McNair

Steve McNair, left, and his brother Tim during the 2008 Steve “Air” McNair Football Camp. (File photo by Mark Thornton)

 

Few things in life compare to the heartache of losing a loved one. C.S. Lewis once described it as an “amputation” that forces a man to learn how to live the rest of his life with a part of himself missing. Neither the pain nor the longing to see them again ever really goes away. 

There is comfort, however, in seeing a loved one’s legacy preserved and passed on through the lives of those they touched while they were here. Such is the case for Capt. Earl Reed of the Laurel Police Department, who actively preserves the memory of his dear friend, the late Steve McNair. 

    Hanging to the left of the doorway in Reed’s third-floor office is a framed No. 9 Baltimore Ravens jersey. Just below it is a picture of McNair with an arm around his mother Lucille. On a window sill on the far side of the room sits a picture of McNair with Reed’s oldest daughter, Chelsey, along with an autographed game photo and a small figurine of the former Titans quarterback launching a pass.

On a table in the corner of the office, there is a framed newspaper article titled, “Death of a Superstar,” published just days after McNair was shot and killed at age 36 on July 4, 2009. There, in black and white, lies a constant reminder of the day that forever changed the lives of Reed and many others. 

Reed attended college at Alcorn State University with Steve’s older brother Fred — the original “Air McNair,” who often bragged to his friends about how great his younger brother would one day be. 

“He’d say, ‘I got a brother coming up. And my brother, he’s gonna be better than I am,’” Reed recalled. “When I first met Steve in 1991, he was just a tall, skinny boy from Mount Olive. But I watched him grow into a man.”

Everyone quickly realized that Fred had been telling the truth. Steve went on to become one of the greatest college football players in Mississippi history. As a quarterback at Alcorn State, he set more than a dozen school and FCS records, was selected first-team All-SWAC four times and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1994. 

    Taken third overall in the NFL Draft, McNair went on to lead the Tennessee Titans to a Super Bowl appearance in 1999, was chosen the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2003 and was selected to play in three Pro Bowls during his 13-year career. 

    Through all his success, McNair and Reed maintained their friendship throughout his professional career and into his retirement. Thursday, July 4, will mark the 10th anniversary of McNair’s passing when he was shot by a woman in Nashville., Reed said he remembers it just like it was yesterday. 

“It’s still fresh to me,” he said. “I still remember every detail as if it just happened.”

The two were supposed to go together and speak at the Boys and Girls Club of East Mississippi the following week. Reed was at an Independence Day cookout with family when he received a phone call from his sister about the shooting. Just minutes later, he received a second phone call relaying the news that McNair had passed away. 

“It still weighs on my mind even today,” Reed said. “It’s just one of those things that you hate to see happen — especially to a guy like Steve. He did so much for his family and community. He’d have given you the shirt off his back.”

Reed still maintains close relationships with the McNair family. He and Fred visit each other often, and he makes sure to speak with “Mama Mac” at least a couple times per week. 

“I remember back in 2016 when I got promoted to lieutenant,” Reed said, “Mama Mac, she was right here with me.” 

As many people do, Reed often wonders about what life would be like if his friend was still alive today, just a couple of days shy of turning 46 years old. How would McNair be spending his time? What would he think of all the things that have happened throughout his family and community over the last decade?

Reed said McNair often spoke of a desire to coach football after retiring from the NFL. Though he never got to realize that dream himself, two of his brothers have carried that torch in his place. Fred McNair won the 2018 SWAC Championship as the head football coach at his and Steve’s alma mater, a feat that means a lot to the entire family. 

“Fred was almost like a father figure to all the boys,” Reed said. “Tim, Steve, Jason and Mike, they all looked up to him. For Fred to be at the head of that program now is just really special to all of them.” 

Tim McNair, another sibling who caught many of Steve’s collegiate passing touchdowns as a receiver, is now the athletic director and head football coach at Crystal Springs High School in Copiah County. Tim McNair Jr., running a similar route to that of his father, is entering his redshirt sophomore season as a budding young wideout. Naturally, he is playing for his uncle as an Alcorn State Brave.

Two weeks ago, the Tennessee Titans’ front office announced their plans to retire McNair’s jersey on Sept. 15 during their home opener against the Colts, making it the only retired No. 9 jersey in the entire league. Knowing how much the organization meant to McNair, Reed was ecstatic when he heard the news. 

“I know he would’ve loved the chance to go back and retire with the Titans,” Reed said. “This is like putting a period on the great career he had playing for them.”

The honor serves as a symbol of how McNair’s legacy continues to thrive even 10 years after his passing. The McNair family name still resonates as a source of leadership and inspiration, both on and off the football field, in communities throughout Mississippi. 

As for Reed, he continues to honor his friend’s memory by passing on countless stories of how “Air Two McNair” made a lasting impact on the lives around him that will live on for years and years to come.

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