Bob McNair always came across as the Houston sports owner you'd most like to have a beer with, the most regular guy among the bunch. Despite his billionaire's bottom line, there's something of a rugged everyman quality about McNair.
Maybe it's the self-made nature of his fortune, but the Houston Texans owner never seems overly impressed with himself. McNair's ego is certainly less apparent — and less raging — than those of many NFL coaches.
So it's no great surprise that Bob McNair battled cancer privately and largely stoically before going public to help others once he knew he had won this round of the fight.
McNair says he didn't want his cancer battle to be a "distraction." So he went about dealing with it behind the scenes while continuing to pour his heart and soul into Houston's football team. McNair made one of the most important decisions in franchise history, handpicking Bill O'Brien as the man charged with changing everything, in the midst of this 10 month battle against a combination of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) (which he's had for six years) and a more aggressive skin cancer. McNair didn't wallow in self pity or doubts, he just continued to get things done.
It's not often you hear a doctor call a patient a role model. Then again, Bob McNair's not your average patient.
It never hurts to have a little Clint Eastwood in your sports owner.
"Well, talk about being a tough act to follow," Dr. Michael Keating of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, one of McNair's doctors, says after taking the microphone from the Texans owner at NRG Stadium Thursday. "You know as an aging veteran myself, I find that looking at people like Mr. McNair and how they carry themselves should be a role model for all men, not just people that actually have cancer."
It's not often you hear a doctor call a patient a role model. Then again, McNair's not your average patient.
For one thing, this always in shape 77-year-old plans to live into his hundreds — and chase multiple Super Bowls during that time period.
"Somebody asked me what my plans are and and I said, ‘Well, I plan on winning some Super Bowls,' " McNair says. "That’s what we’re here for. They said, ‘Do you have enough time to do?’ I said, ‘My dad lived to be 102, so I think I am going to have enough time.’ "
McNair has been battling various forms of skin cancer for 20 years, the price of summers spent life guarding and long sessions of tennis in an era when sunscreen was anything but standard procedure.
He returns from this fight with the same attitude he always had and a new mustache that's impressed more than a few.
It's something of a Magnum P.I. thing for those old enough to remember the show or Tom Selleck.
"He looks good, so it's good to see him out here," Texans defensive end J.J. Watt says. "He's got a little mustache going now — I like that too."
It really only matters what Janice McNair thinks of the stache. And there she is sitting in a front row seat right off the side of the stage for this Thursday press conference, still looking up and beaming at the love of her life after all these years. Janice McNair taught her husband a little something about toughness with her own breast cancer battle. And she's been a rock at his side through this too.
"Everybody has problems — everybody has health problems from time to time," her husband is saying on the dais. "One of the things in being around hospitals, you find out that there are a lot of people that are a lot worse off than you are, so don’t come whining around here.
"You know, just go out and do what you need to do and keep your head up and keep working. "
Bob McNair's Cancer Battle Goes Public
McNair went to great lengths to keep his cancer fight — the surgery on his neck where the squamous cell carcinoma was found behind his left ear, the skin grafts, the 33 rounds of radiation and the chemotherapy — private while he waged it. He checked into M.D. Anderson under an assumed name, went in and out of the hospital through a back door.
"One of the things in being around hospitals, you find out that there are a lot of people that are a lot worse off than you are, so don’t come whining around here."
But now that he feels stronger, he's making it public to help others realize cancer's not "a death sentence." It's hard to overstate the impact public figures like McNair and CultureMap's own courageous Shelby Hodge (who let readers in on her own skin cancer fight from the very beginning of her treatment) can have by sharing their stories.
"Having high profile patients speak out can make a significant difference," Dr. Randy Weber, who performed McNair's surgery, says in a moment after the press conference. "It gets people thinking about their own health and hopefully getting things checked out. It raises awareness . . . We've got Michael Douglas talking about his cancer and Mr. McNair here . . .
"It's important for a host of reasons."
McNair's son Cal — the Texans COO and future head of the franchise — stands across the room, talking about how scary a word cancer can be. Bob McNair is battling against that too. He's helping others go from fear to fight. As part of a study on experimental proton therapy that delivers more precise radiation, McNair's increasing the cancer knowledge base as well.
Soon McNair is getting up from behind the microphone, thanking everyone for coming. He's rocking that new stache, but his attitude's never changed. Bob McNair is the rare billionaire sports owner who's never forgotten how lucky he is.
"He's set a pretty high bar for himself," Keating says.
The doctor's talking about McNair's goal of living as long as his father did. But he just as easily could be talking about McNair's grace under pressure, his no-nonsense everyman fight.