Steve McNair's(notes) career as one of the NFL's best quarterbacks was cut sadly short by the physical pounding he took over 13 seasons. On Saturday, his life was cut tragically short at age 36 by a gunshot.
The news of McNair's death hit friends, teammates and opponents with equal sadness as they remembered his talent, toughness and his joy for a game that he fought through pain to play.
"There was one week in 2003, when he won the MVP and took us to the playoffs, when he was hurt and was going through something with his family and I didn't see him that week until Saturday night before the game," former Tennessee wide receiver Drew Bennett(notes) recalled Saturday.
"Literally, I didn't see him at all in the locker room or at practice. We were playing the Steelers that week, so it was a huge game … he doesn't practice the whole week and throws for three touchdowns, has one of his best games."
McNair completed 15 of 16 passes for 161 yards and three touchdowns that Sunday against the Steelers on his way to the playoffs and co-MVP honors with Peyton Manning(notes). As with anyone as fiercely competitive as McNair, the stats only begin to explain what he was as a player.
Stories such as the one Bennett told about the game at Pittsburgh are a constant in McNair's career.
"I think he was doubtful every week of his career," Bennett said, referring to the weekly injury report teams use to classify ailing players.
"What we admired most about Steve when we played against him was his competitive spirit and we were lucky to have that with us for two years," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who traded for McNair in 2006 after the QB played 11 seasons for the Titans, dating back to the franchise's days in Houston. "He is one of the best players in the NFL over the last 20 years … a great player, the toughest of competitors, a tremendous teammate who was a leader on the field and in the locker room, especially to the young players."
McNair would go weeks at a time without practicing because of his assortment of injuries.
"There were times that Steve could barely walk through the locker room on Wednesday and Thursday and he'd get out on the field Sunday," former Tennessee teammate and defensive lineman Kevin Carter(notes) said. "And he wasn't faking it like some of those pretty-boy quarterbacks do sometimes. We'd watch him take shot after shot. You'd really wonder sometimes if he was going to get up."
Said former Miami Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tim Bowens: "Hitting him was like trying to tackle a defensive tackle. … He wasn't one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league, he was one of the toughest players in the league."
Bowens was especially close to McNair since both grew up in Mississippi and attended college there. McNair was the No. 3 overall pick in the 1995 draft out of Alcorn State. Despite his small-college background and the belief by some that he was more of a runner than a passer, McNair quickly worked himself into a starting role by his second season.
In the 1999 season, he led Tennessee to the Super Bowl, the only time the franchise has made the title game. He came within a yard of a dramatic comeback on the final drive of the game as the Titans lost to St. Louis 23-16. During the drive, he used his usual combination of adept running and passing.
"Steve was a lot better passer than a lot of people gave him credit for," said Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis, who was the defensive coordinator for Baltimore in 2000 when the Ravens upset Tennessee in the playoffs. "I remember from the time he was a rookie, you'd run one coverage at him on first down and he'd complete the pass. You'd run another coverage at him on second down and he'd complete that. Then, on third down, he'd run for 60 yards against you.
"He was extremely intelligent. Whatever game plan you had coming into a game against him, you'd better be ready to change it right away because he could figure it out quickly."
McNair's understanding of the game was tested severely in 2006. After Tennessee drafted Vince Young(notes) with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft in April that year, the team eventually parted company with McNair in what became a nasty divorce. The Titans refused to allow McNair to practice with the team in the offseason for fear of being on the hook for his salary should he get hurt. At the same time, the Titans didn't want to trade him too early in the offseason and let him work with another team.
The Titans waited until June 7 to trade McNair to Baltimore. Despite the late start, McNair led the Ravens to the playoffs, completing 63 percent of his passes. That was the highest completion percentage of his career in any full season.
In 2007, McNair was limited to six games because of injuries. It was the fourth time in five seasons that McNair didn't play a full 16 games. He retired last offseason.
Agent Bus Cook was moved to tears as he talked about McNair, saying repeatedly, "He's the greatest guy I ever knew."
For Bennett and others, the initial shock gave way to warm admiration.
"Steve was such a happy person. I even called him 'Smile,' " said wide receiver Derrick Mason(notes), one of McNair's favorite receivers with both Tennessee and Baltimore. "He was always smiling and was always willing to lend a hand to anyone who needed it. I've known him for 13 years, and he was the most selfless, happiest and friendliest person I have known. His family and my family are close, and it is a blow to us all. It is a devastating day. Steve will always have a place in my heart. My family and I are hurting for his family.
"On the field, there isn't a player that was as tough as him, especially at the quarterback position. What I have seen him play through on the field, and what he dealt with during the week to get ready for a game, I have never known a better teammate."
Said Bennett: "His demeanor in practice, in games and off the field was just amazing. He'd always have that big smile. … We'd come out on the field for a two-minute drive and he'd be smiling and you'd think, 'Man, this guy has it together.' He'd have that same look on his face later when we'd be out playing shuffleboard.
"He had this ability to demand such discipline in the huddle and yet keep it loose and fun."