Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Willie Morris on Steve McNair and the South

Mississippi is known for it's writers. When you look at a list of Mississippians who wrote books it's a veritable Who's Who of Southern Literature. The most famous Mississippi writers include William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Larry Brown, Stephen Ambrose, Shelby Foote, John Grisham, and Willie Morris.

Willie Morris was born and raised in Yazoo City, Mississippi. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Texas at Austin where he served as editor for the school newspaper. Willie was not popular with UT's administration because of his scathing articles against segregation, censorship, and the partnership of politicians with the local oil and gas interests. Willie was so disliked by the administration that UT did not acknowledge his winning of a Rhodes Scholarship with even as much as a letter of congratulations. After returning from his studies in Oxford, Willie worked for a small newspaper in Texas and served as editor of Harper's Magazine in New York City before returning to Mississippi. Willie was the writer-in-residence at Ole Miss for many years. One of his most famous pupils there was a law student that would sit in on his lectures. That law student, named John Grisham later released a "A Time To Kill" with Willie writing the forward. Willie Morris died of a heart attack in 1999, just a few months before the movie of his most famous work, "My Dog Skip" was released.

Willie was a giant football fan and loved keeping up with the in-state talent (note: I'm currently reading his work The Courting of Marcus Dupree which is about a talented MS running back) In 1994, a young man named Steve "Air II" McNair was setting records at Alcorn State. Willie went to visit and ended up writing this article for the New York Times. It's classic Willie Morris. It touches on some of the ideas and themes that consumed his writing: importance of the past, allegiance to a place, the power of land, the glory and disappointment of sports, the meanness and tragedy of racial injustice (I stole this from the Mississippi Writers Page). It's well worth a read.

While your at it, I strongly recommend reading "Is There A South Anymore" from a 1986 issue of Southerner Magazine. I love the part towards the end where he talks about what makes the South different: A heightened sense of community, manners, ritual, morality, white/black relations, and the continuity of our culture.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Remembering Steve McNair

My family came in this weekend and we got to spend a good bit of time together doing things in and around Nashville. Because we were enjoying the day with my three year old niece, I didn’t get to listed to much outside of kids music and if I got to watch TV it was typically Dora the Explorer or Clifford the Big Red Dog. On Saturday we headed down to LP field to watch the 4th of July fireworks from the east bank of the river. We were sitting outside of gate #9 when the family next to us turned on their radio to get the latest on the weather. The first thing that we hear was local sportscaster George Plaster’s voice declaring that Steve McNair had been killed.

Everyone within earshot was shocked and the word spread through the crowd quickly. Some people walked around to the north side of the stadium to look at his picture. The mood of the crowd quickly changed to match the darkening skies and rapidly deteriorating weather. I know that I felt like I had just taken a shot to the gut and still feel a little down about the whole situation. Tributes to “Air” McNair have sprung up all over Nashville and one the unpleasantness is resolved I hope we have the sense to celebrate his career by retiring his number (I know he is in the Ring of Honor, but I don't think that's the same thing).

Steve McNair was a hell of an athlete and a great man off the field. I always liked him because of his toughness, kindness, and giving spirit. I also held him in particular favor because he was from Mississippi. Here are a few things I will always remember about Steve McNair
1. His toughness: Steve McNair was a warrior. He constantly played, with injuries. I remember on stretch of games in particular where he had a bruised sternum. The pain was so intense that he wasn’t able to practice, but on game days he would suck it up and lead the team down the field.
2. Mississippi Pride: Many athletes from Mississippi, especially black athletes, forget about their roots when they finally make it big. In my opinion, Jerry Rice and Walter Payton didn’t give much back to their home state. This is probably partially because the racial environment was different back then. Steve McNair, along with Brett Favre and Deuce McAllister were a new breed of athletes that gave back to Mississippi and tried to make it a better place for everyone. Steve McNair always remained humble and never forgot where he came from.
3. Giving Back to the Community: Steve always did everything he could for kids and the underprivledged through the Steve McNair Foundation. He held free football camps for kids in both Nashville and in Mississippi and was heavily involved in the Boys and Girls Club. I’ll never forget him sending several tractor trailers full of food, water, and clothing down to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. What was amazing was that Steve just didn’t loan his name to the cause. He was actually out there loading tractor trailers and thanking people who were making donations.
4. Athletic Ability: Growing up I head about the ledgend that was Steve McNair. He played his high school ball at Mount Olive. At the age of 16, Steve led the school to a state championship, playing every down, playing the positions of quarterback, defensive back, punter, kicker, and return specialist. Later, before heading off to college I remember him breaking almost every NCAA offensive record at Alcorn State. While in college I drove to Memphis to watch the then Tennessee Oilers play the Baltimore Ravens in what was, for a time, the lowest attended game in NFL history. McNair has just taken the QB position over from Chris Chandler and Mississippians were driving in from everywhere to watch him play. He was probably one of the most prolific players the Titans has ever seen setting several records and getting the team within 1 yard of a Superbowl win.

There are many other things that I will always remember about Steve. Nashville and Mississippi have lost one of the “good ones.”

You will be missed #9.