Burwell: McNair Was More Than How He Died
McNair was more than how he died
Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The world of sports loves to give us winners and losers, heroes and villains.
But it rarely gives us humans. Humans have too many dimensions to comprehend. Humans are fragile and complicated. Humans are layered and dappled like abstract art. But sports tend to obscure an athlete's human frailties. Too often, the bright lights of fame and fortune cast a one- or two-dimensional shadow that never adequately provides an accurate and fully developed picture of anyone who lives in that spotlight.
We see them from a controlled distance inside the athletic arena, wrapped in achievement or cloaked in defeat and that becomes the sum total of who we believe they are: Saturday's hero or Sunday's goat.
And that has always been part of the great sports mystique, not just in America, but all over the world. Sweep us away from all the bad news. Hide us from tragedy and turmoil. Protect us from all of the disturbing realities of the world. Give us uncomplicated snapshots and comic book heroics, and of course that works well until tragedy creeps into Sports World and opens our eyes in ways we can rarely predict.
I thought I knew Steve McNair pretty well, and for the past five days I have been trying to make sense of how the former National Football League MVP could have been murdered. Yet even though I am greatly disturbed by the manner of his death, I am not particularly flabbergasted by the tabloid circumstances surrounding it. That is not a reflection on anything in particular that I might have known about McNair's personal life (I sure as heck didn't know he was involved in an affair with a 20-year-old girl 16 years his junior). It's more of a statement that looking at a sports world with my eyes wide open no longer allows me to be shocked or disappointed when the athletes I have covered for the past 36 years turn out to be real-life humans, not make-believe idols.
It's one of the reasons I have always found Charles Barkley to be so refreshing. I remember how he warned us all nearly 20 years ago that athletes were not role models. In those graphic Nike commercials, Barkley tried to warn us that jumping out of the gym or running fast as the wind or throwing a curveball that drops off the table or hitting tape-measure home runs should never be the sole criteria for elevating an athlete to hero status.
Heroism is so much bigger than that. What Barkley was trying to say was that it is OK to admire athletes, but don't worship them.
I wish everyone would remember that every time they even think about turning modern professional athletes into something more than they really are and then get crushed when they fall off those lofty and unreasonable moral pedestals.
Humans, not machines, is what Tony La Russa always says. Yet while the Cardinals manager was talking about on-field performance, he could easily be talking about real life, too.
This is not in any way, shape or form an exoneration of McNair's extramarital business. But it's also not going to be some holier-than-thou rant about how professional athletes are role models and must be held to a higher standard than we have for any other men who walk the earth.
I am just here to say that maybe I'm just too cynical or smart to allow myself to be surprised anymore by any indiscretion by any man regardless of his station in life. Whether it's Steve Garvey or Shawn Kemp, Ty Cobb or Dennis Rodman, Joe Namath or Barkley too, throughout the decades the sports world has provided us with a full palette of human frailties: philanderers and bigoted fools, drunkards and incurable gambling addicts.
And that shouldn't diminish their athletic legacies unless they are running for sainthood — instead of Cooperstown, Springfield or Canton.
So it appears that McNair was a murder victim at the hands of a disturbed lover. It's hard to deny that or soften the salacious details that keep coming out. But ultimately, what I hope we realize is that it should only serve as one tragic chapter in a life that had so much more to it than to be defined only by a shocking murder scene.
The rest of his life story should also be about the side of the young man I knew. The crazy-talented, tough-as-nails Tennessee Titans quarterback who almost single-handedly spoiled the Rams' Super Bowl dreams 10 years ago. I will remember the conversations we used to have about football and life, and the pride he felt when he built his mother a beautiful home on a sprawling tract of land on the outskirts of Mount Olive, Miss. The man I knew couldn't stop beaming when I told him that I spent an afternoon sitting on the front porch with his mother, beneath the soaring columns that made this new house look like a grand antebellum mansion. His mother Lucille cried when she talked about the day that he showed her the property and how she realized that as a child she used to pick cotton on this same land.
I never assumed any single story could serve as the entire picture of Steve McNair's life. And now that the final chapter turns out to be an unsettling tragedy, I won't let that be the full picture, either.
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