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Monday, July 6, 2009
Share McNair: Former coordinators reflect

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

When the president and CEO of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes kneels to pray in his office, he does so on a thick blue rectangular pad that's about 3 feet wide and 2 feet deep.

 
  AP Photo/Larry Salzman
  Les Steckel, Steve McNair's coordinator from 1997-1999, nicknamed the quarterback "Silk."
Each time Les Steckel uses it, he thinks of its origin: It's the pad Steve McNair knelt on in meetings in 1999, when the Tennessee Titans quarterback struggled to find a comfortable position for his ailing back.

McNair had surgery that year because of a ruptured disc, missing five games but returning to lead the team on a run to the franchise's lone Super Bowl.

The former Houston/Tennessee and Baltimore quarterback was shot and killed on Saturday. Since the terrible news spread, old teammates, coaches and others who knew McNair have been reminiscing as they try to come to terms with his passing.

As an Oiler and Titan, McNair played for four coordinators: Jerry Rhome, Les Steckel, Mike Heimerdinger and Norm Chow. Heimerdinger has since returned to the post.

Monday, Rhome, Steckel and Chow took some time to talk about the hard-nosed signal caller who was widely respected for his humble personality as well as his strong arm, excellent mobility and ability to produce on Sundays even when injuries sidelined him for practices.

Rhome held the job for the team's final two seasons in Houston, 1995-1996. McNair, who was drafted third overall in '95, missed the bulk of training camp as a rookie while his contract was being ironed out and was way behind. But he showed a real commitment to football in the early months of 1996.

"He came in four days a week for about three, three-and-a-half hours to my office, February all the way to May," said Rhome, who got a "yes" from McNair anytime he asked him to visit with underprivileged kids. "I would teach him and I'd test him. Then we'd go out on the field and work. He was a very hard worker, made up a whole lot of ground and learned a lot that spring. ... That was the beginning of Steve McNair and pro ball."

Steckel called McNair "Silk," because when his sons once called their father's attention to McNair in an Alcorn State game on TV, Steckel's review after four or five plays was that the "kid is smooth as silk."

"I've never seen an athlete like that," Steckel said.

Just as he had private work with Rhome, McNair had a lot of one-on-one time with Steckel.

"Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, he would be at our house, having dinner and we'd be talking football and looking at film," Steckel said of the spring of 1997. "We watched tape, and then we would set up drills behind these high hedges there in Houston, where nobody could see us work out or bother us, and we'd work out a couple hours, just he and I against the air, and eventually we'd bring in a receiver or two. Just to see his incredible athleticism take shape was pure joy as a coach. I mean, nothing is greater than working with great athletes getting better. And that's what happened with Steve."

Amid all the talk of McNair's toughness, Steckel might have a broader context in which to classify it: He spent 30 years in the Marine Corps and said he's been around "some very strong and tough, warrior kind of people."

"But I've never seen a body built like his where he just had the highest threshold of pain," Steckel said. "I was told he once did a root canal without medication, I still struggle with that one, but somebody swore to that."

Steckel said the only player he'd been connected with who qualified in McNair's class as a physically tough football player was O.J. Simpson.

While Rhome and Steckel had McNair on his way up, Chow had him as a veteran quarterback who was beaten up and was trying to lead a team depleted by a salary-cap purge in 2005.

"I quite admired the guy," Chow said. "Here I'm some guy from college coming in for his first pro job, and he tried to do what we asked him to do. He was set in some of his ways which was fine; he'd been in the league a long time. ... Despite my inexperience, he was very willing to kind of share and to respect what we were talking about. He never gave you an ounce of trouble or disrespect or anything like that."

 
  Joe Robbins/Getty Images
  Former Titans coordinator Norm Chow remembers Steve McNair's "tremendous heart."
Chow, now coordinator at UCLA, has long preached to his quarterbacks that when feeling pressure they didn't have to give up on the possibilities downfield. "Over one and up one," he still preaches: Take a side step and step up and you can do a lot to keep a play alive.

"A lot of guys when they feel pressure want to get out of there," Chow said. "I still use one play of Steve on a training tape, where he went over one and up one, dodged a guy, stepped up and rifled a corner route to I think it was Brandon Jones. It was a perfect example of what a quarterback should be like. I show young quarterbacks: 'That right there is just like you would draw it up in a book.'"

Steckel and Chow both talked of McNair's manner, the soft and sincere personality that won so many people over.

"He was always gracious," said Steckel, whose son Luke wore No. 9 as a high school player because of McNair and whose daughter, Leslie, babysat McNair's kids. "I think about how he was so humble and so gracious. ... He was so coachable and so obedient. It was a lot of fun to work with him and to see him grow as a professional quarterback."

"He was really a respectful, kind, gentle guy," said Chow, who once complimented a golf shirt McNair wore and then saw the quarterback bring him a boxful a few weeks later. "He had a tremendous heart and played awfully hard. ... [He was] very candid, very open, very respectful and you could tell that people responded to him."

It's been 10 years since Steckel called plays for McNair. The old coach's prized blue praying pad surfaced as McNair worked his way back from back surgery in 1999.

"He would just kneel down on this big thick pad -- he couldn't sit; his back was still recouping," Steckel said. "I kept that pad; he gave it to me, and I said I could put it to good use. ..."

"I think of Steve every day when I pull it out."