Some 24 hours after Steve McNair announced his retirement, Troy Smith said he had yet to speak individually to his former teammate, mentor and friend, only as part of the team farewell meeting that had ended in a standing ovation.
Smith had a much more personal interaction in mind. "Mine is more dear than just football," he said between Ravens minicamp sessions Friday in Owings Mills. "Way more."Add "role model" to the adjectives that connect the young and old quarterbacks. And add it to McNair's legacy, as the part that will live longer than any of his statistics.
Down in Nashville, Tenn., Vince Young echoed Smith's feelings. "I love him as a father figure, and I cherish the relationship that we have," the Tennessee Titans quarterback told reporters. "He taught me so much - not about the game, but about life, and I owe him a great deal."
Smith and Young are members of a generation that grew up idolizing McNair. ("A trailblazer," Smith called him). Ten or so years younger than him, they likely weren't consciously aware of the other boost McNair had given them. They and surely hundreds of others grew up believing that one day, they would be judged simply as quarterbacks, solely by the qualities required for the position.
Because of McNair, the number of people who wonder aloud, much less in private, whether a black man can be handed the reins to an NFL franchise is exponentially smaller than it once was.
His 13 years - including the year of the close call in the Super Bowl, the year when he was co-Most Valuable Player and the year that returned the Ravens to the elite - were the bridge from Doug Williams in the January 1988 Super Bowl to Donovan McNabb in February 2005, to Young and to Smith.
And, yes, to Michael Vick. Had McNair not accomplished what he had as the third overall pick from Alcorn State by the Houston Oilers in 1995, a team would have been less likely to trade up to the No. 1 spot to draft Vick six years later. More important, now that Vick's life and career have imploded, the chances of every black quarterback behind him did not implode with him - because no sane person would judge players by the Vick standard if it means missing the next McNair.
"You have to respect Steve for that," Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "When he came out in '95, not many people were taking a chance on a lot of quarterbacks that played at small schools, much less a black quarterback back when there were so many stereotypes about African-American quarterbacks. `Can they lead a team? Are they smart enough? Can he be that franchise guy?'
"He was that kind of guy."
Just as critical, McNair wasn't another specific kind of guy: athletic - a running back lined up behind center. The description that will stick to McNair for eternity is not "athletic" but "tough." "Leader" also fits, but the leadership came from the toughness. It was the one element of his game that could flip the old images on their heads.
"He would have been great if he'd played in the '50s and '60s," Mason said. "He played football the way it was supposed to be played."
McNair's presence in the January 2000 Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams did not get the outside, social scrutiny that Williams' did before or McNabb's did afterward - a tribute in itself to how McNair had seamlessly met the prerequisites. Quietly and fiercely, though, black football fans rooted him on, and their hearts broke as badly as the average Titans fan's when they fell short on the game's final play.
Now, the struggle to put McNair's career in perspective picks up speed. Is he or is he not a Hall of Famer? (For what it is worth, voters in The Sun's online poll are split.) Where exactly does he belong in the pantheon, even though he has no ring, unique-but-not-overwhelming stats, some unfortunate plays at the end of big playoff games, and more broken bones than records?
"When you talk about Steve McNair to me, you're talking about one of the top five quarterbacks ever to play the position," Smith said. "I don't care what anybody says. You talk about the toughness he had. You talk to anyone that played with him. They'll tell you."
Smith is a little biased. As a teammate, McNair helped him become an NFL quarterback. Before that, he made it so that Smith would be just that - a quarterback.