Competitiveness set McNair apart

In the wake of the Tennessee Titans' painful loss to the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, Steve McNair sat in front of his locker in a quiet room of the Georgia Dome, and he cried.

"So close," McNair said of the championship game's final play, when Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson was stopped by Rams linebacker Mike Jones 1 yard shy of the end zone and a tying score. "It was so very close."

I was a sports reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time, covering a title game played in my adopted hometown. And what I recall foremost about that game and the minutes immediately after it, more than Dyson's almost-touchdown or the dynamic 73-yard reception by Isaac Bruce for the contest's winning score, is the glint of tears in Steve McNair's eyes that day.

Noted for his toughness and his uncanny ability to play through pain (a trait he credited to his old coach at Mt. Olive High School in Mississippi), it was rare to witness McNair so much as wince during his 13 NFL seasons, let alone weep openly. And that's why those tears -- not the kind that roll down a person's face, but the sort that shone unmistakably in his baleful eyes -- were so stunningly incongruous that they couldn't help but stick with any person witnessing them.

Today, it's the rest of us who are left saddened by the untimely loss of a terrific player and, more than that, a good man. Few NFL players have performed with the kind of innate competitiveness that McNair possessed. Not many men played the game with such passion and determination. And those qualities arguably should be the first things people remember about Steve McNair.

"He is a tough SOB, isn't he?" noted then-Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick during McNair's penultimate season with the Ravens, when he remained in the lineup despite myriad injuries. "Someone is going to have to drag him off the field."

That was certainly the case, even in McNair's football dotage with the Ravens, when his legendary arm strength waned, and he struggled to get the ball up the field. Even during his productive years in the league -- such as 2003, when he was the NFL's co-MVP with Peyton Manning -- McNair was a player who willed himself to greatness and his teams to victories. And in doing so, he was always a gentleman, a player who understood the sometimes unpopular role of the media and was as helpful as possible.

Maybe there is something about quarterbacks who emerge from the silty soil of Mississippi that marks them with the kind of toughness McNair had. It can't be happenstance that the most passionate player of this era, Brett Favre, also hails from that state. It might be sacrilegious to suggest that McNair had Favre's physical brilliance and athletic acumen, but the two men certainly shared a love of the game and a toughness born of their rural upbringings.

He was dubbed "Air McNair," but his passing numbers were hardly prolific. Only three times in his career did McNair throw 20 or more touchdown passes, and he went over the 3,000-yard mark in less than half the seasons of his NFL tenure.

What he was, was a warrior. His toughness and ability to perform well when injured was clearly old-school, and it should be no surprise that McNair missed only eight games because of injuries. Is there any more flattering praise of player than that he was a throwback?

Following his professional career, there was considerable debate about McNair's worthiness for the Hall of Fame, about whether he belonged in that sacred shrine to football's greatest players. As a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee, my personal opinion is that McNair was a player who belongs in the Hall of Very Good, but probably not in Canton. Even though his 31,304 passing yards are more than some Hall of Fame quarterbacks, McNair wasn't regarded as an elite player, but rather one whose zeal and fearlessness were his hallmarks.

From his formative days at Mt. Olive High, where the various bumps and bruises only made him concentrate more on achieving personal excellence, to his 13 seasons in the NFL, McNair played the game the way it was meant to be played.

On Saturday afternoon, he died far too young. And for that, we should all shed a tear or two.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.