Commentary

Looking for a ghost

Updated: July 10, 2009, 3:04 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

Steve McNairGetty ImagesThose who saw Steve McNair play at Alcorn State will never forget what he meant to Mississippi.

ALCORN, Miss. -- Cardell Jones tended to the grill, looking out at the small lake behind his house. The former Alcorn State coach had nothing big planned for the Fourth of July. His wife came outside.

She was silent for a moment, a pained look on her face.

"I have something to tell you," she said.

Just the night before, he'd dreamed about Steve McNair. It's hard to understand the bond between the two men if you hadn't lived through the madness of the McNair years at Alcorn State. Even 15 years later, the quarterback still came to the coach while he was sleeping. This time, Jones dreamed they'd been hanging out and, before parting, the two men hugged.

"My wife told me, 'That could have been Steve's way of saying goodbye,'" he says.

A journey into the mists of myth

Earlier this week, I took a drive back in time. I went home, down Highway 61 into the Mississippi Delta, winding through the dying farm towns of my youth, past the cotton fields and the boarded-up commissaries. I was heading all the way down to Alcorn State University.

I was looking for a ghost.

Outside Mississippi, Steve McNair was a famous NFL quarterback, one known for his toughness. Back home, people remember him as a happening. For four years in the early 1990s, a fever took hold of the state. Everyone woke up Sunday morning and gawked at the stats before church. Many got into their cars and went south to see for themselves. Later, people would wear those journeys as a talisman, a sign of their true Mississippi-ness: I went to see Steve McNair.

The lack of television coverage made the myth seem elusive, somehow more gothic. Sports Illustrated came, put old Steve from Mount Olive on the cover. A myth sprung up, about a country-strong kid who picked beans before sunrise and enjoyed great fame with humility, a narrative befitting someone so far off the beaten path. Paul Bunyan with a gray Toyota Celica for an ox. He didn't seem like a real person, which I guess is what we wanted.

[+] EnlargeWillie Morris
Getty ImagesWillie Morris, a noted American author from Mississippi, was among the devoted, and famous, McNair followers.

The governor wrote a letter to Heisman voters. The past governor went to see for himself. Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward came. Spike Lee came. Writer Willie Morris drove down and decided to skip the rest of his beloved Ole Miss games. He'd follow McNair, and he'd bring friends. Even George Plimpton came. Thousands of Mississippians, white and black, made the drive out Highway 552, out past East Jesus, as a friend puts it. They were there for the entire ride, right to the end, when Steve "Air II" McNair broke the NCAA record for career total yards. They released purple and gold balloons into the sky that afternoon, and the world stopped for a moment, though it would soon start to spin again, faster than anyone ever could have imagined. Steve handed the game ball to his mama. In the stands, Willie Morris cheered alongside his friends, novelist Larry Wells and his wife, Dean Faulkner Wells, niece of William Faulkner.

"We were there as pilgrims," Larry Wells told me over the phone as I began my drive. "We were there to go to a shrine and partake in a spiritual experience. And that's what it was. When we got in the stadium, they were playing Mozart. We couldn't believe it. It was a happening. We knew it as we drove down the Natchez Trace. We were going into the history funnel. We were headed into history. We were headed to see Steve McNair."

Now he's dead, shot four times. Gunned down in a tabloid scene involving a mistress half his age. The details are worse than bad. They stand in such contrast to everything else we thought we knew about him that I wasn't sure what I'd find at the end of this drive. Was there a place where the past of McNair still outshone the grisly present? I had no answers, just questions, as I passed the first big town on Highway 61, Tunica, where they had dug up the cotton and planted casinos. One question, mainly.

Did the legend of "Air II" McNair die along with Steve?

Remembrances of Air II things past

During the drive, I thought about McNair.

I thought about the Sports Illustrated story that became liturgy. One scene stuck with me -- the McNairs gathered on a hill overlooking the stadium, in a grove of trees, grill smoke rising up into the lights from the field. The entire family waiting on Steve to arrive, counting the minutes until night fell and the stars twinkled overhead, shining down, blessing them. I imagined the family gathering again, except this time Steve wouldn't be coming to greet them.

I thought about a newspaper story from 1994, when everyone sent reporters down to Mississippi to see for themselves. His mama Lucille's words are haunting today: "Sometimes I ask myself, 'Is this a dream?' I always told them that God gives, but He can take it away. You really never know what might happen."

I thought about the first time Steve went to New York, for the Heisman ceremony, and how big everything looked, how far away it seemed from the Mississippi of his childhood. He talked then of being ready to move, to make new friends, and I wondered if he knew where his journey was taking him. At the end of a story about that trip, he told a New York Times reporter about eating the pork chops at Mary's, a restaurant just outside campus. He talked about Mary's a lot; it became part of the McNair pilgrim experience. Coach Cardell Jones laughed when I called during my drive, said he could still see Steve getting on the bus for a road game with a plate of Mary's fried chicken for the ride.

I thought about word of the murder spreading through Mississippi. The Alcorn players began to get calls. A few called Tim McNair, who'd played college ball with his brother. All Tim could say before hanging up was: "It's true."

[+] EnlargeLucille McNair
Steve Kagan/Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesLucille McNair speaks with reporters outside her home in Mississippi in November 1994. With his first big NFL paycheck, Steve McNair would buy his mother a piece of land, and build her a new home.

I thought again about Lucille, and a story she'd told me once. She was the daughter of a sharecropper who raised five boys by herself. When McNair made it, got that first big check, he bought some land. He was going to build her a house. When the papers were signed, he drove her out to where her new home would be. She began to cry.

"Is this the place?" she asked.

He told her it was and, through her tears, she explained that this was where her daddy had sharecropped, where she herself had picked cotton in a segregated Mississippi. Now she owned it. It was hers. I could hear the happiness in her voice when she told me she'd imagined the white family's reaction if the child of a sharecropper had told them that one day her boy was going buy this land.

Now that house was packed, for a different reason.

As I got closer and closer to Vicksburg, where the flat Delta gave way to soft rolling bluffs, I talked to the mayor of Mount Olive, a man named Robert McNair, a distant relative. "It's hard to believe he's laying in a funeral parlor," the mayor said.

He had gone out to Lucille's house the other day, to see how she was doing. He didn't think it had hit her yet. The brothers were preparing to go to Nashville for a memorial service, but Lucille didn't think she could handle that. She would wait in Mississippi for her boy to come home.

A nontransferable legacy

A funeral wreath hung on the front gate to the university -- "Alcorn State remembers Steve 'Air II' McNair." The school flag above the press box flew at half-staff. An empty feeling filled me as I walked around the field, trying to imagine the sky dotted with purple and gold balloons. I looked up at the grove of trees where the McNair family waited on the stars and Steve to arrive, and it seemed barren. The stadium itself felt abandoned.

When Steve left here for the NFL, those who remained imagined he'd leave a legacy. A foundation. Jones bragged then of a bump in national recruiting. The football program wildly increased its revenue during the madness. Turns out, all McNair left was a hole. "Nobody wanted it to end," said Emanuel Barnes, the stadium PA announcer. "They used to say, 'What after McNair?'"

The team lost when he left. It lost a lot. Three straight 3-8 seasons. Jones was pushed out. Willie Morris died, then George Plimpton, then the governor who wrote that letter to the Heisman voters. The fans who had poured into town to see the show never came back. Another flashy quarterback, this one from Hawaii, came along and broke that record.

Mary's burned down.

I found a few former teammates gathered on campus in the main administration building, surrounded by reminders of Steve's career. They looked at an old yearbook and joked about how skinny he looked. One, Shawn Archer, laughed while remembering a time when he forgot to block because he was so transfixed by the latest improvisational masterpiece. Like the other Alcorn Braves who lived through their own brief version of Beatlemania, he worried that the details of his friend's death would obscure everything else. "Regardless to how much good he did," Archer said, "it's going to always lead up to this not-so-good end. I can get past it. People here in Mississippi can get past it. But other people, who didn't know the guy he was or the type of family he came from, they might never let go of that."

[+] EnlargeSteve McNair
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMcNair, as seen here in September 1994, inspired college football fans to journey to see him play at Alcorn State.

Barnes saw every game McNair played at Alcorn, became a fixture himself. His voice was the sound track of the happening. The only time he didn't use the nickname was during graduation. Tim and Steve graduated together, the first in the family to earn degrees.

"I remember that smile on Miss Lucille's face," Barnes said. "That day we just said, 'Steve McNair.' All the other times, it was 'Air II McNair.'"

Barnes said "Air II McNair" again to himself, quiet this time. He was almost whispering. "How many times … ?"

He looked back up at me, and he seemed to have aged. "I think it's still sinking in with people," he said.

It took coming back here, to the place the myth was born, for McNair's death to sink in for Harry Brown. He was the starting tailback on those teams and still lives in the area. He got the call: Mac was dead. That's what they called McNair. Mac. He asked, "Mac who?"

The next morning, he went for a run through the campus and came down by an old dorm and found himself at a place where the past washed over him -- the back door of Lott Hall, where McNair hung out when he wasn't at class or practice. He remembered a time before -- before anyone made the pilgrimage, before the magazine covers, before a person became a legend, before a reputation was built that would later be destroyed. He remembered the smiles, and the music, and the laughter. He remembered Steve sticking his head out his window, talking to folks down below.

For the first time, he understood his friend was gone.

Innocence versus the real world

Brown took me over to the dorm. He pointed to the third floor. McNair's floor. The Third World, they called it. He pointed at the second window on the front side. McNair's room. The back door was purple, and it was shaded, a welcome thing in the shimmering Mississippi heat. Cracks snaked through the concrete and weeds grew in green clumps. There was a rough patch of gravel near the door. "That was his parking spot," Brown said. "They would sit back here by his car."

Standing behind the dorm raised questions for him, too. Will the circumstances of McNair's death overwhelm those four magical years? Will the team ever gather again after the funeral? A reunion without McNair didn't seem to have much point. Nobody wants to see the court if King Arthur is gone.

Eventually, Brown ran into Douglas Fitzgerald, another teammate from the McNair days. They're older now, bigger and slower, and coming back to this place brought on a rush of nostalgia. Before long, they began calling other guys to try to remember who lived where and ended up telling stories about the old days. About sneaking out of the dorms, and about McNair's old car, and the route Coach made 'em run three times a week. They drove over to where Mary's used to be. There are a few ratty trailers there now.

"Oh, man," Brown said. "They could have been giving people credit for classwork here. Mary's 101."

They made a big loop around campus. That's where they used to play intramural softball.

"Steve hit the ball one time over the chapel," Brown said.

"Over the chapel," Fitzgerald said. "He was a man."

They talked about McNair's oldest son, whom Douglas saw play ball not long ago. Brown asked if he played quarterback.

"He played everything that night," Fitzgerald said.

"Sounds like his daddy," Brown said softly.

In the administration building, they ran into two current football players. War stories passed back and forth. None of the four mentioned McNair's strange end until one of the young guys blurted, "I don't know why Steve did that."

Fitzgerald tried to explain, to say that everybody makes mistakes.

"In life," he said, "you're going to be in a lot of situations."

"That's a messed-up way to die," the kid said.

A heartbreaking question of staggering poignancy: What's left?

At the end of this final pilgrimage to Alcorn State, I hadn't answered the question. I wasn't sure if the legend was dead, though I wasn't sure it was alive, either. Something like purgatory, even in the place where it began. As a Mississippian, I still feel proud of McNair. I still wish I'd made that drive myself. I don't regret the exhilaration, or the love, of that long-ago madness. I celebrate his life despite what I learned about it from his death. I hope that time won't change that.

[+] EnlargeSteve McNair
Mark Phillips/AFP/Getty ImagesDrafted by Houston in April 1995, McNair would go on to be an NFL star in Tennessee.

I'd found the ghost of that long-ago fever was most strongly felt here, which meant that the feeling of loss was more acute, too. I'd found that even here, the name Steve McNair meant something slightly different than it did a week ago, and that was heartbreaking.

As I pulled back onto the narrow road out of town, back toward a world of ballistic reports and police investigations, one moment stuck with me. Before going over to Mary's and the makeshift softball field, Harry Brown and Douglas Fitzgerald had parked at the corner of the stadium, the bumper of the car right up against the chain-link fence. They could see the bright green grass of the field.

"It used to be jammed to the rafters," Brown said.

They looked into the stadium. They planned for this weekend's funeral, talked about sharing a car over there, wondering how many people would come to pay their respects. They felt suddenly old. This would be the first teammate they buried.

"Saturday's probably going to come down like a ton of bricks," Brown said.

Fitzgerald finally eased the car into reverse, but he didn't release the brake. Not yet. He didn't want to leave the past behind. They'd tell a story and he'd back up a few inches, tell another story and then back up a bit more. Out there, they couldn't be sure what people thought. But here, and maybe only here, overlooking this field, they could close their eyes and remember a time when the whole world came to marvel at Steve "Air II" McNair.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.