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Is He the Invisible (Heis)man? : McNair Must Impress Voters Who Will Never See Him Play


JACKSON, Miss. — They say if you want to know what size crowd they'll have at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, then look down West Avenue until you reach the bridge that bows its back about half a mile away. If there are cars parked beside its concrete pillars, then something special is happening.

Will Steve (Air II) McNair do?

McNair, the biggest thing to hit the state of Mississippi since Faulkner discovered commas, is the reason Saturday night's game was here in the first place. The Alcorn State quarterback is so special that he causes statisticians to triple-check their totals, opposing coaches to develop facial tics, pro scouts to drool, governors to write "Dear Media" letters on his behalf and Heisman Trophy voters to think twice about their ballots and a Division I-AA candidate.

"If I voted, I'd vote for myself," McNair said.

McNair also draws a crowd, which is why Mississippi Valley State officials agreed to move the game from their itty-bitty 10,500-seat campus in Itta Bena to the state capital and the 62,000-seat Memorial. Home-field advantage is nice, figured Mississippi Valley, but so are gate receipts.

Thanks to McNair, the cars were two deep at the bridge and 34,982 fans were in the seats. They saw the usual stuff from the 6-foot-3, 218-pound McNair, which is to say, they saw the unusual.

Despite nursing a deep shoulder bruise (he was in a sling for two days and wasn't able to lift his right arm earlier in the week), McNair completed 17 of 25 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed eight times for 108 yards and another touchdown. He passed for a two-point conversion. And he was back in street clothes before the end of the game, the result of an easy 49-24 victory.

But it wasn't so much what he did as it was how he did it. His downfield passes left contrails. His swing passes were as gentle as the night's breeze and as soft as a Southern accent. When he scrambled, it was only at the last moment and never the result of panic.

At least half a dozen times McNair saw the pocket collapse around him, Mississippi Valley players lunging forward, their fingertips grabbing at his jersey. And then he was gone.

"He's like a running back with an arm," said former Alcorn star linebacker John Thierry, a first-round pick this year with the Chicago Bears.

By halftime, McNair had accounted for 274 total yards, including a 22-yard scoring run in which he somehow squirmed past four would-be tacklers, made his way to the two-yard line, got hit again and then, with his back to the end zone and his arms outstretched with the ball, pile-drove his way for the touchdown. It was on that play that McNair moved into second place on the NCAA's career yardage list (13,531 total), replacing Portland State's Neil Lomax, and within 1,134 yards of Brigham Young's Ty Detmer.

For the season, McNair has thrown for 19 touchdowns, run for four, accounted for 1,989 passing yards and 517 rushing yards. Even the modest McNair said the statistics can't be ignored.

"If I saw them I'd be amazed," he said. "The numbers speak for themselves."

They speak, but are they loud enough? If you didn't have a ticket you couldn't see the game or McNair, who has been selected the Southwestern Athletic Conference player of the year in each of his first three seasons. A few of the highlights might be picked up from the Jackson stations, but that's about it for TV exposure. Instead, McNair has become a word-of-mouth Heisman nominee, the first Division I-AA player to seriously challenge for the award.

To help the cause, Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice sent letters to each of the Heisman voters and did what knows best: he politicked.

"Like any young man with such heart and determination, Steve McNair does not want a handout, he wants an opportunity," Fordice wrote. "I ask that you give him the opportunity to exhibit his athletic gifts and receive the same consideration as any of our country's other great college football players."

Fordice is no dummy. Football and goodwill go far in this state, especially with a re-election campaign on the horizon.

But Fordice can do only so much. McNair suffers from a lack of TV time. He plays in Division I-AA and in the SWAC. Ask Joe Fan to name three teams from the conference and you'll probably get a dull, numb look.

Meanwhile, Florida quarterback Terry Dean all but has his own weekly highlight show. Washington tailback Napoleon Kaufman keeps piling up some impressive numbers of his own. Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam is making his own Heisman charge.

And then there is the other factor. The one nobody talks about--except Alabama State Coach Houston Markham.

According to Markham, McNair won't win the Heisman Trophy because he is a black player at a predominantly black Division I-AA school in a predominantly black conference.

There . . . he said it.

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