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The people’s guide to Steve McNair

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“Air II” McNair’s 1994 at Alcorn State might be the best QB season college football will ever have.

Steve McNair in 1994 at Alcorn State, throwing a pass. Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

1. Steve McNair almost didn’t come back to Alcorn State for 1994.

His family didn’t have much money. His mom raised five kids while working for a Magnetek plant in Simpson County, Mississippi. He was positioned to graduate easily, whether right then or not.

He was already an accomplished college QB, a three-year starter who’d set all the school’s big passing records.

The NFL’s draft advisory committee told him he’d be a first- or second-round pick, which would’ve let him buy a Lexus he’d thought about often, as he’d explained to the Clarion Ledger.

But McNair decided to play his senior year. The ‘94 draft featured a couple QBs slated to go higher, Trent Dilfer and Heath Shuler, and he wanted to keep playing at Alcorn along with his brother Tim, a receiver.

“It was a seesaw battle,” McNair said of the decision’s pros and cons.

2. McNair was basically already NFL-ready heading into 1994.

“I’ve said before that he’s the best college football player in the country,” Alcorn head man Cardell Jones told the Hattiesburg American. “He doesn’t have a weakness. People ask me what he needs to do to improve. That’s a tough question because he has no weaknesses.”

The newspaper said the 6’2, 220-pound McNair had a 4.6 40 that August.

3. So the first thing to know about how that season went is this: McNair’s name still appears 46 times in the NCAA Division I FCS record book.

Remember he was even better than the NCAA record book indicates, because the official book only counts 11 games’ worth of his 1994 season, due to old rules. He actually played 12 — and the 12th was a really big one — but this was when the NCAA didn’t count postseason stats toward player records. McNair and Barry Sanders (oh, especially Sanders) are among the guys most shorted by that policy.

4. McNair is credited with 5,799 yards of offense, the most in FCS history.

That’s 4,863 passing, 936 rushing.

He’s also FCS’ career record holder at 16,823, the most in college history until a few FBS air raid QBs came along in the 2000s, when seasons were longer.

5. Had McNair played a 14- or 15-game season, as opposed to an 11-gamer, every number in this post would be more impressive.

For instance, the 44 TD passes he threw in 1994 (not even counting his playoff appearance, when he had three more) are behind about a dozen FCS passers. But almost everyone ahead of him played a longer season, some by up to four games.

The only exception is Willie Totten, who threw 56 in 1984, 27 of them to arguably the best football player ever, Jerry Rice. Meanwhile, there is a great chance you have never heard of a single player McNair targeted with a college pass.

6. McNair wasn’t a stats-spammer. His team needed his production, especially in clutch moments.

The Clarion Ledger counted 11 times across his career in which McNair got Alcorn State to a win after trailing in the fourth quarter. In four weeks in his senior year, he:

  • won a game after trailing 37-34 and facing second-and-40 at his own 25 in the last minute
  • came back from 29 down in third quarter to tie Samford on the road, and
  • came back from 11 down with eight minutes left to beat #6 Troy

“If we remember Reggie Jackson as Mr. October, we should remember Steve McNair as Mr. Fourth Quarter,” the reporter who collected those comebacks wrote.

7.

8. McNair had six* 500-yard passing games in 1994. I’m pretty sure he’s the only college or pro QB at any level to ever do that in a season.

That’s the FCS record, and so is McNair doing it nine times over a career. They don’t track that one in FBS or DIII, and it seems nobody in DII has ever done it either, so McNair is probably the only college or pro football player to ever pull it off.

Even Texas Tech’s B.J. Symons and Houston’s Case Keenum, who hold a bunch of all-DI records, did not pile up that many 500-yard games. Together, they had 10 over their college careers, one more than McNair did on his own.

*He really had seven. Hang on for playoff stuff.

9. So it won’t surprise you that McNair put up more passing yards per game in 1994 than any QB ever has, college or pro.

527.2 is the number the NCAA has. That’s miles ahead of the next guy, Houston’s David Klingler, who had 467.3 per game in 1990. (McNair’s number goes down a tick if you include his playoff game, but he’s still well ahead of Klingler or anyone else.)

10. McNair pulled off the meanest college football feat possible: beating his school’s most bitter rival all four years.

And what McNair did to Jackson State is even harsher than that, because JSU had won the Soul Bowl seven times in a row up until before McNair’s arrival.

McNair showed up as a true freshman in 1991. Alcorn won all four years. The last was a nationally televised game (not exactly common for non-FBS teams) in front of 62,512 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson.

McNair guided three TD drives in the first seven minutes, had 311 yards by halftime, and finished with 533 and five touchdowns, despite hurting his hamstring late in the first half.

11. McNair did more damage to Jackson State than any player in college football history has ever done to an actual rival.

There is a record for this — most yards gained against one opponent — and McNair holds the FCS mark for total offense. In four games against JSU, he racked up 1,772 yards of offense, which is both the cumulative record and the per-game (443) in FCS.

Keenum has the all-DI record, but Keenum putting up a few more yards against UTEP is not nearly as cool as McNair’s years-long devastation of a team his school has deep feelings about.

“I wish him well at the next level. I’m happy to see him go,” JSU coach James Carson said after McNair had destroyed his team for the final time. “There’s nothing else I can say about him,” he added. “I’ve seen him for four years. He’s simply the best.”

12. McNair’s one apparent shortcoming in 1994 — a blowout playoff loss — has some important context.

The Braves went to play Jim Tressel’s Youngstown State, then the gold standard in FCS. They lost, 63-20, as McNair threw three picks and Alcorn lost four fumbles.

McNair’s left hamstring meant he couldn’t run at all. He wound up with -32 yards on nine carries, six of those “carries’ being sacks that counted as rush yards, because NCAA accounting is stupid. But he really wasn’t mobile at all.

“When we saw that he couldn’t scramble, we came at him from all sides,” Tressel said in the New York Times, which sent a special correspondent.

McNair was “about 60 percent,” his brother, Tim, said after.

13. An injured, one-dimensional McNair still set an FCS playoff record for completions and came four shy of the yardage record.

His passing line: 52-of-82 (lol) for 514 yards, with three TDs and three interceptions.

14. So, McNair’s real 1994 numbers are 47 touchdown passes and 6,281 yards of offense in 12 games, baking in his rush and pass totals from the playoffs.

Those are the numbers the government does not want you to read.

15. Actually, all three of McNair’s losses in 1994 somehow add to his legend.

In addition to the playoff game:

  • His team scored 56 in a season-opening loss at Grambling, then a power under Eddie Robinson.
  • Sam Houston State became the first Southland team to ever get a home game nationally televised, the school said, when it got $25,000 from ESPN to broadcast its game against McNair. The announced attendance was 16,148. The capacity was 14,000. (Alcorn’s 23 points was its fewest of the regular season, although in the fourth quarter, McNair suffered a separated throwing shoulder.)

16. McNair made HBCU football popular with national and white audiences in a way it’s never otherwise been.

It’s not just that Sports Illustrated put this out right before the Sam Houston State game:

The Ledger noted at one point: “The major TV networks show McNair highlights virtually every time they do a Heisman segment.”

Alcorn had games on ABC, ESPN2, and SportSouth. For the regular season finale against Jackson State, a radio station in Oklahoma City reached out to carry the broadcast.

National talk radio shows devoted more airwaves than at any other time in history to discussion of a non-FBS player’s Heisman chances. They debated whether the SWAC was a tough enough league for Alcorn’s record-setting QB to win what is typically an award only for FBS power-conference players.

At that Jackson State game, reporters relayed scenes of “little white kids running around wearing Ole Miss baseball caps and ‘Air II McNair for Heisman’ T-shirts.”

17. Oh, yeah. For decades after his college career, McNair’s nickname was “Air McNair.” But at Alcorn, he was “Air II.”

His older brother Fred, who also played QB at Alcorn and wore #9, was Air McNair. Steve had to settle for Air II, going back to his days as a high school QB in Mount Olive.

18.

19. McNair was good enough that four receivers became stars, too.

Donald Ray Ross, Marcus Hinton, brother Tim, and Kobie Jenkins were respectively known around the program as Deuce, Six-Six, Belushi, and Mophead.

20. Alcorn didn’t have the resources to mount a publicity push for McNair like the kind other Heisman candidates get.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Alcorn’s sports information office was “two student assistants, a fax machine, and some postage stamps.”

A shortage of funding at Alcorn, typical of HBCUs across the country, hampered the program throughout McNair’s career and makes his college achievements even more impressive. The Inquirer reported the Braves traveled to every game in two Trailway buses, lifted weights in a classroom, and didn’t have a working water fountain outside that “weight room,” because they didn’t have money to fix a broken one.

There also wasn’t money for a paint-and-polish machine, which meant players’ golden helmets were nicked up badly by the end of the season.

21. None of this stopped someone at Alcorn from producing a five-minute rap about McNair, which the school set to his highlights and made into a campaign video.

One verse:

Breaking containment, defense is on trial, this is the arraignment. The sentence is trying to stop the Mac. You’ll get the death penalty and end up on your back.

And the hook:

Hand him the Heisman.

22. Ultimately, McNair came closer to the Heisman than any FCS player in a generation and counting since.

He finished third behind two power-conference RBs, Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam and Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter. There’s a good chance no FCS player gets that close again. Salaam ran for more than 2,000 yards and was a deserving winner, but it’s still bizarre that Carter’s 1,539 rush yards were enough to finish ahead of McNair.

McNair is the last non-FBS player to finish in the top 10. He and Holy Cross two-way star Gordie Lockbaum, who finished third in 1987, are the only FCS players to ever finish that high.

The Heisman Trust will tell you 32 players from “small schools” have finished in the top 10 in various years, but most of those are Ivy Leaguers from before the Ivies went FCS. Today, like in McNair’s time, players from the lower levels are effectively ineligible.

23. McNair’s season was the subject of lots of hollering about the quality of competition in the SWAC. But he was incredible in any light.

The obvious point: thousands of QBs have played in lower-level conferences, and nobody has ever put together a resume like McNair’s. Denigrating his season isn’t much different than saying the record-breaking seasons by Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray didn’t deserve Heisman consideration because of the Big 12’s high-scoring style.

Rarely acknowledged by those questioning McNair: his teammates were at a lower level, too. He didn’t have an all-time FCS receiver like Rice or Randy Moss. It’s hard to win at Alcorn, and that’s why the Braves barely won anything for 20 years after McNair’s exit.

24. If you’re skeptical of McNair’s season because of quality of competition, let Warren Sapp dispel that notion.

This was Sapp talking to a Clarion Ledger reporter at media day for the Heisman finalists in 1994. The non-McNair finalists were Sapp, Salaam, Carter, Kerry Collins, and Jay Barker:

“That kind of question is just baloney,” Sapp said after he stopped laughing. “All you gotta do is watch him play. Down at Miami, we watched him every chance we got. We were his biggest fans.

“We couldn’t believe some of the things he did against defenses that were designed specifically to stop him. We all sat around and watched him Thanksgiving weekend. The guy was hurt so bad, he couldn’t hardly walk and he was still out there flinging it. What an arm!

“Tell you what, you put him behind our line and let him throw to our receivers at Miami. Then you’ll really see something. We’d sure take him at Miami.”

25.

26. Michael Strahan, who played at Texas Southern and overlapped with McNair for a few years, also stresses McNair’s bona fides.

“You hear about somebody and you go, ‘Oh, well, he can’t be that good. You’ve gotta wait and see.’ And he was that good,” Strahan, a Hall of Famer like Sapp, said years later. “He was like a linebacker playing quarterback.”

27. After all that, McNair’s bet on himself paid off.

Had McNair turned pro after 1993 and been the early second-rounder the NFL advisory committee thought he’d be, he would’ve made around $1 million a year, with a few million more in a signing bonus.

Instead, he went #3 to the Houston Oilers in ‘95. His deal: $28 million over seven years, with almost $10 million guaranteed.

28. “Steve McNair is the best football player I’ve ever seen,” said a guy who coached maybe the best athlete in history.

Larry Blakeney was an Auburn assistant for 12 years. That included Bo Jackson’s time on the Plains. Blakeney later became Troy’s head coach.

In 1994, Blakeney lost 47-44 to Alcorn when McNair had 476 passing and 110 rushing yards.

“He’d be the best player on [final #3] Colorado’s team or [final #1] Nebraska’s team, too. He’d be the best player on any team in Division I-A … He can do more to beat you with his abilities than anyone else I’ve ever seen,” Blakeney told The Sporting News.

“That includes Bo.”