Long before Dallas Cowboys beat writer and ESPN Anscape contributor Jean Jacques Taylor profiled Deion Sanders and his Jackson State Tigers this year for Sports Illustrated, S.L. Price — some 28 years ago — told the story of Alcorn State star quarterback Steve McNair, a player who was breaking records before the Sept. 26, 1994 issue with the iconic headline “Hand Him the Heisman” hit newsstands.
“We were aware of what Steve McNair was doing down there (at Alcorn State),” Price told HBCU Sports. “He was putting up outlandish numbers.”
Price, who only had been covering college football for Sports Illustrated for just a few months, indicated that he was looking to write about the next great African American quarterback who presented features that broke all the racist stereotypes and prejudices that historically prevented Black signal-callers from receiving a fair shake at the pro ranks.
For Price, McNair “was the perfect Sports Illustrated sports story.” However, the 2,600-word piece wasn’t necessarily scheduled to be a cover story either before Price headed to Lorman, Mississippi to document McNair.
“Nobody ever said it’s going to be the cover,” said Price. “Nobody ever said go bang the drum for this guy to be the Heisman Trophy winner because that isn’t normal, either. That cover — Hand Him the Heisman — I don’t know how many times Sports Illustrated in September is saying, ‘This guy should win the Heisman.’”
The cover words, said Price, was not his creation. Nor the subheadline that read “STEVE MCNAIR IS THE BEST QUARTERBACK — BLACK OR WHITE, BIG SCHOOL OR SMALL— IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL.”
Those decisions, whether McNair would be on the cover and the words that accompanied what was seen on it, were left to editors in New York. In those days, the magazine which was published weekly didn’t identify a cover piece until the week of its release. A big Monday Night Football performance by an NFL player, or a major event occurring somewhere in the world of sports, could have relegated McNair to just an inside feature instead.
“I wrote the story and had no idea it was going to be on the cover,” said Price. “I never had the expectation with any story that it would be the cover. As a writer in that situation, you’re rooting for the guy. You want him to make you look good. Steve McNair thankfully, at least, made me not look like an idiot.”