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To Air Is Superhuman

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LUCILLE MCNAIR FIRST NOTICED her son Steve’s fierce will to succeed when he started playing junior high football. He was the fourth of five sons, and his older brother Fred was big news in the local football firmament. “Steve was a quiet child,” remembers Lucille. “But he came up to me one day and said, ‘Momma, you know everybody is talking about how good Fred is. But I’m going to show them. I’m going to be better.’ ”

Steve “Air” McNair, 22, has kept his promise. He is better than his big brother, which is no slam on Fred, 26, who preceded Steve as a quarterback at Mississippi’s Alcorn State University, signed as a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and later played in the Canadian Football League. But Steve, says Alcorn State coach Cardell Jones, “is the best all-around player that has come through college football in a long, long time. He’s the total package.” Pro scouts are less effusive but still impressed. “He’s for real,” says Arizona Cardinals scouting director Bo Bo-linger. “He’ll play in this league.”

As Alcorn State, with an 8-2-1 record, heads into the NCAA Division I-AA national championships, McNair this season, as a senior, has thrown for an astonishing 4,863 yards and 44 touchdowns—great career stats for any other college quarterback. He has also rushed for another 936 yards and nine touchdowns—which would be outstanding production for a running back. (McNair’s career-total yardage, by the way, is 16,823, an NCAA record.) These are clearly Heisman Trophy numbers. Still, the 6’3″, 218-lb. McNair is a long shot to win the award, given every year to the outstanding player in college ball. With just 3,000 students, Alcorn State, a Division I-AA school, is a hefty notch below the college football powers. No school at this level, and no black college, has ever produced a Heisman winner.

“Sure, I think about winning the Heisman,” says McNair. “But I don’t go out every week and say, ‘I’ve got to put up these numbers to win it.’ If I win it, that’s good. If I don’t, it’s still good.”

Alcorn State has seen more than its share of McNairs. Tim McNair, 23, a fifth-year senior, also attends Alcorn and is, in fact, his brother’s favorite pass receiver. The two brothers, says Jones, are inseparable on campus. But then the whole family is close.

Lucille and Selma McNair, an offshore oil-rig worker, separated when the boys were small. Although Steve has some contact with his father, Lucille, 45, reared the kids by herself in a cramped three-bedroom house in Mount Olive, Miss., which she bought for $12,000 in 1979 and just finished paying off. “She is my No.1 fan, my role model, my hero,” says McNair of his mother, who works the graveyard shift at an industrial-lighting factory.

McNair, according to Lucille, was “intelligent and studious” as a child. He sang in the choir at the Mount Pleasant C.M.E. Church—and in 1989 quarter-backed the Mount Olive High Pirates to a Class A state title. But he could also be “spoiled and lazy,” says his mother. His nickname, she says, was Monk, which “he got from climbing up a tree, anything he could to avoid a whipping.”

It wasn’t the choirboy but the strong-willed teenager who stepped forward when it came time to pick a college. Most colleges recruited McNair as a defensive back. But he had other ideas. “I wanted to play quarterback,” says McNair. “Alcorn was the only one that would give me a chance.”

Coach Jones sensed he had a phenom on his hands during Alcorn’s first scrimmage in the summer of 1991. McNair completed seven of seven passes, and Jones remembers thinking, “It’s going to be hard to keep this kid on the bench.” Then early in the first game of the year, with Alcorn struggling against Grambling, Jones sent in McNair. “He threw for three touchdowns and close to 335 yards, and we won the game,” says Jones. “He just has that winning attitude. He’s the type of leader that keeps the group together and moves the ball 80 yards down the field with just minutes to play and scores the winning touchdown. It takes a special breed to do that.”

A recreation major at Alcorn, McNair is apparently not a major player on the campus party circuit. Asked if he has a girlfriend, he grins sheepishly. “I’m working on it,” he says. “Right now I don’t think I have the time to put into a relationship.”

At present, McNair’s mind is on football. He admits, though, to thinking about what it would be like to be one of the NFL’s new multimillionaires. “Sometimes you have to make my mom take things,” he says as he contemplates sharing his future wealth with his family.

Not this time. This time, Mom knows exactly what she wants. “I want me a big house—a roomy house,” says Lucille. “So whenever they come home, there’ll be room for all of them.”

“She can have whatever she wants,” says McNair. That sounds like a guarantee. As football fans all over America have learned, Steve McNair delivers.


RON RIDENOUR at Alcorn State