<
>

Game on the line

7/6/2009

BILOXI, Miss. — Brett Favre could use a lesson in retirement from the guy in the white T-shirt posing for photos at the marina behind the Isle of Capri casino.

That would be Steve McNair — who, like Favre, is a son of the Magnolia State — who went from a quarterback at a small Mississippi college to an MVP in the NFL.

McNair retired in April after a career that saw him lead the Tennessee Titans to a 1-yard-short loss in Super Bowl XXXIV, share an MVP award with Peyton Manning in 2003 — and miss numerous starts over the years because of sundry injuries. Favre, meanwhile — well, he's Favre, even at age 38.

Only one season removed from a 13-3 record with the Baltimore Ravens, McNair sympathizes with Favre's waffling on retirement. "Whatever decision he makes, I'm behind him, 'cause I'm gonna tell you, I'm a Brett Favre fan, and I'd love to see him out there," McNair said. "Being biased, I want to see him out there.

"I think it's tough. It's hard to let go when you're in this business so long, because football's all we know."

But Funny for McNair to put it that way, since he was surrounded by NFL players current and former who were in this coastal Mississippi gambling town to demonstrate what else they knew, and do so to help sick kids.

On a Monday, it was golf. And on this Tuesday, it was fishing. Pony up a few hundred bucks and you could get on a charter boat in the Gulf of Mexico with the likes of Atlanta Falcons running back Jerious Norwood, San Francisco 49ers defensive end Parys Haralson or Carolina Panthers tight end Kris Mangum, all Mississippi-born.

Ditto for retired players such as Sammy Winder, who ran for the Broncos when they went to three Super Bowls in the '80s, and John Fourcade, the journeyman QB who helped the Saints to their first-ever playoff berth, in 1987.

Favre, too, was slated to join in the fundraising festivities until he got the now-famous itch in his throwin' arm.

Money raised was for the Mississippi Centers for Autism and Related Developmental Disabilities, a foundation McNair's cousin, gastroenterologist Alfred E. McNair, helped start in early 2005. It seeks to raise awareness about autism, so consider yours raised: now the most prevalent developmental disease in the United States, autism occurs in about 1 in 150 American births, and it's often identified too late to stem much of its effects.

"The sooner you can make the diagnosis," Dr. McNair said, "the sooner you can change the outcome for the kid."

The doctor hopes to be able to train teachers, police, lawmakers and doctors to better identify and work with autistic kids in the state. To do that, the foundation needs dollars.

Jimmy Buffet had agreed to participate in a fundraiser three years ago. "Then Katrina hit," Dr. McNair said. "It kind of blew us away for a while."

Steve McNair pitched in with some public service announcements, and now this event, which organizers hope will be an annual rite on the coast here, is largely banking on its beaches and fisheries to help it recover from the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

"This is what I dreamed of," the quarterback said. "People said, 'When you're retired, what will you do?' This is what I do. It's a lot of fun, especially doing something you love doing and having the ability to help young kids."

Running and catching

That day, helping kids involved only the manliest of pursuits — at least, aboard the 38-foot Bertram called Strictly Business. The captain, Jonathan Richardson, of Gulfport, Miss., had the slight, compact build of a jockey, and commanded a 17-year-old first mate, Luke Derouen, who bounded around the boat with feline fluidity.

Their charges were a writer; two men named Gary Ponthieux (the father, a hotel marketing director, and the son, a Gulfport cop); and Tank Williams, a 28-year-old safety who signed with the New England Patriots after a couple of years with the Minnesota Vikings. A 2002 second-round draft choice of the Tennessee Titans, Williams grew up in nearby Bay St. Louis, fishing the Louisiana marshes. When he moved to Nashville, he would relax by fishing from the banks of nearby Old Hickory Lake.

A high-school friend of the younger Ponthieux' wife, Williams has been friends with the detective for years. So even by the standards of fishing charters, the mood on this boat was chill among its passengers — but competitive with other boats. Organizers said beforehand they'd award prizes for the single biggest Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, black-tipped shark and redfish.

After the Ponthieux men took turns landing a couple of fine bonitos, Williams grabbed a bobbing rod and reeled in a Spanish Mackerel the locals deemed formidable.

"That might win the Spanish mackerel," the younger Ponthieux said. "I'd hate to have to use your prize Spanish mackerel to catch a shark."

No sharks were forthcoming, unfortunately, just those stubborn mackerel, a few feisty Crevalle Jack (one of which, as the younger Ponthieux handled it, slapped him across the cheek with its tail) and redfish. When Williams hauled in a particularly stout red, he beamed: "I knew he had to be big."

"I think this is the winner," the elder Ponthieux said. Then he held the fish over his head and yelled, "This is the winner!"

The sun glared down on the flat ocean surface. It was hot and the beer was cold.

Richardson stayed by the crackling radio, chattering with other captains about where the fish were schooling, all the while watching for diving gulls and oil slicks that would tip off the whereabouts of a school of fish busting on a baitball.

Then Richardson called down from the tower: "Reel 'em in!"

All hands scrambled to get the lures out of the water. Once the lines were again spooled, Richardson hit the throttle and the boat lurched ahead, blasting a billow of black exhaust behind.

"You see those boats?" the younger Ponthieux said, pointing to the other vessels rushing in the same direction. "When they say the fish are topping, the race is on."

And presently, the rods began to bob. The anglers were in a scramble, grabbing rods, reeling, ducking underneath each other, yelling, laughing, straining. And then ...

... the Ponthieuxes lost their fish.

The writer reeled a redfish to the back of the boat, only to watch it slip away, leaving behind only a spoon with a bent hook.

Only the football player's fish held the line.

"You're our last hope," the elder Ponthieux told Williams.

"This one's worth it," the safety replied.

Down from the tower, Richardson asked Williams, "Are these your first redfish?"

"No, I've caught them in the marsh," Williams told the captain, still straining and reeling. "But never this big."

"You have to kiss one," the captain told him. "It's good luck."

"I have to do a Bill Dance?" Williams asked.

The boat kept running and Williams kept reeling as he dragged a 40-inch redfish to the surface. "I've got you on top of the water!" he yelled to the fish — a fair sight more trash talk than he typically indulges in during an actual NFL game.

He held the fish for obligatory snapshots, then to conform to the prescribed tradition, followed through with a good luck kiss below its chin.

It was a fine fish that turned out to be slightly smaller than his earlier catch — which, as it happens, went 24.1 pounds, the largest of the day. For that, Williams won a grill with a lid in the shape of a football helmet.

Among the 15 or so fish hauled aboard the Strictly Business that afternoon was also the winning Spanish mackerel: Williams' 2.65-pounder.

"Two first-place fish," Richardson said back at the dock. "That ain't bad." The thought buoyed the captain.

A little later, when asked whether he'd be up for more trips, he hedged, but then caved. "I've said I'm going to retire for the last eight years," he said. "But it's in my blood. I keep coming back."

Click here for photo gallery