Commentary

The dilemma: How to mourn McNair

Updated: July 9, 2009, 2:36 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Steve McNair fansAP Photo/The Tennessean, Jae S. LeeFans visit Steve McNair's Gridiron 9 restaurant in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday -- the morning McNair and 20-year-old Sahel Kazemi were found shot to death.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rosalyn Word was going to order the chicken sandwich. She stopped by Steve McNair's new restaurant on Friday, so excited to check out McNair's latest business venture that she grabbed a menu five days in advance so she'd know precisely what to get in case the legendary quarterback was there to take her order. To a blue-blooded Titans fan, he was so genuine and so approachable. He served the food right to the customers! And if Word got the chance to meet him, she was certain he'd take time to sign an autograph. That's what No. 9 always did.

Now she stands outside of the Gridiron 9 restaurant, passing out photocopies of McNair's menu because, well, his fans should have something positive to cling to from his last days. The place has been shuttered since Saturday, when McNair was shot and killed and found beside his dead 20-year-old girlfriend. It has become a makeshift memorial. Glass windows are now white, covered in handwritten messages. We will miss you, homeboy. You will always be a Titan.

For three days, middle-aged women, young dads and solemn men in business suits have come to this spot in a strip mall on the edge of downtown Nashville, dropping off flowers, snapping pictures from cell phone cameras, lingering for some kind of an answer.

"I'm concerned about his legacy," Word says. "I wish it were different. I hope we take the entire legacy and keep it in our hearts. He was much more than the circumstances present."

It's a moral dilemma in Nashville, a town that worships its sports heroes and believed, for the better part of 10 years, that Steve McNair was its most perfect role model: How do you mourn a man whose imperfections were exposed in his shocking death?

This is the question that Bishop Joseph Walker will try to answer in the next couple of days. Walker is the pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, the place where thousands will gather Thursday for a memorial service. He was there at the McNair house on Saturday afternoon, when police told Mechelle McNair that her husband was dead. Walker says he has talked to her at least five times a day since the ordeal started, and the picture of McNair's affair with Sahel Kazemi came into focus on national TV.

"This situation has hit Mechelle like Katrina hit New Orleans," Walker says. "It's like someone comes home and their house is on fire. It's something you don't expect to happen to that magnitude.

"But Mechelle is not a scorned woman. She's a woman of integrity and character. She has held her head up. She will get through this."

Nashville will get through this, Walker says, because it's a loving community. They'll get through it, he believes, because 36 years can't be defined by a few final mistakes.

Steve McNairJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesMcNair was a star, beloved for leading his team to the Super Bowl and contributing to civic causes.

Word spreads

The text messages started bouncing through time zones by mid-afternoon Saturday, when football players were resting their battered bodies on the Fourth of July: MAC IS DEAD. Some guys thought it was a bad prank. Others frantically scrambled for verification.

To Titans fans, McNair's death smacked against everything in their belief systems. They knew him as the warrior who battled back from a ruptured disk and shoulder surgery while his doting wife, a nurse, took care of him. They saw his charity work, how he grabbed a chainsaw and helped after a tornado hit Nashville, how he was a loving father who proudly lugged his young boys around LP Field.

If McNair's friends saw a different side, they aren't talking about it. Titans coach Jeff Fisher and a handful of McNair's ex-teammates gathered for an impromptu news conference Monday, focusing on the man who led Tennessee to Super Bowl XXXIV and gave every impression of wanting to do the right things.

"Yeah, there's something to learn," says former left tackle Brad Hopkins. "The learning thing is, just because I'm standing here in front of this camera doesn't make me any different from you. And the unfortunate thing is that's the way people think. People think because a guy makes a movie, because he scores a touchdown or shoots a basket, somehow they're different than we are. Well, they're not.

"This guy put on his pants just like everybody else. He went and bought ramen noodles and bread just like everybody else. He's a person, he was a man, he was a father, he was a husband."

But McNair wasn't exactly like everybody else. He was a professional athlete. It meant that he was recognized at every grocery store in Nashville and was the object of much female affection.

Though most NFL players recoil when asked whether their jobs create a culture of infidelity, many will agree on this: Their celebrity makes them far more appealing to the opposite sex.

Boomer Grigsby, a journeyman fullback who has bounced from Kansas City to Miami to Houston in his five years in the league, said it's not uncommon for him to be at bar and have a woman walk up and say she wants to have sex with him.

"I've never been a star player," says Grigsby, who got a decent amount of face time on HBO's "Hard Knocks" series. "I've been an average player at best. And the temptation for myself has been huge in every market I've played in. I can't imagine the temptation and issues there are when you're a star player.

"It became very obvious to me after 'Hard Knocks' what a little TV time can do for you. It multiplies your looks and popularity."

Hopkins says the attention is flattering, but makes it hard to trust people, leaving him to wonder if his admirers are interested in his heart or his wallet. He says he didn't know Kazemi, and that McNair didn't mention her the last time Hopkins saw his friend alive two weeks ago.

All Hopkins knows is that McNair loved his wife, whom he met in college at Alcorn State.

"If you know Mechelle, there's no way you couldn't [love her]," Hopkins says. "It's not just physical. Her interior is just as beautiful as her exterior. She's a great mother; she was a great, supportive wife. I never heard her say one bad thing about anybody. And I can't say that about anybody who had a ring on their finger up in them stands.

"In a lot of instances, we find ourselves seeking comfort in things we shouldn't but at the time they just seem right."

McNair's connections

Athletes love the land of the Grand Ole Opry because folks here generally leave them alone. There are no paparazzi, and the laid-back locals are so used to running into country-music stars that they're not inclined to chase Eddie George down Broadway.

Before the NFL franchise came to Nashville in 1998, this was college football country. But now, the Titans are king in Nashville. McNair altered the landscape, and will always be the town's first love. He was drafted in 1995, when the franchise was still in Houston, and was 26 when he guided the Titans to their surprise Super Bowl run in 1999, bouncing off defensive ends and scrambling as if each yard were his last.

He was never very talkative, but it was clear, in the huddles and in the locker room, that McNair was their leader. In 2003, he became the first black quarterback in NFL history to earn league MVP honors. Three years later, he was gone, off to Baltimore to try to continue his career with a body that was showing signs of giving out.

But McNair was, and always would be, Nashville's son. After he retired in 2008, he came back and was named to the Titans' ring of honor. Two weeks ago, he heard the roar of the fans' cheers one last time at Jeff Fisher's annual charity softball game.

At least one former teammate commented that the reaction to McNair was almost reminiscent of an autumn Sunday at LP Field. And McNair soaked it all in and smiled.

"You have to understand, Steve was the leader of a group of Tennessee Titans who brought pro football to Nashville and went to the Super Bowl," says Mark Howard, host of "The Wakeup Zone" on Nashville's 104.5 the Zone. "That group was kind of a special love. Your first love is always special. There's something about that team that people hold near and dear to them.

"He was the first pro football hero that played here. And he was a very humble guy, very approachable, and people loved him for that."

During the wall-to-wall McNair coverage of the past four days, fans have responded in different ways. Some are adamant about focusing on his on-the-field body of work and staying out of his private life. Others are bothered by the fact that his last images are with a woman who wasn't his wife.

"There's a definite split [in opinion]," Howard says. "There's a split between maybe liberal and conservative, a split between black and white, too. I think a lot of African-Americans viewed him as their hero and they don't want to see his name sullied through this whole thing. I think a lot of people may be disappointed, but they want to be respectful as well."

About 420 miles to the south, in Hattiesburg, Miss., the lines are even more blurred. Less than two weeks ago, McNair held a free football camp in his home state for 600 underprivileged children. Busloads of kids showed up from all over Mississippi, because McNair wanted to make sure that any kid who'd never gotten to experience a big-time football camp could.

He tossed footballs under the oppressive Southern sun while the ankle-biters who were too young to play tugged at his shorts.

Don Weatherell, an agent in Bus Cook's office who helps run McNair's foundation, gets choked up when he thinks about the smile on McNair's face as he walked across the field, and the last call they shared. McNair was trying to find a local basketball camp for one of his sons.

"Anybody who really got to know Mac loved him and appreciated him," Weatherell says. "Because he was real. What you see was what you got from ol' Mac."

The camp inevitably doubled as a McNair family reunion, with his brothers, sons and mother helping out. Up in the concession stand was Mechelle, packing hamburgers and chips into paper bags until 600 bellies were full.

Steve McNairJeff Gross/Getty ImagesSome fans are adamant about remembering McNair for his on-the-field achievements; others are bothered that the last images of him are with a woman who wasn't his wife.

Lingering questions

The Blue Moon Lagoon is the only floating bar and restaurant in all of Nashville. Customers come by car and boat, and eat oysters on the patio while ZZ Top and Springsteen play over the speakers. On Tuesday night, a TV above the bar flashes to highlight clips of McNair, but the patrons sipping beer don't look up to watch. They're talking about the Michael Jackson funeral, and how MJ was "one weird cat."

Just four nights ago, McNair was in this bar, making what is believed to be the last public appearance of his life. He reportedly got into an altercation with a man, and the stranger eventually was asked to leave. Tuesday night, an employee at Blue Moon Lagoon shrugs off the incident, calling it nothing but "some drunk-ass ... starting s---."

McNair's path that night, from a country joint called Loser's Bar to a 13-minute drive across town to the Lagoon, then back to a downtown condo he shared with a friend, leads to dozens of questions. The most immediate one was answered Wednesday, with Nashville police saying that Kazemi shot McNair four times before killing herself.

Many questions might never be answered. Why did the man who seemingly had everything turn to a waitress at a Dave & Buster's restaurant who was just three years older than McNair's oldest son? What was the motive in the killing? Why would he buy Kazemi a Cadillac Escalade and register it in both of their names?

How will McNair's wife and kids move on after such a sordid death that seemed contradictory of his life?

"We are all going on hearsay right now as to what his intentions were with this young lady," Hopkins says. "But right now, neither he nor her are here to confirm any of that. This might've been her thinking, and that's the difference. It might've been what she thought was the deal with the whole situation. And maybe that's what got him killed."

Steve McNair fansAP Photo/The Tennessean, Jae S. LeeCards, candles and tributes now adorn the exterior of McNair's restaurant. It's how some fans are choosing to remember their hero.

The mourners

McNair had just opened Gridiron 9 last month, but business was booming. There was talk of opening a second restaurant. Before the joint opened, McNair could be seen at the restaurant late at night, setting up tables and decorating the walls. He brought sample plates out to the other tenants in the strip mall so that they could taste-test his food, which he hoped would be an inexpensive and healthier option for college students at nearby Tennessee State University.

Every time a customer asked for an autograph, McNair obliged. Friends say he seemed comfortable with retirement and didn't fit any kind of midlife-crisis mold. He wanted to watch his boys grow up, says his former manager, Mike Mu. He wanted to spend his free time on a boat, enjoying friends and life.

Treachery Price, the owner of the strip mall, said he saw McNair for the last time Thursday, when McNair turned in a cell phone that he'd found in the parking lot. The place was so packed on most days that the Subway down the row was getting frustrated with the parking issues. Most people came there not for the food, but to see McNair.

Now Price stands in the lot as mourners drive by. In orange lights on the digital board at the front of the mall, he put "#9, RIP." He tells people the restaurant will open again. He knows it will never be the same.

"I don't know what he was doing," Price says. "But he didn't deserve to die."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com. Paula Lavigne, a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit, contributed to this report.