NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Thousands turned out in Tennessee to say goodbye to Steve McNair, and people in his native state were doing the same Sunday to give the ex-NFL quarterback one of the biggest funerals in recent Mississippi history.
"We're going to have church this morning, and we're going to praise God for Steve's life," said gospel singer Dottie Peoples, a close friend of McNair's mother, Lucille.
At least 4,500 turned out, though organizers anticipated a capacity crowd of 8,000 at Reed Green Coliseum on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. Most of McNair's hometown of Mount Olive also arrived thanks to buses rented by the McNairs, and hundreds came out Friday night for a visitation. A private burial was to follow in Mount Olive.
The hearse carrying McNair's casket arrived a couple of hours before the funeral, escorted 30 miles down Highway 49 by nine police officers on motorcycles and several vehicles carrying family members.
A line outside the coliseum snaked down the sidewalk as early as 8 a.m., even with temperatures quickly rising into the low 90s on a humid day.
The hearse backed up next to the playing floor to deliver McNair's silvery-gray casket. Police escorted McNair's wife, Mechelle, and his mother, Lucille, into the stadium beforehand.
Brett Favre, who had a home near McNair's here in Hattiesburg, sat a few rows behind the McNair family. Titans coach Jeff Fisher and quarterback Vince Young, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler also attended. Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, also was on hand.
Young was added to the service late, and the quarterback drafted by Tennessee to replace McNair in 2006 called his predecessor "Pops" — remembering how McNair served as his father and mentor since Young attended one of the man's football camps as a teenager.
"Steve was like a hero to me, and heroes are not supposed to die," Young said before stopping to rub his eyes.
Lewis said he once promised the McNairs he would visit with them in Mississippi. He played against McNair and was his teammate the final two years of his NFL career. Lewis talked of how he learned studying film and proper technique wouldn't help him beat a quarterback fueled by will, heart and sacrifice.
"I find myself in awe when I speak about a man like Steve McNair," Lewis said.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was among those who sent flowers. Titans owner Bud Adams attended the memorial service Thursday night in Nashville. Fisher was called up to speak from the audience, and he pulled Young up to the podium and led the audience in the Lord's Prayer just as he did during 11 seasons with McNair before every kickoff.
McNair was shot and killed on the Fourth of July by Sahel Kazemi, a 20-year-old girlfriend who then shot herself in the head.
Bobby Hamilton, who played at Southern Miss and in the NFL with New England and Oakland, used to sleep on the floor of McNair's oldest brother, Fred, when he played at Alcorn State. He also cheered on McNair during his career and recalled how McNair rallied Alcorn State by scoring two touchdowns with less than a minute left.
"It's very painful. We know he was a warrior. ... I can't even say the word how this warrior went down," an emotional Hamilton said.
The program included memories from McNair's mother, his wife and sons, brothers, and nieces and nephews. Photos were also displayed of the quarterback who played 13 NFL seasons with Tennessee and Baltimore before retiring in 2008.
Coach Nevil Barr brought the entire jersey-clad Oak Grove High School football team to the service. Steve McNair Jr. attends Oak Grove, and his father joined Favre at a summer workout two weeks ago to play catch with the kids.
"He was on our sideline every Friday night supporting his son," Barr said. "He loved to come watch Steve Jr., and we loved having him there. He always had that smile."
Deloris Cagins traveled from nearby Columbia to attend the funeral. She wore the purple and gold of McNair's alma mater, Alcorn State, and had a pompom tied to her walker. She has relatives who eventually joined her beloved Braves, where McNair made a Heisman Trophy run and set a number of NCAA Division I-AA records before going third overall in the NFL draft in 1995 to the then-Houston Oilers.
"Alcornites to me are a different breed of people," she said. "It's like a family. If you do something, we'll support you."