Remembering McNair On Air

As I get set to go back to hosting a daily Sports Talk show Monday afternoon (4:00-6:00, WRUF-AM 850, am850.com) I was struck by the stunning death of former NFL star Steve McNair. McNair was shot in Nashville as the victim in what may well turn out to be a murder-suicide. But that's not what I'm writing about. Fifteen years ago Steve McNair was the topic of a lively and intense debate on my show.

You see, 1994 didn't give us a sensation, no doubt Heisman candidate. Instead voters were looking at Rashaan Salaam (Colorado) and Troy Davis (Iowa State) from the Big 12 along with Penn State teammates Kerry Collins (QB) and Ki-Jana Carter. Eventually my ballot would include two of those guys plus the man I considered to be the best football player in the country, Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp.

But if it was just about the numbers it would have been a near unanimous vote for Alcorn State's Steve McNair. The multi-talented quarterback ran for 936 yards that season while passing for another 4,863. He combined for 53 touchdowns running and passing. It was one of the greatest statistical seasons any player has ever had, but I said I would not consider him for my vote. I was accused of being prejudiced against small college players and a black quarterback among other things. I was guilty of one of those charges.

I was and remain prejudiced against small college players when it comes to my Heisman ballot. The ballot calls on us to choose the "most outstanding college football player". Since that's a very subjective statement it's incumbent for each voter to determine what "most outstanding" means. To me, that meant you had to excel against the highest level in important games and play a crucial position. Thus Sapp did not get my No. 1 vote. Instead I went with Salaam, Sapp and Collins in that order.

Blame it on Ware

I was not the only voter who passed on McNair who finished third behind Salaam and Carter, and you can thank Andre Ware for that. Five years earlier the Houston quarterback put up ridiculous numbers against inferior competition, but the numbers were so overwhelming he won the Heisman Trophy. He beat out, among others Tony Rice of Notre Dame, Major Harris from West Virginia, Anthony Thompson of Indiana and Emmitt Smith. Ware showed in his first year in the NFL that he wasn't very good, and when David Klingler topped his numbers in June Jones' offense the very next year were all felt duped. I was among many who vowed never again.

McNair of course went on to prove that my poor judgment of 1989 led to an even worse conclusion five years later. He turned out to be a tremendous talent at the next level. McNair made three pro bowls, was co-MVP of the league in 2003 (with Peyton Manning) and led the Tennessee Titans to within a foot-and-a-half of winning the Super Bowl.

Steve McNair had retired from the NFL, but he still had much to contribute to society as a whole and his adopted home town of Nashville in particular. All I can say is may God bless you and keep you, and I'm really sorry about my Heisman vote.


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