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Tragedy changes the McNair legacy

They will never remember Steve McNair the way they should now. That's the price you pay when your life falls apart in public not long after your football life has ended.

They will never remember Steve McNair the way they should now. That's the price you pay when your life falls apart in public not long after your football life has ended. When police in Nashville found the 36-year-old former four-time Pro Bowl quarterback dead in his home, four bullet holes in him and his 20-year-old girlfriend lying at his feet with a single, self-inflicted gunshot wound, all from the same gun, everything about the legacy he might have left behind had changed.

As much as his supporters might want it to be otherwise, everything he did on the football field, which was considerable, became a footnote that day to the sad way he died in a lover's murder-suicide while his wife and four children sat unknowing on the family farm in Mississippi 1,000 miles away. The shame of it is that Steve McNair was one of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation. Not great in the classic sense of the perfect drop back passer or the fluid John Elway style runner, but in the sense of the hard as nails Bobby Layne tough guy with a big arm and a bigger heart.

He was a player who knew how to win, knew how to lead men and, most of all, knew how to take pain. For two years at the height of his career with the Tennessee Titans, McNair couldn't practice all week because of the pain he was in yet he never missed a game and his team went to the play-offs. He was in that kind of pain because he played a bruising style of quarterback, one in which he would run over you if he had to and would hold the ball until he knew he was going to be hit by an avalanche of defensive linemen just to give his receiver one more second to get open before he delivered a perfect pass to him.

McNair delivered the ball so well he threw for more than 31,000 yards in his 13 seasons in the NFL, sharing the league's Most Valuable Player award in 2003 with Indianapolis Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning. Of those passing yards, 27,141 came while wearing a Titans uniform. He was, without a doubt, their leader right to the day he left in a contract and salary cap dispute to play out his final two years with the Baltimore Ravens.

"He was the ultimate leader,'' said former Titans All-Pro running back Eddie George. "He was never affected by a bad play. He was so cool under pressure.'' Never was that more in evidence than in the 2000 Super Bowl when, with time running out, McNair accounted for every yard Tennessee gained as it drove downfield to what would have been the winning touchdown. On the last play he found a wide receiver named Kevin Dyson in an opening in the St Louis Rams defence, but Dyson was dragged down less than a yard short as the final gun sounded to end the game. The Rams had won but McNair had not been beaten. He'd just run out of time.

It happened to him again this week in a far worse circumstance. The shame of it is that ending. When his name comes up he'll be that guy who was shot to death by his girlfriend rather than that guy who defined what it meant to be a leader on the football field. It is sad to think it ended like that but there is no denying it. For two days the Titans opened up their stadium to allow fans to come and express their condolences and share their memories of the man they once called "Air McNair.'' Many did, their sadness palpable, yet for all the love they still had for the best quarterback in franchise history they all understood that the way things ended for him had changed everything.

When all is said and done, Steve McNair came up short in the Super Bowl and he came up short in life. Sadly, that's what a lot of people will remember most about him now. rborges@thenational.ae

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