With all due respect to female fans (sexy as they are), football in America is a game passed down from fathers to sons. It is the source of the game’s mythology and its mystique. We rate our teams as they measure up to our fathers’ teams. We rate the players of our era by the legends and lore of our fathers’ eras. They teach us not the game itself, but an appreciation for it by their periodic observations and, more often, by their disgruntled second-guessings.
Somewhere in the four-hour ruminations on X’s and O’s, something personal is exchanged. Somehow, a vital bond is formed in the silence of a TV timeout. And then, there is the moment when you accompany your father, for the first time, to a game. The sensation of it, the sight, all those X’s and O’s and Y’s and Z’s and all the other formations: jellyfishes and pincers; chomping teeth and wild traps—any geometric fantasy the mind can elaborate, moving in unison, a blessed forty seconds of ordained order, until chaos settles in again in a pile of dust with a tinny, frantic whistle. The whole building to a period of chanting drama—the waving of flags or towels, the stamping of feet on cold aluminum. A SNAP… A THROW… A CATCH… and the whole perilous world, for the moment, is saved. As you gather your things, still reeling from the sudden tangible terror now subsiding into victory, an exhalation, a glimmer, a half-smile, a twinkle in the paternal eye. Enough to say, “Well, we got through that one, didn’t we?” And then, a second later, “You’re not such a dumbshit after all…”
Most boys have this experience before their teens. In my case, it came in my early twenties. It wasn’t my fault, really. My state didn’t have a team to root for. So, athlete though I was in high school and college, I suppressed my interest in professional sports, directing that energy full bore to books and plays and films that edified my world beyond my father’s reach and, therefore, his tacit approval.
It was Steve McNair who changed all that. He obliterated my stubborn preconceptions and so enhanced and augmented the greatest relationship of my life. The first glimpse I caught of him was in a Tennessee Oilers jersey in a stadium in Memphis, scrambling against the Oakland Raiders for a long, long-delayed pass. It went complete, but the Oilers (I think) lost the game. Or maybe they won that one--same difference in a series of ambivalent 8-8 gut-checking seasons. But in that instance I knew, with the casual nonchalance by which one disguises love at first sight, I was intrigued. But still, the Tennessee Oilers?
Two years later, I sat in the stands and watched McNair hurl long bombs to Chris Sanders, Isaac Byrd and a rookie named Kevin Dyson against the hapless Atlanta Falcons. It was a year removed since the quarterback of the other squad, once McNair’s unwilling mentor as a Houston Oiler, Chris Chandler, had started in the Super Bowl. McNair shredded his team, forcing his backup into the game late. As it turned out, it was the Titans’ penultimate tune-up to their first and only Super Bowl appearance, the last regular season home game of the 1999 season--two games prior to the Music City Miracle. It was a thing of beauty to behold, and for the first time in my life, I was watching a pro football game with my dad.
In the intervening years we watched together apart, literally together apart, as we stayed on a phone connection often during the entire game in those pre-cell phone days, watching McNair’s chase of a Super Bowl return. A repeat, with a different result. A chance to wipe away that heroic near miss, to right the wrong of a loss and settle, once and for all, his legacy.
We wanted it for him so bad, we could taste it. We bled it. We discussed it virulently, endlessly. We wanted it for him because we loved him. But we wanted it together. His agony became ours. His defeat, our bitter stop, con dolore, in an endlessly unfinished symphony. There was always next year, next season, next draft, next training camp… the first home game…
And all the while we talked, my dad and me, and when we saw each other we tossed the ball in the yard and dreamed of glories to come. Somewhere along the way, Dad bought me a McNair jersey. We’d just watched a game—a home loss to a disappointing Cleveland Browns squad. No playoffs that year. The movement ending prematurely, smorzando. Dad looked at me with a cocked eye. I was wearing the #90 jersey of defensive end, Jevon Kearse, the same number I’d worn as a hapless and hopelessly disinterested defensive end in high school. “You need a McNair,” he decided. I was in my early twenties then, far past the age when most fathers buy team gear for their sons. The age when some fathers are telling their sons to get jobs, to join the military, to fend for themselves. But we got a late start at this whole gig. Neither of us felt the shame in that. We were just happy to be there. Happy to have a hero.
I was wearing that white McNair home jersey in 2003, when Dad and I caught the best game of our watch. It was during the year of McNair’s MVP season—a home game against the Dave Wannstedt-coached Miami Dolphins. My astrologer, Rockie Gardiner, had already marked the weekend as a significant astrological event, something rare and auspicious she called the Harmonic Convergence, so my hopes for a good time were high. As it turned out, it would frame my lasting image of McNair—the moment when my love for him and my love for my father would intertwine into a day of sunshine, victory and unbridled joy.
The Dolphins had historically given us problems: in our Super Bowl year they were one of only three teams that beat us in the regular season. In the injury-plagued “lost” season of 2001, they set an early ominous tone by handling us at home on prime time television to start the season. But on this day, McNair proved magnificent. He threw for three touchdowns with a nifty completion percentage and the whole time the home crowd banged their seats and chanted, “MVP! MVP!...” It was the closest thing to a homecoming game I’ve ever experienced in the NFL. And I shared it with my dad.
We suffered through so many post-season heartbreaks, so many tough losses, so many deferred dreams. And we endured it all together, Steve, Dad and me. Mac 9 was the bridge, the vehicle, the container, the avatar for our tenuous shared vision. When Dad was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, I begged Steve to win for him, thinking each victory might signal a magical uptick in a rigorous schedule of chemotherapy. Somehow I equated a winning season that year--and hope against all hope, a Super Bowl victory--as a win against cancer. But Steve just wasn’t up to it; there's no scrambling from the Black Moth. He, at least, gave us a temporary reprieve at Green Bay, outdueling his statesman Brett Favre, and letting us rest easy for the week at 2-5 with naïve but, nonetheless, high hopes.
A year later, Dad lay on his deathbed deep into the 2005 season. I’ll never forget his words to me just a few weeks earlier, after the Titans were ambushed on the road in Phoenix to a woeful Arizona Cardinals team, with, yes, McNair at the helm. “I’ve never seen more pathetic football in my life.” I couldn’t disagree. I came to think, perhaps, that McNair was intentionally doing him a favor. Trying to make it easier by losing. Letting him go out without a struggle, not thinking there was anything left worth paying attention to. I remember Dad saying to his friend the day before he died, “I’d keep fighting, but some fights are just too big to win.” The weekend after he died, the Titans lost to Jacksonville. Fisher benched Pacman for consecutive unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. It was a dark time--the end and the beginning of the end. All Steve could do was shake his head in dismay.
Now that #9 is dead, I know the Titans teams that brought my father and I together are truly no more. That era is ended, and I go on rooting for Fisher, for Bulluck and Kearse; for Lendale, VY, CJ and Britt--the new breed (I know Dad would've dearly loved Finnegan...); for the uniforms, the fandom, the arena and the aura just as before, but it is my own creation. My own desire. My own future and hopes. In my heart I will always carry Steve McNair with me through those lonely travails to come, as surely as I will always carry Steve Bevil, my father. Their images are stamped indelibly on my heart and in my soul. And their grins linger, together apart, with every touchdown, every third yard conversion, every miraculous come-from-behind win.
I say all this, because Steve McNair was a father. Whatever one chooses to remember of his legion legacy, one must remember that. His sons may yet play in the NFL in years to come. By then, I may have a son of my own with whom to cheer, with whom to watch the games and teach implicitly through my dismay and joy, to size up and share a smile. I hope beyond hope there will be a junior McNair on the Titans roster then for my son and me to cheer.
But regardless, when the time comes, I will buy him a jersey.
BOB JAMES TOUCHDOWN, 1978, Tappan Zee Records