By Doug Gorman
Ask any long-time Mt. Zion football fan to recall their favorite player, it's a good bet J.R. McNair's name is going to come up in the conversation.
As a senior in 1999, McNair helped lead the Bulldogs football team into the Class AAA state title game against Oconee County.
Mt. Zion lost in the state championship on a bitterly cold night for its only defeat of the season in what was a memorable year for McNair and the Bulldogs.
As a junior and senior McNair also captured back-to-back state titles on the wrestling mat.
Four years after getting his high school diploma, McNair's presence can still be felt as his football jersey and wrestling singlet are retired and now hang in the Mt. Zion gym.
Success followed McNair to Wofford College in South Carolina where the team's starting fullback just completed a stellar football career by helping lead the Terriers to the NCAA Divivion I-AA playoffs.
But McNair is much more than just a talented athlete. The deeply religious young man is just as concerned about giving back to his community as he is scoring touchdowns.
"I wouldn't be anywhere without my faith," he said.
McNair isn't preachy or judgmental, instead he lets his conduct on and off the field speak for itself.
Before each Wofford football game, head coach Mike Ayers asked the popular senior to lead the team in a devotional.
His inspirational pregame talks became a popular ritual.
Sensing a need to make some changes on the Wofford campus, McNair decided to run for student body president. He won the election and added politician to his already impressive resume.
The Wofford senior is the second-straight football player to serve as the school's student body president.
Many college football coaches expect their players to devote any time outside of the classroom to the sport.
Wofford head coach Mike Ayers wants his players to be well-rounded college students.
"He's never had a problem with my busy schedule. Outside of school, football has always been a top priority, but I have also had the chance to do so many other things," McNair said.
The Mt. Zion High School graduate is so busy with athletics, school, community activism, singing in choirs and student government, he has earned the nickname "Joe College."
"Time management becomes very important, I can sleep after college," he joked.
Despite his schedule, McNair hasn't let his grades slip. The senior is a Dean's List Student, with a grade-point average of 3.64 in the double major of finance and philosophy.
On the football field, McNair has been just as successful. In his four-year career, he rushed for more than 2,000 yards and scored more than 20 touchdowns.
With fewer than 2,000 students, Wofford is the smallest NCAA Division I-AA school in the country, but with McNair's help, the school located in downtown Spartanburg has turned into a Southern Conference and national football power.
Wofford completed a 12-2 overall record this season, capturing the Southern Conference along the way. Victories against perennial Southern Conference powers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State helped propel the Terriers to the playoffs and the conference title.
In Wofford's game against Chattanooga, McNair scored five touchdowns before sitting out the final quarter.
McNair put up big numbers this season despite missing two games with an injury.
"Sitting out was tough," he said. "I knew I had to step up and help support the guys who were playing in my place."
McNair's strongly believes Wofford should have made the playoffs in 2002, but despite a 9-3 overall and a 6-2 conference mark, the Terriers weren't invited to the post-season party.
After the disappointment wore off, McNair was one of the first to rally his teammates.
"We were disappointed for the seniors on that team, but we made a promise that we would make the playoffs this year. We wanted to be in a situation where they didn't have a choice but to take us."
In the 2003 Wofford football media guide, McNair's bio takes up two pages. Among his non-football activities are memberships in several choral groups, but it's his community activities which the Wofford senior is most proud of.
McNair designed several websites for campus groups and civic organizations in the Spartanburg area.
He also helped chair the Stay a Night/Save a Life program where Wofford students who are traveling on the road can receive discounted rates at hotels.
He is also involved in the Feed the Children program. For his work in the classroom, his was honored as a 2001 and 2002 Verizon Academic All-District selection and a 2002 Division 1-AA Athletic Directors' Association Academic All-Star team.
Mentoring younger members of the Spartanburg community has also kept McNair busy during his four years at Wofford.
In one of his programs, McNair takes a child out to lunch and spends time just talking with the youngster. It was something he and a fellow Wofford football player started together.
When his friend graduated, McNair continued the outings.
McNair has spent January back in Atlanta doing an internship with Velocity Sports Performance.
It's given McNair a chance to work out and stay in shape for the upcoming NFL combines where the former Mt. Zion standout hopes to impress scouts into drafting or signing him.
If pro football doesn't workout for McNair he already has job offers in commercial real estate.
Regardless of what career path he takes, McNair looks back at his career in high school with fondness.
"My senior year was really special," said McNair. "We really knew we had a good team; we were really blessed to make it to the state championship game."
McNair still stays in contact with several off his coaches, including head coach Jackie Green and former assistant coach Rodney Hackney, who is now head coach at Riverdale.
"J.R. was just one of those really special young men," said Green. "He was kind of quiet, but he always worked hard. He didn't play a whole lot until his senior season because he was always playing behind some other talented players."
He made his senior campaign count as he and Rowan Jeffers teamed to form one of the best backfield tandems in the state.
McNair set a single-season rushing record with 1,691 yards. Jeffers also rushed for over 1,000 yards.
McNair is still well-known on the Mt. Zion campus, and he's still willing to give back it its athletes.
During a recent visit to Mt. Zion, McNair witnessed one of the school's wrestlers struggling with a move.
Even though McNair was dressed in business attire, he jumped out on the wresting mat to lend a hand to the Bulldog wrestler who quickly recognized the former two-time state champion.
For McNair, that was just a typical act of kindness in the life of a very busy young man.