By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 11, 2009
NASHVILLE, July 10
This city has always kept its secrets well hidden, tucking imprudence away from the lights of music marquees, sequestering it behind closed doors.
Which is what makes what happened early in the morning of July 4 so disconcerting. A handgun discharged five times in the living room of a brick townhouse that morning, not far from the corner of Second Street and Lea Avenue. A local hero sat dead on a couch above a deceased 20-year-old woman, and the moment police opened the door private became very much public.
Suddenly Nashville had a difficult choice. It could mourn the death of former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, one of the city's first two great sports superstars.
Or it could confront the fact that the dead woman found at his feet was not his wife.
"It's not as easy as you think. You're in the middle of the Bible belt. There's a church on every corner in Nashville," said Roger May, a local attorney who has represented several local celebrities, including McNair after he was twice arrested on DUI charges that were eventually dropped. "It's not that everyone forgives his indiscretions."
Rather, the people of this city chose to focus on the good acts of McNair's life over the more ambiguous.
"They know it doesn't look great, but they're intelligent enough to look past that and see what he's about," said Frank Wycheck, a longtime teammate who now hosts a morning radio show in the city.
Rarely has there been an outpouring for an athlete's death quite like the one Nashville gave McNair this week. Certainly not for a retired player who never won a championship or made the Hall of Fame, though McNair, along with running back Eddie George, did lead the Titans to the Super Bowl following the 1999 season. McNair was just 36 when he died, and he hadn't been the Titans' quarterback since 2005, the year before he was traded to the Baltimore Ravens. His career had been over for two years. He was no longer the face of the franchise, but rather just a memory and a nameplate on the facade of LP Field, where the Titans play their games.
And yet for a week the city mourned. The restaurant, Steve McNair's Gridiron 9, that he opened across from the Tennessee State University campus just days before his death became a shrine where people, mostly strangers to him, came to write messages of farewell on the front of the locked glass doors and across the windows. And when the windows were filled, they wrote messages on cards, on photographs and on post-it notes and affixed them to the glass.
Perhaps the most poignant was the most simple. A white sheet of unfolded paper, taped to the window, upon which someone had scrawled the words: "Steve we forgive you."
For 12 hours a day on Wednesday and Thursday, the Titans threw open the main gate of the stadium and fans waited in line to sign one of eight giant notebook binders filled with five-inch thick stacks of loose leaf paper. Nearby, a man loomed in a yellow security jacket, occasionally informing them: "These are all going to the family." And when they were done with the books, they walked into the blue- and red-seated cavern of a stadium to sit in the blazing sun and watch on the great scoreboard a nearly 30 minute string of his career highlights.
On Thursday, the day of his memorial service, it was possible for someone to spend the entire day, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., at various McNair memorials -- driving from the stadium to the restaurant to a viewing of the body at a funeral home on the north side of town to finally the gigantic, sprawling Mount Zion Baptist Church, where thousands stood in long queues to file past his steel-grey colored casket and 4,500 people would attend his memorial service -- an event that was carried live on the city's major television stations.
And they did this not because of what seemed to be his super-human feats of strength on the football field, where he endured what his former teammate Chris Sanders called "extra, extra, extra pain."
Instead, they said, it was for something deeper, for previously untold acts of kindness: a donation of equipment to an underfunded youth sports league, an offer of a job to a struggling teenager, an endless grassroots charity that operated alongside the public foundation all top athletes now have. It was an emotion summed up in a vague phrase repeated again and again, regardless of race or age or gender:
"He was good people."
In the end this is where much of Nashville went with its tormented conscience.
He was good people.
Even before Metro Police announced this week that the woman discovered with McNair, Sahel Kazemi, believed he was seeing someone else, it was known in Nashville that the quarterback kept other girlfriends. This, while maintaining a seemingly storybook marriage to his wife Mechelle, with whom he had two of his four sons. That police say Kazemi's suspicions of another girlfriend were raised when she saw the woman leaving the Lea Street condominium he rented seems to indicate he met women there, away from his wife and children. And as long as the affairs were tucked away, nobody cared. Nashville, after all, has more than 50 years of suppressing the dalliances of its country music stars. It could certainly handle those of a beloved athlete.
He liked to go out, but not in an ostentatious way. He eschewed the dance clubs and high-end restaurants preferred by many of his teammates for the sanctity of a country music bar called Losers not far from the Vanderbilt campus. It seemed an odd place for an African American athlete, a down-home drinking spot with a mostly young, white clientele where beers are nursed in bottles and on warm nights everyone sits on the patio and shouts over the music. Accounts of those who saw him there on recent weekend nights, ranging from a local woman to a columnist for AOL Fanhouse, described an identical scene: McNair in jeans and a T-shirt, standing in the middle of the crowd, laughing, smiling, shaking hands, sipping drinks. The life of the party. It was like he owned the bar, even though he didn't.
And yet despite the girlfriends and the nights at Losers, McNair was never going to leave his wife, friends insist.
Kazemi was an insecure woman who had drifted to Nashville from Iran by way of Jacksonville, Fla., too young and naive to understand the subtleties of his lifestyle, mistaking vacations and the gift of a Cadillac Escalade for a declaration of love, said an associate of McNair's with knowledge of the situation who did not want to speak publicly. Once Kazemi understood she was probably not McNair's only lover, police say, she bought a gun, waited for him to fall asleep early in the morning on July 4, then shot him twice in the head and twice in the chest. Then she shot herself in the head, positioning herself in a way that she would fall into his lap. But she apparently failed in her final act, tumbling off his legs and onto the floor.
And when all this came known, the city, instead of scorning McNair, embraced him even harder as if his last great mistake was not in straying from his marriage but choosing the wrong girl.
"I think she took something out of his character," said 62-year-old Helen Fay Green of Nashville as she left a small pot of pink buttercups at McNair's restaurant. "I think it was maybe just a pity thing and he was trying to help her."
Green, like the vast majority of the crowd that gathered outside Gridiron 9, is black. Shermane Stuart, a close friend of McNair's, said McNair opened the restaurant in the neighborhood across from Hadley Park, the nation's first public park dedicated for African Americans, because he wanted people in Nashville's black community to have a nice place to eat, not another junk food stop. He worked there much of the time it was open, helping to work the kitchen, serving food and talking to customers.
Stuart remembers the night the restaurant was supposed to open. The room was already painted, the montages of McNair in a Titans uniform were on the walls, the kitchen was working, but a few minor glitches had pushed the opening date back three days. There was a crowd of friends in the restaurant that evening, the air conditioning still needed fixing and it was hot, but that didn't matter. All she could remember was the smile on his face. A dream had come true.
"He had more people working for him than he needed," said Stuart, who has a restaurant of her own nearby. "He wanted to give jobs to as many people as he could. He wanted to help them. And people were coming in droves to go there. He wanted to make things better for other people in this neighborhood. If people were driving out to Gridiron 9, then maybe they would stop at my restaurant or other restaurants. Maybe they would see the 'hood isn't that bad and they would come back."
This is what made McNair different from many other black athletes who could mix easily in Nashville's white neighborhoods and maybe didn't spend as much time in the African American areas. McNair did. It was why he ran his free football camps in the area, drawing hundreds of black kids who would otherwise not be able to afford the elite camps where more affluent white kids trained.
"I know he was more than just a man who cheated," Stuart said. "I know he was so much more than that. In fact he showed us so much that we can get past that. When I say he was a good friend, brother and father, I mean that. Shoot, he was that for me a lot of the times. He was whatever you needed him to be."
She stopped. Her voice choked.
"He's a black man and he took care of his mom," she said. "He put his restaurant in the black community. He goes to college and he marries a black woman and they had a beautiful black family. He could show something positive. [Kazemi] didn't have the right to take him from us. He was ours. He was our little piece of gold. I don't think anyone had the right to take away his fire."
Which seemed, this week, to be the worst feeling of all.
"He merged into this community," said Thresia Pilate, as she stood outside Gridiron 9 one evening. "He went everywhere. He went to all sorts of churches around here. He would go to your church if you wanted him to.
"I think he really cared about us."
Then he was gone. And as the hearse carrying his body made its way through the city streets Thursday afternoon rolling over the Cumberland River to Mount Zion just outside the city limits and eventually to his first home of Mississippi, Nashville seemed to feel something slipping away. Its favorite athlete was dead. A secret exposed.