By: Sydney Sanders
Oak Grove High School has long enjoyed the benefits of a winning baseball team. We’ve celebrated numerous State titles and graduated players like Donnie Bridges, Kyle Logan and Grant Hogue who went on to play professionally. But only in our recent history have we witnessed a winning football team, and now some of those players are graduating and looking toward bright futures in the game. One such player to watch…Steve McNair, Jr.
The road that has brought McNair to the end of his senior year has been a bumpy one. The oldest of Steve McNair and Cotina Feazell’s sons, Steve, Jr., began playing football when he was nine years old and has always dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps on the field.
Steve McNair, Sr., was a much decorated player in the NFL before his untimely death in July of 2009. Drafted from Alcorn State University by the Houston Oilers, McNair, Sr., also enjoyed a career as quarterback for the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens before retiring in 2008 after 13 NFL seasons.
That tradition resonates in the life of Steve, Jr., “Football is not just a game to me,” he said. “It’s my life.”
Recognizing his talent on the field, Steve’s parents made the decision to bring him to Oak Grove High School in the 2008-09 school year. “His mother and father gave presence to every game,” teacher and family friend, Cynthia Venson said.
As a constant presence on the sidelines at Warrior stadium, McNair, Sr., enjoyed watching his son play in his junior year. McNair, Jr., said his father’s inspiration led him to do his part in the victory of the South State title this year.
“Although my dad wasn’t able to cheer me on on the sidelines this season, his memory kept me going.” That memory is what many who are close to Steve, Jr., are hoping will sustain him throughout his life. “I spoke with his mom often and his dad several times,” Venson said. “His dad often expressed that he wanted to see him do well and compete at the next level, but his class work was most important. He would say those words every time we had a conversation.”
His father may have been a great support and influence in Steve, Jr.’s early career, but two of his greatest cheerleaders have been Feazell and his grandmother, Lucille McNair. “She was a great fixture in the stands,” Venson said of Lucille McNair.
Steve, Jr.’s overwhelming support in the stands this season came from members of his extended family, as well. His stepfather Johnny attended games along with Feazell, rooting him on.
Steve also has two brothers who live with him. Terriyaki, 15, and eight-year-old Channing are both students at Oak Grove schools. Both can be identified on any Friday night – they’re the fans with shirts that read McNair # 1. Two other brothers live in Nashville: Trenton and Tyler; and one brother lives in McGee, Steven. Many other members of the extended family were visible at Warrior games, including his Aunt Anita and Uncle Vel.
“The support that Steve, Jr., has with football is phenomenal,” Venson said. “The one game that we played on a Saturday this year allowed his uncles, two who are coaches, to witness him in action. It was quite ironic how they assumed the position on the sidelines with the same presence that his dad brought. His uncle Fred is a legend in his own right. He is said to be the real ‘air McNair.’ He has also filled the McNair spot on the team in Mt. Olive, coaching the offensive line. His other uncle, Tim, is a coach at Laurel High School.”
Steve, Jr.’s other uncles, Jason and Michael, complete the five McNair Boys.
But of all this great support, it is Venson who stands out as one of Steve’s biggest fans on and off the field.
“He is really like my third son,” she said. “I want for him the way I want for my children. I pray for him when I pray for my children. He is a great young man with a large heart.”
In the passing of Steve, Jr.’s father, Venson said God really began to reveal her purpose.
“I realized that I was here to be a support to him and his family,” she said. “Through his father’s death, I began to see how strong and brave he was. I always try to encourage him both in school related activities or in his personal life. Sometimes I think that I am overstepping my boundaries, but I am willing to do whatever is necessary for his success. My expectation for him first and foremost is that he learns to put God first in all that he does. I then always encourage him to be a man of character, integrity and determination.”
Warrior fans have watched Steve, Jr.’s natural talent on the football field as he has worked to become the best. “He leads on the field, but he first provides an example. His knowledge and work ethic on the field are great. He has done several things to amaze me,” Venson said.
Venson reflected on the infamous Hattiesburg vs. Oak Grove game, where the Warriors were indeed the underdogs.
By the beginning of the third quarter, Oak Grove was trailing and the team displayed much difficulty on the field as the quarter began. “As I was tucked so tightly trying to keep warm, this voice of leadership rang in the stands,” Venson said. “‘Let’s go, this game is not over yet.’ Steve said to the offensive lineman. If memory serves me correctly, we scored on that drive, and the Warriors began to fight.”
As a mentor to Steve academically, Venson is by his side, supporting his efforts in the classroom. “I often say to him, ‘I am your biggest fan,’” she said. “‘I want to be your cheerleader on the field and academically. Take care of the things inside the building and they will increase your chances on the field. Potential takes you no place without dedication and determination.’”
But Venson is just one of a multitude of McNair, Jr.’s supporters who strongly believe that his opportunities are endless, and that he has infinite potential to compete with the best at the highest level.
“Steve is the most humble person I know,” teammate and senior Robert Johnson said. “He’s the best player I’ve ever played with, he’s a great teammate, and his future at Southern Miss will be something to watch.
Even those players who have now graduated and gone on to play post-high school remember their time on the field with McNair, Jr., with fondness.
“I can truly say this guy will always be my best friend, no matter what happens,” Oak Grove graduate Kewon Hunter-Williams said. “I’ve never needed to tell him to play well in football because he’s always going to do that. Now, he’s in a position to have it all, and I know he will work hard. That’s just him. He’s a great young man and always will be.”
With 22 total touch downs just in the regular 2009 season, McNair, Jr. shined on the field. He averaged 11.62 yards per reception and 4.71 yards per rush on offense. On special teams, McNair, Jr.’s punt return average was 12.75 yards and his kickoff return average was 34 yards. He also returned two interceptions for touchdowns while playing in the defensive backfield.
Expectations for McNair, Jr.’s future are high. Earlier last month, he signed to play for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles with high hopes of receiving for Coach Larry Fedora’s team.
“Because of my son (Dillon) going to school at Oak Grove, I was able to see three or four games there,” Fedora said. “What amazed me about Steve was that he started at wide receiver and then moved to running back and then to quarterback. He moved to free safety. He moved to corner. He was the punt returner. He was the kickoff returner. He did it all. There were games when the Warriors were behind and had lost their quarterback, and he had to do things that I know he didn’t expect to do this season. He brought them from behind and won a lot of games. He just showed a lot of heart and a lot of desire. We’re going to start him off as a slot receiver and see where it goes from there, but I just think he makes our football team that much better just being on our team because of his will to succeed.”
Fans know Steve, Jr. for his talent on the field, but those who know him best know that he is quiet. His words are few, but his character is strong. Perhaps Venson explains that side of him best. “There is a lot to learn in silence.”