Kindred Spirits

By Gary Shelton
Updated: July 9, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG — The common ground that bonds men is always greater than the distance that separates them. As much as anything, perhaps that explains why an established legend felt the need to call an emerging one.

Certainly, there were enough reasons not to call. It was 1994, and Doug Williams had just finished his career in the NFL. Steve McNair was a year away from starting his. Williams was 39, trying to get his coaching career started at Navy. McNair was getting Heisman talk as he lit up the scoreboard at Alcorn State.

And yet, every week, as much out of a sense of duty as anything, Williams would reach for the phone and call McNair to tell him to relax, to stay positive, to keep his head up and to keep playing well. Even later, after McNair became a pro and the calls became less frequent, the bond remained.

Even now, Williams will tell you about the first time he saw McNair. McNair was a freshman at Alcorn State, and he came off the bench and threw for 229 yards in a half to beat Williams’ beloved Grambling team.

Yeah, McNair knew how to say hello.

Saturday, in a private memorial in Hattiesburg, Miss., Williams will say goodbye.

They had much in common, Williams and McNair. They both overcame tough childhoods in small towns to reach the Super Bowl. They both went to schools in the SWAC so they could play the position they wanted to play. And, yes, they were both black quarterbacks at a time when some in America were getting used to the idea.

So, yes, Williams will be there. Of course he will.

“There is a fraternity you don’t have to talk about,” Williams says quietly. “It just is. Where he went to school, where I went. The road he had to travel, the road I had to travel. When something like this happens, it’s almost like losing a brother who isn’t a brother.

“This hit me hard.”

Given that, perhaps you can understand how difficult it was for Williams to hear that McNair had been murdered on July 4. Even now, there seem to be more questions than answers. What happened? Why? And will McNair be remembered for how he played a game or by the scandal in which his life ended?

“Unfortunately, when you remember people who have gone on, you remember how they went,” said Williams, the Bucs’ coordinator of pro scouting. “That’s the part you’d like to forget, but you can’t. I’m just hoping all the good will be remembered along the way. All the work he’s done off the field.”

Williams sighs.

“The thing is, there isn’t any age on it,” he said. “At 36, he lived his life.”

And so Williams will pack up, and he will go. He doesn’t particularly want to see the grim faces. Once again, duty compels him.

They will all come, he says, to either today’s funeral in Nashville or Saturday’s service in Hattiesburg. Warren Moon. Randall Cunningham. James Harris. Marlin Briscoe. And on and on.

“That’s the unspoken rule of the fraternity,” Williams said, referring to the black quarterbacks. “It’s not something that is organized. It’s just something you do. We don’t have a sign. It’s just emotion.

“We don’t have to sit and talk about how he played the game.

You think you’re going to tell James Harris how good McNair was? That’s old news. We’ll think of his mom, and his family and his community.

We’ll talk about how tragic it is. It wasn’t supposed to end for Steve McNair like this.”

And so the famous men will gather, and they will say goodbye to one of their own. Perhaps they bring up old memories and great plays and bad choices. Perhaps, too, they will talk about the Hall of Fame and the debate over whether McNair belongs.

“They’re still going to have one, aren’t they?” Williams said. “Unless they’re going to close up shop, he should be in there.”

This, too, Williams and McNair have in common. Neither has the statistics to make it to the Hall of Fame on numbers alone. But Williams was the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl (and still the only one to win it), and McNair was the second (and missed a winning comeback when his receiver was stopped a yard short of the goal line). It has been said before, but it isn’t a Hall of Numbers. It’s a Hall of Fame.

“The Hall of Fame is so wrapped up in numbers,” Williams said, “but not everyone plays the same system. But what piece of the puzzle did someone play for the success of his team? And could you write the history of the league without him? To me, that’s the Hall of Fame.”

Is that the measure of a man? Is it the memories he left, or the lives he touched, or the sensationalism of his death?

Maybe, just maybe, it is the hole he left in those who knew him best.