Tim McGraw's fans know him as country-western icon, part-time movie star, and husband of Faith Hill. But few realize just how fierce the demons were that stood in his way.
Credit: Photograph by by Nick Leary

The Tennessee sky is now clear. The band is playing. The Friday-night lights shine bright. Kids toss footballs and play tag behind the stands. It's the first game for Franklin High School, just outside of Nashville. Tim's nephew Matt is the starting right tackle, and the family has turned out for his first varsity game. While their kids play behind the goalposts with friends, Tim and Faith sit on the 50-yard line surrounded by Tim's mom, his two sisters, brothers-in-law, and a half-dozen nieces and nephews. He is wearing the same faded T-shirt and khaki shorts from the day before. McGraw has lost much of his hair up top, a fact he doesn't really hide around his close friends, but tonight his Titans cap is anchored tightly to his head. Many in the crowd are on nodding-acquaintance basis with the couple, so they try not to gawk. The only autograph seekers are two six-year-olds. One shyly whispers through baby teeth that she was born in Mississippi, just like Faith.

"Oh, sweetie, that's great," says Faith. "Tell your momma I said hello."

Tim has a big grin on his face. He scans the bench for his nephew. Last year McGraw worked the chain at the games at his daughters' school until he found himself badgering the refs too much. "Maybe it's better I didn't have a son. I bark at these kids a lot, and they're not even my sons." The setting makes McGraw nostalgic for his high school years. "I was a receiver, and every game I'd drop the first pass; I was nervous. But after that I was fine."

He then tells a story about his role in 2004's 'Friday Night Lights.' "The first scene I filmed was me hungover the day after I punched my kid. I was so nervous the night before, I stayed out drinking. That hangover isn't an act."

The movie's climactic scene features McGraw looking for his fullback son on the field of the Astrodome after a heartbreaking loss in the state finals. In a long tracking shot, McGraw's face is contorted with pain never before expressed. He finds his son, embraces him, and gives him his own state championship ring. It's not hard to imagine from where McGraw channeled that pain.

"When I was a kid, I went back to the Astrodome a second time to see Tug pitch," McGraw whispers after the kickoff. "I went down to the bullpen and called his name. He ignored me. I thought of that while I was walking that same ground."

Toward the end of the third quarter, Faith looks at her watch. The game is still in doubt, but it's getting late. "We should get the girls home," she says.

"Well, maybe a little longer?" asks Tim. He thinks for a second, then agrees. "You're right."

Tim stands up, hugs his mom, and gives a last wave to his extended family. He takes his wife's hand, and they disappear into a crowd cheering for other people.

I stay for a little while but leave midway through the fourth quarter. As I pull out of the parking lot, I see a balding man in a faded T-shirt and khaki shorts trotting back toward the game. He holds his Titans cap in his hand – going hatless is his disguise. ("I made sure everyone got home safe, but I couldn't miss the end of that game," he'll tell me later.)

The crowd cheers, and the PA announces that Franklin has just scored the go-ahead touchdown. The man smiles broadly and begins running toward the lights.

There's not a black hat in sight.