So began one of the great careers in the history of college football.
McNair, who was shot and killed Saturday in Nashville, brought big-time football to Lorman, Miss. He attended Alcorn State, about a 2 1/2-hour drive from his hometown of Mount Olive, because he wanted to play quarterback instead of defensive back. That's where the marquee programs wanted him to play.
Alcorn State coach Cardell Jones was happy to bring a talent such as McNair into the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The plan was to ease McNair in to college football.
McNair had other plans.
"I was going to try to work him in slowly in preseason practice," the now-retired Jones said in telephone interview with the AP from his home in Raymond, Miss., on Saturday night. "I finally put him in a scrimmage and he was fantastic. He went 9 for 9 [passing] and drove the team to a touchdown."
Jones didn't start McNair in the first game of the season against Grambling State in 1991. But with the Braves down, McNair got his chance and the youngster delivered like a veteran, throwing three touchdown passes in a 27-22 victory.
"He was mature at a very young age," Jones said. "I put Steve into the football game, he was very poised and took the team down to score the winning touchdown."
McNair took over the starting job and didn't relinquish it until he was done rewriting the NCAA record book, making a run at the Heisman Trophy, and turning an historically black school in rural Mississippi into a college football hotbed.
Fans, black and white, made their way to watch "Air McNair" run with power and speed and fire footballs all over the field. NFL scouts came in droves. The television cameras followed.
"That was great and he really took our program to another level," Jones recalled. "I think we were on TV seven times."
Despite all the attention, including a cover story in Sports Illustrated, McNair stayed humble, Jones said.
"He did a great job. He didn't let that change him one iota. He kept his feet on the ground," Jones said. "He was truly a team player and, because of that, all of the players really loved him. They knew he would sacrifice and do the type of things thing to make the team successful."
In 1994, McNair had 5,799 total yards in 11 games, still a Division I-AA (now known as Football Championship Subdivision) record. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting behind Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam and Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter.
He ended his career with 16,823 total yards, another record that still stands. He threw 119 touchdown passes.
"Coaching Steve was definitely the highlight of my coaching career," said the 65-year-old Jones. "He's the type ballplayer who comes along once in lifetime."