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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

One of the National Football League's most popular players was shot to death yesterday. Quarterback Steve McNair spent the bulk of his 13-year career with the franchise that was the Houston Oilers and became the Tennessee Titans. He led that team to its only Super Bowl appearance, a game that had one of the most exciting endings in championship history.

McNair was found shot in his condominium in downtown Nashville. A 20-year-old woman was also found dead. Police are investigating the circumstances.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He regularly appears on WEEKEND EDITION Saturday, but we wanted him to join us this morning to talk about McNair's impact on the league. Good morning, Howard.

Mr. HOWARD BRYANT (Senior Writer, ESPN.com, ESPN the Magazine): Good morning.

HANSEN: Cornerback Samari Rolle played with McNair on both the Titans and the Baltimore Ravens, where McNair played his final two seasons. And he said, if you were going to draw a football player - the physical part, the mental part, everything about being a professional - he is your guy. I bet you agree with him.

Mr. BRYANT: Yeah, well, there's no question about that with Steve McNair, because when you - I covered the National Football League for a few years and I still deal with it on a fairly regular basis - and one of the things that people respect in that game because it is so violent and because it is so devastating to your body is toughness. And Steve McNair was an unbelievably tough football player.

And I think especially in 2002, there was a stretch in that season where he didn't practice for two months and then came out and led his team to the playoffs and eventually came within a game of the Super Bowl.

And it all sounds fairly silly talking about these details in the wake of what's happened, but I think that's how a lot of football players are going to think about him is you focus on his talent and on his impact, especially when you do view him through the lens of being a football player, he was a tremendous, tremendous talent. And also one of the kind of players that a lot of other players tried to mold themselves after.

Because it reminds me of what Bruce Smith used to say - the defensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills - that it's essentially every Sunday it's a car crash. That's what it does to your body.

HANSEN: He earned the name Air McNair for his extraordinary passing abilities. What were some of the other qualities that made him such a good quarterback?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, it was the combination. He gained that nickname at Alcorn State when he was in college because he threw for 6,000 yards and 53 touchdowns as a senior, which is remarkable. Most quarterbacks try to do that over a college career, he did it in one season.

But, once again, it's toughness. It was his ability to stand in the pocket, to stay in, to read defenses, to scramble and to anticipate what's happening around you. It's an incredibly violent game and it's an incredibly fast game. And to be able to think quickly, to think on your feet and to execute and to lead.

I used to laugh when I was covering the game at how many unnecessary analogies the people in the game would make to combat. But in a way, because the game is so violent and it's so quick in the way that you can really, really hurt yourself playing that game, I understood the way people would respond to his leadership qualities.

Steve McNair was a very, very confident football player and people did gravitate around him, especially when it came to the way that he would be willing to throw his body into very unhealthy situations.

HANSEN: Yeah, he really gave it all to the game. Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. Thank you for helping us to remember Steve McNair.

Mr. BRYANT: And especially as a black quarterback as well, his legacy will always be remembered.

HANSEN: Thanks again.

Mr. BRYANT: Thank you.

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