I was all set to sit down and write a fun blog entry about Robyn’s first birthday, which is right around the corner. After all, Cherise and I are about to hit quite the milestone and parenting two kids has certainly brought forth some unique challenges and experiences that are worth examination and humorous self-ridicule. I promise I will get to that post. But if you’ll permit me, I’d like to take a mini-detour. Saturday, my favorite football player of all-time was shot dead. Police are sorting out the sordid details of what may be a murder-suicide by his "friend". As the details are revealed, I wince at the personal nature of the investigation and the inevitable dragging through the mud that will ensue. In the last month, we’ve seen headlines dominated by death and infidelity and, sadly, Steve McNair will have to be associated with both as his legacy will be unfairly tarnished.
I’m not going to race down to Nashville to attend his memorial. I’m not going to sit outside his house like the many fans of Michael Jackson are doing at the Neverland Ranch or Staples Center. That has nothing to do with the circumstances around his death, but rather my attempt to maintain perspective that this wasn’t a family member or best friend, bur rather a public figure and a flawed figure at that. But amidst the flaws, he was a warrior on the field and a caring individual off. With his foundation, his extensive work with youth, and his willingness to roll up his sleeves when Katrina hit neighborhoods in his native Mississippi, he had a level of nobility and sense of community. But frankly, as much as I liked those things, I would’ve been a fan regardless. He made the Titans a legitimate team. He made football exciting. He played with the heart of a lion and never lost focus on the ultimate goal of winning (something I wish the Titans current young QB could learn). His touchdown celebrations were memorable (he put his hands to his helmet and point his fingers outward). As a sports fan, he was worth the price of admission. For several years, Steve McNair owned my Sunday mornings.
As for special moments, most people remember Steve McNair for one of the most exciting finishes in Super Bowl history–the dreaded "one yard short" game. I always tell people that I wasn’t upset about losing that game because the Rams deserved to win. Instead, I was inspired by McNair’s determination to not lose that game. That was the McNair I knew–a man with an extreme will to win. In the end, Mike Jones made one of the best tackles I’ve ever seen. The Titans didn’t lose. The Rams won. The next day, as a Titan fan, my head was held high.
But there’s another game that no one will say very much about that means more to me than the Super Bowl loss. In January 2004, the Titans went to Foxboro to play the New England Patriots in what would be the coldest game in either team’s history. A friend who attended the game told me his beer actually froze before he could drink most of it. The Titans had a great season and McNair was the co-MVP, but two losses to the Colts made them the wild card and forced them to play on the road. I was convinced the Titans were the better team. After losing to the Patriots earlier in the season, they could get their revenge. In a see-saw affair, the Patriots had a 17-14 lead late in the 4th quarter with the Titans backed up and the crowd on their feet. That’s when McNair brought the magic. Throw after throw, he kept finding receivers despite the vicious weather conditions and a Patriot defense looking for him to pass. And when he couldn’t find anyone open, he ran it himself. This was amazing. He was beating all the odds. The weather. The fans. The officials tried to overturn his completions with instant replay. But then it stalled. A ridiculous holding call followed by a questionable intentional grounding call set up seemingly insurmountable odds, turning a 3rd and 3 to a 3rd and 23 and knocking the Titans out of field goal range. McNair completed a pass to Drew Bennett where Bennett made a tremendous grab for 11 yards. But it was still 4th and 12. Do or die. As the play started, the Patriot cornerback sprinted in unabated and was about to level McNair. Rather than run and risk a broken play where they probably wouldn’t get the 12 yards, McNair fearlessly stayed in the pocket and threw the ball just before absorbing a crushing hit. The ball sailed in the air to a wide open Drew Bennett. The ball was a little short, but that actually helped as the defense was playing loose and Drew Bennett was left alone to catch it. It was his easiest catch of the drive.
Except he didn’t catch it.
The ball bounced off his fingertips. As it was still in the air, he tried it again. By now, the defense had come in to make the effort practically impossible. Cherise was watching the game with me and I can still hear her reaction: "OH NO!" She’s not a football fan, but even she knew what was happening. Drew Bennett DROPPED THE BALL. And the season. And the dream of a return to the Super Bowl. I was beside myself. There must’ve been a penalty! Please, anything! How could he drop that? There must be an explanation!!! But no, that was it. The Patriots got the ball and ran out the clock. The miracle comeback was over. I was speechless. Unlike the Super Bowl, this time, the Titans lost. It remains one of my biggest sports disappointments ever.
Little did I know that I’d learn one of life’s greatest lessons courtesy of Steve McNair.
Days later, I was still going through the emotions that a die-hard overly invested fan goes through when their team gives away a playoff game in what had been such a memorable season. What the hell is wrong with Drew Bennett? How could he ruin a great season like that? How could he end Steve McNair’s perfect season? The MVP award was supposed to come with redemption in the Super Bowl. Even I could’ve caught that ball! But then I saw a picture on the Nashville newspaper’s website that changed everything. I included it here.
Sanford Myers / The Tennessean
As the Patriots ran out the clock, Bennett sat by himself, crushed by the consequences of his failure. Apparently, Steve McNair came up to him, leaned over him, and spent time consoling Bennett including saying "you’ll catch the next one". In this day and age of the oversized egos of professional athletes and the concern about their legacy and paychecks over the good of the team, Steve McNair basically said "don’t worry about it". Here I was, a random Titan fan in Seattle and I’m cursing Bennett days later even though he didn’t owe me anything. Meanwhile, McNair had the presence of mind to think about Bennett and put aside the disappointment of the moment. McNair who had been working like crazy for months of two-a-days and game films. McNair who had been beaten and bruised for a full schedule and two playoff games. McNair who was absorbing hits while playing with a sternum made of cartilage. McNair who laid himself on the line and took a nasty hit by the Patriot cornerback for the sake of making that pass. Forgiveness and understanding are powerful tools. They can liberate those weighed under a burden they bear. There’s no doubt that the drop haunted Bennett and still does, but the compassion of the man who had the most to lose with that drop was a powerful gift and Steve McNair gave it willingly.
I’ve kept that picture on my computer for years and I pull it up every now and then. I don’t have a caption to go with it because it doesn’t need a caption. It reminds me to understand the lessons of forgiveness. As a fan. As a manager of employees. And, perhaps most importantly, as a father of two girls. People continually make mistakes–especially kids. As they get older, the mistakes will get bigger. Maintaining perspective and understanding not to cloud the bigger picture because of the smaller details are important lessons to understand. It sounds funny to say this, but there are times when I will be talking to Iris after she does something she regrets and that picture will flash in my head. The lessons of that moment will never be lost on me.
I’ve always told people I hope Iris and Robyn grow up to be sports fans because of the infinite lessons they can learn about life. Even as a spectator, those lessons can be profound and come in the most unlikely of circumstances. So today, I honor Steve McNair as my favorite player and as someone who indirectly had an impact on my life. To be clear, the purpose of this blog isn’t to forgive Steve McNair. He didn’t owe me anything–certainly not off the field. For his sake, I can only hope that those close to him find solace in the lesson he taught me on that cold January night in Foxboro.