Published January 14, 2015
The hit Steve McNair took to his chest in September 2000 had the NFL quarterback ready to quit the game. It caused him so much pain he spent a bye weekend with the team's former chaplain in Houston. Then McNair, who struggled to breathe, watched his backup knocked out of the Titans' next game.
"He turned and looked at me and winked," Titans coach Jeff Fisher recalled Thursday night at a memorial service for the slain quarterback. "He grabbed a ball, threw it twice and ran on the field. Four plays later, he throws a touchdown pass to Erron Kinney and we win by three points."
Fisher said he caught up to McNair walking off the field that day in Pittsburgh and started to talk when the quarterback interrupted and pointed to the sky.
"No more turf toe, no more sacks. No more shoulder problems, and no more interceptions, only touchdown passes. I'm going to miss you No. 9," Fisher said.
McNair's wife and family, friends, former teammates and coaches gathered Thursday night along with thousands of fans to remember his accomplishments on and off the field.
Ravens receiver Derrick Mason, who played with McNair in both Tennessee and Baltimore, called the loss heartbreaking before the service. During the service, he called McNair's wife, Mechelle, a woman who loved the quarterback until his final day.
Fans lined up starting Thursday morning to view McNair's closed silvery-gray casket at a funeral home and later outside the church. A helicopter provided live TV footage as McNair's body was moved by hearse, and three of four local TV stations showed the memorial service live.
McNair's casket was on display at Mount Zion Baptist Church, where he had attended services since moving to Nashville in 1997. It was flanked by a large photo of him posing with his 2003 NFL MVP award on the right and another of him holding a football on the left.
McNair, who was married, was shot to death at his condo early Saturday by his 20-year-old girlfriend, Sahel Kazemi, who then turned the gun on herself. Police said her life was spinning out of control. But that wasn't how those who knew McNair chose to remember him.
Bishop James W. Walker III opened the service by calling McNair one of Nashville's own. In his eulogy at the end of the more than 90-minute service, he didn't shy away from how the ex-quarterback died.
The pastor reminded the congregation of how Jesus told those without sin to cast the first stone when people wanted to kill an adultress. He urged those who talk about McNair to drop their stones because everyone makes mistakes. He also spoke to McNair's wife, who later left walking up the aisle wearing sunglasses.
"You have inspired us all to endure hardship as a good soldier," Walker said.
The program included a statement from the McNair family.
"Today in our loss, our hurt, and our pain we recognize our gains in you our friends and loved ones ... They have all been a source of strength and comfort at this time to our family," the statement read.
Titans owner Bud Adams, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and more than 30 of McNair's former teammates attended.
Eddie George, who helped McNair take the Titans to their lone Super Bowl in 2000, was among the pallbearers along with four of the quarterback's former offensive linemen who escorted his casket out as the service ended. During the service, George read a poem describing McNair as a warrior.
"You fought a good battle. Your life has just begun," George read.
Jean Ryan got in line nearly two hours before doors opened at Mount Zion to say goodbye to the man she had followed since the NFL team moved to town in 1997.
"I love him, and he was a beautiful man and I will remember not the circumstances of his death but the great things he did for the Titans and the community," she said, wearing a Titans' pin and crying at what she called the "utter sadness."
Approximately 4,500 filled the church sanctuary for the service. Church officials had overflow areas with a handful of people.
The Titans estimated approximately 9,000 people had visited LP Field, where fans were invited to reminisce about McNair's career, between Wednesday and midday Thursday. Radio stations were broadcasting from the stadium, where the shop had sold out all of its McNair merchandise except for a few children's shirts.
Derrick Lewis said McNair "put the Titans on the map."
Lewis, wearing a Titans jersey, said he and his family were devastated when they learned of McNair's death.
"Myself and my family were completely shocked and some of us were crying because you almost feel like you are related," Lewis said.
But Lewis said the details of the killing haven't changed his opinion of McNair.
"I will always remember him for the good things that he did for the community and the Tennessee Titans," Lewis said. "Nobody's perfect."