NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Fans of ex-NFL quarterback Steve McNair were focused on his incredible career and life with a memorial service on Thursday, not his sudden and tragic death.
McNair, 36, was a married man shot four times in his sleep on the Fourth of July by a girlfriend 16 years his junior, who then killed herself. The 20-year-old woman was distraught about mounting financial problems and her belief that he was seeing someone else, police said Wednesday.
Sahel Kazemi “was spinning out of control” when she shot McNair as he dozed on a sofa early Saturday, Chief Ronal Serpas said. Police found she was paying for two cars, her rent was doubling and she suspected McNair was having a second affair with another woman.
That’s not how McNair would be remembered Thursday during viewings at a funeral home and the stadium where he once played. His friends, ex-teammates, former coaches and wife celebrated him at a memorial service with his close friend and pastor, Bishop Joseph W. Walker III, delivering the eulogy.
“Steve’s body of work, his commitment to this community and all that he has contributed to so many around the world, his work ethic on the field and his incredible heart off the field I think overshadow any circumstances,” Walker said.
McNair’s death was shocking because he seemed so tough and indestructible on the field, a warrior who always found a way to play through pain. The Mississippi native played through injuries so numerous a local newspaper once ran a chart breaking down when and what he had endured.
“He could’ve played back in the old days with no helmets,” former Titans safety Blaine Bishop said.
McNair earned plenty of accolades in the NFL, sharing the league’s MVP award in 2003 with Peyton Manning, finishing third in MVP voting in 2002 and being named to the Pro Bowl four times in his 13-year career. But it was his toughness that kept coming up Wednesday as fans flocked to LP Field to say goodbye on the field where he provided so many memories.
His funeral was scheduled for Saturday in Mississippi.
Carl Shankle of Nashville stopped during his lunch break to watch videos of McNair’s career, which were flashed on the scoreboard. He marveled at McNair’s coolness under pressure.
“Watch the highlights. Somebody who can stay in the backfield and one way or another get away from the people rushing,” he said. “It’s amazing, and (he) put up a decent pass.
Some guys can get away, but when they throw the ball, it’s off into nowhere.”
It was McNair who turned Music City into an NFL town after the Titans moved here from Houston, where they were the Oilers. McNair took the team to its lone Super Bowl in 2000, a thrilling game featuring a final drive that came up just a yard short of forcing the game’s first overtime.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher’s favorite memory was seeing McNair, with Mechelle at his side, use a walker in a hospital to receive an epidural injection that would allow him to practice late in 2005, a season in which Tennessee went 4-12.
“Those types of stories are those that you have never heard of,” Fisher said. “You witnessed the moments on the field and the comebacks and all those kind of things, but it was those things that made him special.”
McNair joined Steve Young and Fran Tarkenton – both Hall of Famers – as the only quarterbacks to throw for 30,000 yards and run for 3,500 more. Between 1999 and 2003, no NFL team won more games than the Titans with McNair and only St. Louis matched their total.
“It was just an incredible career,” his coach said.
McNair retired from the NFL in 2008 after two years with Baltimore. He turned his focus to his family, his four sons, charity work and lots of fishing.
He met Kazemi six months ago at a Nashville sports cafe where she was a waitress and his family often ate. She was eager to build a life with him, telling her relatives he was divorcing his wife as she prepared to sell off her furniture.
The police chief said detectives learned Kazemi recently found out about another young woman she thought McNair was romantically involved with and had even followed that woman home, though she did not confront her.
“We do know that she was clearly sending a message during the last five to seven days of her life that things were going bad quickly,” Serpas said.
Kazemi was charged with driving under the influence last Thursday morning. McNair was riding with her and could be seen nearby on video footage before being allowed to leave in a taxi. She bought a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol hours later.
Police believe McNair was asleep early Saturday morning when Kazemi killed him. She sat next to him, shot herself and slid to the floor with the gun underneath her body.
McNair’s wife, Mechelle, has not spoken publicly since the shooting. No record of divorce proceedings have surfaced, and Mike Mu, who is handling media for the memorial service, said Mechelle McNair didn’t know who Kazemi was.
Walker, who has known the couple since they moved to Nashville in 1997, said Wednesday she was doing as well as could be expected.
“Her faith is what’s sustaining her now,” he said. “We haven’t talked about the circumstances of his death. She is processing it in a private way. It’s obviously devastating on so many levels.”
Associated Press Writers Lucas L. Johnson II, Travis Loller, Joe Edwards and Kristin M. Hall contributed to this report.
Photo: Steve McNair, left, and Sahel Kazemi, right.