Steve McNair’s collegiate legend kept growing, even in defeat

Steve McNair (QB, Alcorn State University, 1991-1994) has been named to the Black College Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012.

He joins 10 others selected from a list of 35 finalists who had been determined earlier by the Black College Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Induction ceremonies will be held February 18, 2012 at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis during the Priority Payment Systems third annual enshrinement ceremony.

Here’s a look back at a key moment in the collegiate career of Steve McNair, a game against Grambling that is often called the greatest ever played at storied Robinson Stadium. Longtime sports writer and editor Paul J. Letlow was there that day and shares this memory …

Early in my career as a journalist, I had the chance to interview McNair one-on-one in the summer before his senior year at Alcorn State. We talked in a hotel lobby in Shreveport, a stop for McNair as part of the old Southwestern Athletic Conference tour. I remember his huge hands and a humble demeanor, even as we mulled his Heisman chances. A couple of months later, on Sept. 3, 1994, I had the privilege of watching McNair play at Grambling State in a game that became part of Eddie G. Robinson’s lore. In an amazing offensive display by both teams, Grambling prevailed 62-56. Robinson later called it one of the most memorable wins in his own lengthy College Football Hall of Fame career. Here’s my original story …

By Paul J. Letlow
GRAMBLING — Grambling State’s love-hate relationship with Steve “Air II” McNair came to a rollicking finish Saturday night at Robinson Stadium.

It couldn’t have ended any better for the Tigers in front of a home crowd of 25,347. Grambling quarterback Kendrick Nord out dueled McNair, passing for 485 yards and seven touchdowns as the Tigers held on for a 62-56 win over the Braves.

“I didn’t come here to compete with McNair,” Nord said. “I came to win.”

In terms of raw numbers, McNair had the upper hand. He completed 27-of-52 passes for 534 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 99 yards and another score. His 633 yards were 10 off the Division I-AA record for total offense. But in a change of fortunes for McNair, he couldn’t produce the magic that had made him 3-0 against Eddie Robinson during his college career.

“He’s just a great athlete,” Robinson said. “It’s a bittersweet win for us.” Known for his last-second heroics, McNair had one final shot at rallying his team to an unprecedented fourth consecutive victory over Grambling.
Trailing by six points with 1:39 left in the game, the senior quarterback moved his team from the Alcorn 37 to Grambling’s 11 and had two shots at the end zone. On third-and-10 with four seconds remaining, McNair’s pass went through the arms of receiver Percy Singleton.

“He hit the kid right in the numbers offensive coordinator Ricky Taylor said. “All he had to do was hang on. Then we kick the extra point and win the game.”

On the game’s final snap, McNair scrambled right and fired a bullet to fullback Tony Bullock in the right corner of the end zone, but freshman Christopher Singleton broke up the play as time expired. “Their defensive end got the jump up field and rushed us out of the pocket,” Taylor said. “He forced us to one side f the field and that cut down on our chances.”

Grambling took the lead for good with nine minutes left in the game. Nord capped a five-play, 65-yard drive with a 25-yard scoring pass to Curtis Ceasar. The two teams combined for 1,318 yards total offense, as Grambling rolled up 612 and Alcorn gained 706. Grambling wingback Tyronne Jones caught six passes for 157 yards and three touchdowns, and Ceasar had five catches for 144 yards and three touchdowns.

Turnovers were the biggest culprit for Alcorn. Grambling cornerback Akili Johnson intercepted two McNair passes and recovered a fumble by running back Harry Brown.

The game was billed as a matchup for the ages. The strapping young Heisman hopeful versus the legend played out in front of a braying crowd.

The Alcorn State quarterback was a consistent pain for Robinson in three prior meetings, whipping the Tigers in every fashion possible during his college career. In prior outings, McNair’s feats left Grambling slack-jawed, frustrated and crowing about next year.

But the game was for more than just bragging rights between bitter rivals. Forget for a moment that Alcorn coach Cardell Jones was trying to become the first to play Robinson four times and remain undefeated.

Also put aside the fact that the Braves could have joined Jackson State as the only schools to defeat Grambling four consecutive years. This was a meeting of two early favorites for the SWAC title.

With the win, Grambling moved to the forefront of what should be a great race. Alcorn is relegated to playing catch-up.

“Now every weekend, we’ve got to sit back and see what Grambling does,” said Alcorn’s Marcus Hinton, who caught nine passes for 184 yards. This hurts. But we did all we could and we left it on the field.”


The other 2012 inductees into the Black College Football Hall of Fame …

Willie Brown (DB, Grambling State University, 1959-1963)
Harry Carson (DE, South Carolina State University, 1972-1975)
Eldridge Dickey (QB, Tennessee State University, 1964-1967)
James “Shack” Harris (QB, Grambling State University, 1965-68)
Claude Humphrey (DE, Tennessee State University, 1964-1967)
Willie “Wonderful Willie” Richardson (WR, Jackson State University, 1959-1962)
Johnny Sample (DB/RB, Maryland Eastern Shore, 1954-1958)
Rayfield “Big Cat” Wright (OL, Fort Valley State, 1963-1966)
Cleve Abbott (Head Coach, Tuskegee, 1923-1954)
Jackie Graves (Former NFL Scout, former director of personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles)

The Black College Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee is comprised of journalists, historians and former football executives from around the country. The committee includes Ernie Accorsi, Charles Bailey, Gil Brandt, Charles Garcia, Donald Hunt, Mike Hurd, Ty Miller, Roscoe Nance, Charlie Neal and Lloyd Vance.

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