a starter than the Titans' Steve McNair.


Steve McNair, Titans 46 4 50
Rich Gannon, Raiders 43 4 47
Brett Favre, Packers 45 1 46
Peyton Manning, Colts 46 0 46
Brad Johnson, Redskins-Bucs 40 4 44
Donovan McNabb, Eagles 37 4 41
Kurt Warner, Rams 35 5 40
Kerry Collins, Giants 35 2 37
Jay Fiedler, Jaguars-Dolphins 33 1 34
Jeff Garcia, 49ers 33 1 34

"He's almost a mirror image of Favre," says Vincent. "They
approach the game the same way, they're extremely difficult to
bring down, and man, they are tough."