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OWINGS MILLS — Steve McNair finally hit the wall after enduring years of brutal punishment, citing a battered body as the primary reason behind his surprising retirement announcement.
For McNair, it was essentially a case of his aching muscles and joints no longer cooperating with directions after 13 seasons. The impending move from the Baltimore Ravens’ tough-guy quarterback followed an injury-plagued, disastrous campaign where little of his four-time Pro Bowl form was still evident.
Moments prior to coach John Harbaughâ€™s first minicamp Thursday, McNair informed his teammates during an emotional meeting where he shed tears and received a standing ovation.
"It was a very difficult decision, it was hard," said McNair during a hastily-assembled press conference. "In your mind, you feel like you can play, that you can compete. But when you are fighting that battle from your mind to your body, if those two are not on the same accord, it’s not going to work in the NFL.
"My mind was there. Mentally, I could go out and play. But, physically, I couldn’t do it anymore. Not to the capacity that I need to help my teammates win a football game."
McNair once led the Tennessee Titans to within one yard of the end zone in the closing seconds of a Super Bowl defeat. And he engineered the most successful regular season in franchise history, boosting the Ravens to a 13-3 record in 2006 after being acquired for a fourth-round draft pick from the Titans.
However, the 35-year old Mississippi native’s body betrayed him last season as groin, back and shoulder injuries limited him to just six games and two touchdown passes.
He lost seven fumbles and was intercepted four times before being placed on injured reserve in December to undergo surgery on the rotator cuff in his non-throwing shoulder.
"I gained a deeper and greater appreciation for him when he walked into my office, looked me in the eye and said to me, ‘Mentally, I think I can do it for three more years, but my body is telling me every day that I can’t do it,’" said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, recounting a Wednesday conversation with McNair.
McNair’s body language on the sidelines last season illustrated a study in frustration, shaking his head after each turnover and ailment as he went 2-4 as a starter.
He completed 133 of 205 passes for 1,113 yards with a 73.9 quarterback rating that’s his second-lowest in the past decade.
"My mind was telling me, ‘Yes,’ and my body was like, ‘No, what are you doing?’" said McNair, who was due a $4 million base salary this year. "I came up with it two or three days ago, but it was still lingering ever since December.
"I can’t compete like I used to. My body doesn’t allow me to play at the high level that I’m used to playing at."
Since being drafted out of Alcorn State (Miss.) in 1995 by the former Houston Oilers, McNair piled up 31,304 yards, 174 touchdown passes and rushed for 3,590 career yards and 37 touchdowns.
"It’s been a long road, but I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with great people, great coaches, great teammates and great family," McNair said. "My career speaks for itself. I can reflect back on it and not change a thing. I played the game with a lot of passion and a lot of heart.â€
McNair emphasized that he wasn’t retiring because he couldn’t handle Harbaugh’s increased demands of time and effort. He had impressed team officials by shedding some weight and working out diligently at the training complex over the past few months.
When asked if the new regimen was a factor in his decision, McNair replied: "No, because I was here. I was here working out. I didn’t complain, not even once."
Regardless, it was a shocking development for McNair’s teammates.
"I talked to Steve this morning in the equipment room and his eyes were welled up," said cornerback Samari Rolle, who also played with McNair in Tennessee. "I said, ‘What were you doing last night?’ And he said, ‘I’m retiring.’ It felt like the first time you get cut from the team.
"He’s the best player I’ve ever played with. He’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer. This hurts."
Wide receiver Derrick Mason, one of McNairâ€™s favorite targets in Baltimore and Tennessee, expressed disappointment.
"Once you step on that practice field, reality hits: No. 9 is not going to be in the huddle," Mason said. "I thought I was going to get at least one more year because I know Steve has a big chip on his shoulder."
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who had some epic duels with McNair prior to his arrival in Baltimore, will miss his friend’s competitive grit.
"There is no greater warrior or player with a bigger heart than Steve McNair," Lewis said. "He now can walk away with his head up high."
McNair’s departure leaves Kyle Boller and Troy Smith as the only two quarterbacks on the roster.
When asked who’s his starter, Harbaugh said: "We lost our incumbent and now it’s wide open."
Newsome insisted that McNair’s decision won’t impact his draft plans. The Ravens were already expected to draft a quarterback, perhaps even top-rated Boston College senior Matt Ryan.
It will be difficult for Baltimore to replace McNair, who shared NFL Co-Most Valuable Player award honors in 2003 with Peyton Manning as he generated 3,215 yards and 24 touchdowns.
In 2006, he threw for 3,050 yards and 16 touchdowns in the regular season before throwing two interceptions in a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Ultimately, McNairâ€™s career ended unceremoniously. In the final game of his career, he departed in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals after passing for just 128 yards. That outing was preceded by two lost fumbles and an interception in a 38-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now, McNair heads back to his 643-acre farm in Mississippi to be with his wife, Mechelle, and their four sons.
"It’s been a great ride," McNair said. "It’s a sad, emotional day for me. I’m trying to do the best I can to hold it in.
"But at the same time, I’m opening up a lot more doors for the future. I can become now the father I need to be to my kids."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.