Saturday, July 11, 2009

A final time to Shine

Probably the best way to get to Alcorn State University is to catch a flight into Jackson, take the U.S. Highway 61 exit, drive about 40 miles and then exit onto Mississippi Highway 552 west.

Take the highway for about seven miles - just follow the signs - and you will find yourself on the campus of the nation's first ever state-supported institution for the higher education of blacks.

Not much use in gussying things up: Alcorn State is one of the few bright spots in a really bleak landscape. Lorman, the unincorporated home of Alcorn, resides in one of the nation's poorest, fattest and most depressed counties (Jefferson) in the country.

Jefferson County also has the highest percentage of blacks of any county in the nation, according to the most recent Census.

Hardly anyone gets to Alcorn State by accident. Which is why Steve McNair mattered so much to so many people, particularly lots of black people. Because he chose to go there.

This is not a post designed to rehash his career in the NFL or the increasingly sordid, sad details of his death. And this is certainly not a post meant to consider the relative merits of an education at an HBCU.

No, this post is a reminder that for a brief but brilliant and record-breaking stretch, McNair went to Alcorn State and brought the eyes of the nation with him. That, in and of itself, is a minor miracle. His old offensive coordinator once said:
"He has put Alcorn on the map. When we visit kids, recruits, it's no longer, 'Where?' but 'Oh, that's Air's school.' "
True. McNair, also known as "Shine" to family members and friends, lured me and my father to the relative football backwater of Hunstville, Texas, in the fall of 1994. McNair was fresh off his appearance of the cover of Sports Illustrated, with this improbable headline: "Hand Him The Heisman."

Anxious to see if he was worthy of the hype, my father and I made the hour-and-a-half drive to Sam Houston State University and braved what to this day remains the largest home crowd in the school's history. Now, much of the memory of that day 15 years ago, has become blurry. It only seemed like McNair threw and caught his own passes.

Alcorn State lost that day mostly because "Shine" didn't have a third arm, a third leg, couldn't block for himself and couldn't play defense. Or, rather, he probably could have but didn't. He threw for 395 yards, rushed for 46 more and was responsible for 3 touchdowns.

And, in his senior year at least, that was an off-game.

He was the real deal, and I was absolutely mesmerized.

In that Sports Illustrated article, an official with the Buffalo Bills said: "He's on the same level as the best quarterbacks I've seen since I've been scouting ... Testaverde, Bledsoe, Shuler, Mirer, Dilfer."

No. McNair was better.

But today, there's absolutely no chance that a kid with the prodigious athletic talents of young McNair would wind up in Lorman. Mississippi, Mississippi State, LSU, maybe Southern Miss ... someone would have scooped McNair up and claimed him for themselves.

To that somber reality comes ESPN's Len Pasquarelli, who believes that McNair might be the last quarterback from a black school to be a first-round draft choice:

It's been an inexorable process, one accentuated by the integration of SEC teams and the overall acceptance of the African-American athlete, but the basic quality of play in black schools has suffered. Those universities now watch prospects they might have once recruited enroll at bigger universities. Clearly, the odds are stacked against a quarterback prospect's playing at a program like Alcorn State, where McNair honed his skills.

It will take an extraordinarily talented player, as McNair was, to star at a black school, command the attention of pro scouts, and have a chance to be drafted by an NFL team in the first round. Or, for that matter, in any round.

Yes, it almost goes without saying, but "Shine" is probably the last - and greatest - of a once-proud pedigree. If you're from the South, if you're a product of an HBCU, if you're a football fan aware of how much McNair's success paved the way for other NFL teams to entrust their teams with black quarterbacks like Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick and Akili Smith, that means something.

Though maybe he didn't know it at the time, McNair couldn't afford to fail. That he did it on his own terms, picking a small black school in Mississippi when so many others would not, makes him special. It made him "Shine."

Coates explains:
It's always cool when a kid from a black college goes and does something in the NFL. I think a lot of us feel this disconnect between living in a community that produces so much football talent, and yet having universities that produce so little. Obviously there are very good reasons for why that's true. Still, when you see a Walter Payton coming out of Jackson State, or a Jerry Rice coming out of Mississippi Valley State, or a Steve McNair coming out of Alcorn, you cheer a little harder.

I'm sorry Steve McNair is dead. As an HBCUer, he was one of us. When me and Kenyatta first hooked up, I'd use Steve McNair and Peyton Manning as Exhibit A for why she should be into football.

Indeed. McNair was everything everyone said he would be. Maybe more. That's why so many people, black people especially, felt some ownership in his success. McNair was tangible proof that the poorest, fattest and, yes, blackest corner of the country could produce something more than despair.

In a way, you have to come from there to understand why that matters. A native, Dr. Saturday, said it best: "My home state doesn't generate much positive news, so we Mississippians hold the heroes we have close."

Today, McNair was buried in his hometown of Mount Olive. And once again, he brought the eyes of the nation with him - if only for a couple hours - to the easily overlooked Mississippi backcountry on a Saturday afternoon.

With his arms, legs, smarts, leadership and grit, Shine was always destined to go far. But it's no surprise that he made sure to come back.


Max Reddick said...

Good one. McNair was one of a kind. I just hate he had to go out the way he did.

blackink said...

Thanks, Max. He really was one of a kind.

I still can't believe he was 36. He accomplished a lot in those few years.