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Before he was a three-time All-Pro quarterback who brought his Tennessee Titans within range of a Super Bowl victory, before he wrested half an MVP trophy away from Peyton Manning and won the NFLPA's Man of the Year award, McNair was a three-sport star athlete at Mississippi's Mount Olive High. He was a monster, and not just at quarterback. He played both sides of the ball during football season, and snagged a state-record 15 interceptions his junior year.
That pure athleticism had all the big college programs down in south central Mississippi knocking on the McNair door—Florida State, Miami, Nebraska, Ohio State. But they wanted the agile ball-hawk nabbing those interceptions, not the gunslinger with enough brains to avoid throwing them. So instead of competing for national championships at any of those prestigious schools, McNair stayed close to home at tiny Division I-AA Alcorn State. As a neighborhood man told Sports Illustrated, "The key is that McNair wanted to play quarterback, and to do that around here, a black kid has to go to a black school."
This happened all over the recruiting circuit. Big-time programs would recruit black high school quarterbacks, but only if they committed to a position switch. That's why it's hard to blame the paucity of black professional quarterbacks throughout history solely on the NFL. The winnowing begins in high school, and maybe even earlier. Old biases get baked into the system. The stereotypes settle and reinforce themselves. How many potentially great black quarterbacks were turned into running backs or safeties before they even hit college? Anquan Boldin, a high school quarterback, was Florida's Mr. Football in 1998. How many black players with arms like his were turned into wide receivers before they had a chance to develop as quarterbacks?
Notre Dame didn't start its first black quarterback—Cliff Brown—until 1971. The next one was Tony Rice in 1986. Donnie Little at Texas didn't break that color line until 1978. At Alabama it was Walter Lewis in 1980. The only schools giving black quarterbacks a legitimate shot were schools running the option offense—or historically black colleges.
So, like McNair, a lot of black quarterbacks who wanted to keep throwing the ball chose HBCUs. And like McNair, many of them impressed so much that they ended up throwing the ball in the NFL; others went to the CFL. In total, 20 of the men on this list played their college ball at HBCUs. The heyday was between 1968 and 1978, a span that saw nine of the 20 enter the NFL, which makes sense given the limited opportunities available to black quarterbacks at that time.
Of all the HBCU alums, McNair was the best. As the quintessential black quarterback, he boasted all of the traits common to the group. McNair exhibited mobility as a matter of both geometry and velocity; he could unalterably change pass rushers' angles by jolting two steps sideways in the pocket, and once free he could blur past those defensive backs whose ranks he was so determined not to join. Those legs, coupled with an arm of unlimited range, put "Air" McNair into the NCAA's record books and onto the covers of Sports Illustrated and theSporting News. He had all those intangibles that so many black quarterbacks before him were said to have lacked. He checked off every box. Some called him the best black quarterback prospect of them all.
The league agreed, and when he was selected third overall in 1995 by the Titans, it was the highest pick ever used to select a black quarterback. He remains one of only three HBCU quarterbacks taken in the first round—alongside Eldridge Dickey and Doug Williams.
A lot of individuals are responsible for the acceptance of black quarterbacks in the NFL, but HBCUs offered structural means of development and advancement. Without HBCU success stories like McNair's, it's hard to imagine the likes of Cam Newton and E.J. Manuel getting the opportunity to quarterback two of the most storied college programs in the country.
Of course, this came at a cost. The black quarterback stigma was bad for football in general, but very good for the HBCUs. Today, the stigma is fading, and as a result the talent pool available to small schools like Alcorn State and Grambling State is thinning. The last quarterback to be drafted out of an HBCU was Tarvaris Jackson, out of Alabama State in 2006. But even he was an Arkansas Razorback before becoming a Hornet.
McNair set a lot of records in his illustrious career. The longest lasting of his distinctions will almost certainly be as the last HBCU quarterback taken in the first round. This carries the same sort of conflicted emotions stirred up by the Negro leagues. There's something bittersweet about the demise of the HBCU quarterback, even if it represents significant progress.
McNair died on July 4, 2009, shot by his 20-year-old mistress, who then turned the gun on herself.
Steve McNair | 1995-2007 | Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens
Drafted, 1st round (3 overall) | 161 games (153 starts) | 31,304 yards passing | 174 passing TDs | 119 INTs | 60.1 comp. % | 82.8 QB rating | 3,590 yards rushing | 37 rushing TDs | 99 fumbles
His throws are mostly lasers, but they can float softer than a summer breeze when necessary. His release is instant, too, and whether he is sprinting left, right or not at all with his muscular 6-foot-2, 215- pound body, his passes rarely travel more than centimeters from his receivers' fingers.—Atlanta Journal-Constitution