Trigger McNair: Quiet Leadership
By Neal Rozendaal
This profile was written in 2013.
When interviewing a linebacker named Trigger McNair, the first question is a natural one: is that your real name?
McNair laughed. “No,” she replied, “but Trigger has been my nickname ever since around 1992. In basketball, my teammates called me Trigger because of my jumpshot, and the name pretty much stuck.”
Her nickname is particularly appropriate now, because she works during the day in law enforcement as a corrections officer. “At work, they call me Officer McNair or Mac,” Trigger confirmed. “If could legally change my name and get away with it, I would. But I don’t want to get stopped by airport security every time I try to fly with a name like Trigger!”
WNBA to WPFL
Growing up in the Bronx, McNair first thought that her quick jumpshot was her ticket to professional sports. She played two years of junior college basketball at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington. After she graduated, McNair played her final two seasons of college basketball at Southwest [Minnesota] State University.
McNair was such a talented basketball player that she was invited to try out for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx in 1999. “I was a little bitter with the basketball tryouts,” McNair confessed. “I was in the top ten of the tryouts, but I didn’t get picked for the team. I was pretty upset about it.”
But, as fate would have it, those tryouts took McNair’s sports career in another direction. “At the tryouts, a guy was there passing out cards for the WPFL – the Women’s Professional Football League – that was just starting up in 1999. I figured I had to play something, and if it wasn’t going to be basketball, I’d give football a try. That’s kind of how it started.”
McNair was already in Minnesota, but several other players came in from other locations. “There was a group of about ten players that came from Florida that were supposed to be the best athletes out there,” McNair said. One of those players was her future teammate with the D.C. Divas, Mellisa Bedwell. As teammates with the Lake Michigan Minx in 1999, Bedwell saw McNair’s leadership skills instantly.
“Even when we met back in Minnesota, Trigger has always been the type of player that knew what she wanted, how to get it done, and most importantly, how to make sure that everybody else got their jobs done. She always made sure people were in the right spots,” Bedwell declared. “That’s what I love about Trigger. No matter how good or bad things are going, she always seems to have control of herself. In doing that, everybody feeds off that and is able to relax. She always makes you feel confident that you can get the job done.”
Arriving at her first football training camp in 1999, Trigger McNair already had a chip on her shoulder after being slighted in her WNBA tryout. She was given even more motivation as she embarked on her football career. “They started to pad the teams,” McNair recalled. “The Minnesota Vixens team was supposed to be the harder and stronger team, with the better players and better athletes. Then they put the rest of the athletes on the Lake Michigan Minx, the team I played for. It kind of hurt my feelings that I didn’t get picked to play for the Vixens!”
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for McNair. “It actually worked out that the Minx were the better team,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of athletes, but we played together, and we won every game. We all had something to prove.”
Trigger McNair got her start at the wide receiver position, where she shined. “I was a pretty good receiver,” McNair humbly conceded. In reality, she was the first player in modern women’s football history to be named league MVP; she was voted the Most Valuable Player of the WPFL’s Barnstorming Tour of 1999 after starring for the undefeated Minx.
Taking Her Talents to South Beach
Following one season in 1999, the Lake Michigan Minx disbanded. McNair decided to follow her coaching staff south. “Miami started a team in the WPFL in 2000, and all of the Minx coaches were from Florida. I decided to move down to Florida, and I played for the Miami Fury for six seasons [2000-2005] as a wide receiver,” she said.
McNair still remembers the conditions women’s football players dealt with in those early days. “It was fun, but it was different the first few years because nobody had played football before. We were still trying to learn how to play football. It was hard to put money together to get a bus and travel. And I remember the helmets were always too big,” she laughed.
“But I wouldn’t change anything we did back in the day, even though it was a little more poor compared to what I’m doing with the Divas now,” McNair continued. “Things are definitely more lavish now than back when I started. It was a serious transition, but in the end it all worked out.”
Miami built a solid team in south Florida, with McNair standing out as one of the best wideouts in the sport. She teamed with Fury quarterback Anita Marks to form one of the best passing games in the country. Marks, who had a sports radio talk show in Baltimore for several years after retiring from football, now does sports broadcasting in New York covering the NFL’s New York Giants.
“When I first saw her throw the football, I thought, ‘Wow, she has an amazing arm,’” McNair said. “She was on the level of [Pittsburgh Passion quarterback] Lisa Horton; she was that talented and had that much strength in her arm. She was a really good quarterback.”
The Miami Fury left the WPFL after the 2000 season and played two years as an independent. In 2003, the Fury joined the IWFL, and the WPFL responded by starting a new team in south Florida named the Florida Stingrayz. McNair had to decide whether she should stick with the Fury or jump ship to the Stingrayz. With two teams in the area, what’s a football player to do?
For Trigger McNair, the answer was simple: play for both teams.
The IWFL held games in the spring and summer months, while the WFPL was a fall league. So McNair played for the Fury in the spring of 2003, suited up for the Stingrayz that fall, and then returned to the Fury in the spring of 2004. It showed McNair’s extreme passion for the sport to want to play two full football seasons in one calendar year.
It wasn’t easy being a member of two different football teams, to say the least. “In 2003, I was practicing for both teams,” McNair recalled. “I’d practice for one team on Monday and the other team on Wednesday. I didn’t want to choose between the Fury or the Stingrayz, so I just played for both teams.”
McNair’s greatest team success in Florida came in her one season with the Stingrayz in 2003. The Stingrayz posted a 7-2 regular season record and advanced to the National Conference championship game of the WPFL. The Stingrayz then traveled to Dallas and upset the Diamonds, 22-14, to win the conference championship and earn a spot in the 2003 WPFL championship game.
Unfortunately for McNair, her title hopes fell one game short. The Stingrayz were defeated in the WPFL title game by a Wisconsin team called the Northern Ice. It was an excellent debut season for the Stingrayz, but after just one year, the Stingrayz folded. “So it was back to the Miami Fury again,” McNair said. She would play two more seasons with Fury in 2004 and 2005 before arriving in the nation’s capital.
Joining the D.C. Divas
Before the 2006 season, Trigger McNair was offered a job as a correctional officer in Maryland. “I decided to play for the Divas and not one of the Baltimore teams because they had a little better tradition and a little more organization,” McNair confirmed. “I also knew a couple of their players because their flag team usually came down to Florida to play in flag football tournaments, so that made it easier.”
When McNair came to the Divas in 2006, she transitioned from being a wide receiver to playing on the defensive side of the ball. The Divas moved her to the defensive line before she found her natural fit at linebacker. She said, “I wanted to try something different. To be honest, I actually feel more comfortable playing linebacker than I ever did playing wide receiver.”
Joining the Divas franchise was an eye-opener for McNair. “I had never seen so many committed and dedicated football players on one team,” McNair shared. “In Florida, we had an attitude of, ‘If we can, we can, and if we don’t, we don’t.’ But when I got up here in DC, the competition level was so high that I was amazed by it. And we didn’t have to practice with the headlights on in the sandlot; we had an organized field and transportation. Everything was in order, and I had never seen anything like that in my years of playing football until I came to the Divas.”
“I don’t think a lot of people understand and appreciate what they have playing for this team until you go somewhere else that’s low budget and where things aren’t in order,” she continued. “When I got here, I thought, ‘Wow, this is something totally different. The bar has definitely been raised.’ I fell in love with this team from the start.”
In McNair’s first four seasons with the Divas, the team played in two national championship games, winning it all in her first season in uniform in 2006. Two years later, McNair was honored by the Pigskin Club of Washington, winning their prestigious women’s football defensive player of the year award. It is one of the highest individual honors a Divas player can receive.
Just when everything was lining up perfectly for Trigger McNair, adversity dealt her a cruel hand. In the Divas’ first game of the 2010 season, DC squared off against the Baltimore Nighthawks. McNair went down in the first quarter of the season opener with a devastating leg injury. “I tore all my ligaments in my ankle,” she recalled. “I had three surgeries to fix everything, and I was out for almost a year. I could ride bicycles and play non-contact sports, but I couldn’t play football! I was so depressed that I couldn’t play football and help my teammates.”
“The hardest time in my life was that injury,” McNair said. “I had never had an injury before in my life besides a sprained ankle. But this was serious and scary. My doctor told me I may not walk properly again – and I still don’t, but I guess no one notices but me that my stride is different. I have four screws and plates still in my ankle. I can tell you when it’s going to rain because of the metal in my ankle.”
It would have been very easy for McNair to just retire from the game, since she had already played full-contact football for more than a decade. Yet she set out to relentlessly rehab her body and resume her football career. “That was my mindset – get better and get back on the field. Playing football is what I wanted to do. It took an injury for me to realize how much I appreciate this sport,” McNair admitted.
“I pushed to come back after my injury,” she went on. “My first year back in 2011, I had to regain my confidence in everything I was scared to do, like make a tackle or go full speed. I had to learn to trust myself again and just play. I’m still getting there. I was scared to jump, and it’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve been able to jump without thinking about it. I’m not what I was before my injury – and I may never be – but I still have a lot to offer my team.”
Indeed she does. In 2012, she became the first player to earn the Pigskin Club’s defensive player of the year award for a second time. “I appreciate everything more than I did before I had my injury,” McNair confessed. “Now I don’t take anything for granted. I play like there’s no tomorrow, and I try to get my teammates to play on that level – you have to play every play like it’s your last, because you never know when something might happen and you can’t do it anymore. You have to play with everything you have within you. I do everything I can to get my teammates to play with that mindset and play hard every play, because you never know when it’s going to be your last.”
Trigger McNair: Quiet Leadership
McNair was named as one of the Divas’ team captains in 2013, which means she spends quite a bit of time motivating her teammates to be their best. “Sometimes rookies look at me like I’m mean, but I’m really not,” she laughed. “I just play with a passion for what I do on the field. If we’re winning and I’m smiling, rookies realize they can come up and talk to me. But after a game we’ve lost, they won’t talk to me until after I calm down, because I get all upset. I’m not doing it because I’m mad at them…I just want them to play with passion. Most of these rookies don’t even realize how good they are. I can tell several of them that they have more potential and more athletic ability than I did fifteen years ago. But some of them are just happy to be on the team, and I want more for them.”
“I’m trying to get the most out of them and bring out the talent I know they have,” McNair continued. “The hard part with doing that is I’m a quiet person. I usually keep to myself, but now that I’m a team captain, I have to be more vocal and keep everybody where they need to be. I’m trying to keep everybody in the game.”
Fellow football pioneer Missy Bedwell marveled at the influence McNair has on their Divas teammates. “When Trigger speaks, people want to do what she says. She’s amazing like that. She has a way of mesmerizing you,” Bedwell remarked. “If you’re getting too hyper or cocky, she has a way of bringing you back to Earth, but always in a way that’s very respectful. She never disrespects you, but she makes you feel like you’re part of a team and the team comes first. And I love that about her.”
After fifteen seasons in football, McNair shows few signs of slowing down. In the Divas’ 2013 season finale against Boston, she flew around the field making ferocious hits and playing an outstanding game. “Everybody on the team calls me Papa Smurf, because I’ve been doing this for fifteen years,” Trigger laughed. “Hopefully I’ll have enough in my tank next year to try it again, although fifteen years is a long time! But honestly, this is my life…I don’t even know what I’m going to do after football. What am I supposed to do, take a cooking class or something? I pull my hair out after football season because I don’t know what to do. I’m a competitor…football is what I do.”
Trigger McNair keeps coming back for more football, season after season, but ultimately, she’s content with the career she’s had. McNair said, “I think I’ve pretty much accomplished everything I would like to do. I’ve got a ring, and I’ve been able to play football for a very long time. I’m comfortable and happy. I just want my teammates to be able to achieve what I have and get their own rings. At this point, I’m playing for my teammates; I’m not doing it for me anymore.”
On that note, she has a few words of wisdom for her younger teammates who are hoping to follow in her footsteps. “The advice I’d give to a young player is – Play hard and appreciate what you do, because a lot of people can’t do what we do. A lot of women can’t play football at the level we play at. Appreciate what you do and enjoy it, because you never know when you’re not going to be able to do it, and when you can’t walk or play this sport. You have to appreciate it and love it.”
Trigger McNair is a living legend in women’s professional football. She has blessed the D.C. Divas with her leadership during her eight seasons in burgundy and gold, and McNair is thankful in return for how the organization has supported her.
“This team took me in and welcomed me in 2006 when they didn’t have to,” McNair said. “I look forward to coming to practices now and seeing my teammates. This is where I want to be, and this is my family. When the time comes, I’m going to retire as a Diva, because this is my home.”