Friends of Steve McNair say everything seemed normal. Nothing seemed amiss. What you saw was what you got. A family man. A faithful man. A community-oriented and generous leader of a man.
But there existed another side to the former Titans quarterback and 2003 NFL co-MVP, one that was more susceptible to temptation. That’s the side that opened the door for a young, unsettled mistress to enter his life.
Sahel “Jenni” Kazemi shot and killed McNair before turning the gun on herself on July 4, 2009, the Metro Nashville Police Department concluded. He was 36. She was 20.
Ten years later, those close to McNair reiterate one point but end at another.
“There are a bunch of tragic stories of famous players and entertainers. It happens,” former Titans wide receiver Derrick Mason said.
But for that to happen to the infallible McNair?
“Shocking,” Mason said. “You were just in disbelief.”
Shaping a generation
One of McNair’s final community efforts was opening Gridiron9, a since-closed restaurant on Jefferson Street intended to give Tennessee State students an affordable place to eat.
“He established his business in the heart of the black community over at TSU to have a strong and powerful impact,” former Titans running back Eddie George said.
That was McNair.
His career as a professional athlete was dotted with examples of giving back, and he had no plans of halting that trend as he began retirement in 2007.
“He did as much as he possibly could to help the community,” Mason said of the four-time Pro Bowler and 2005 NFL Man of the Year nominee who was the highest-drafted African American quarterback in NFL history when he was selected third overall in 1995.
He established the Steve McNair Foundation to benefit youth charities and hosted his first youth football camp in 1999 at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. He led them multiple times a year in both Nashville and Mississippi, until the summer of his death.
“When Steve started holding his camps, nobody else was doing a whole lot of them,” said Mitchell Williams, a Mississippi sports anchor who was close to McNair. “He helped start that trend.”
Williams, who helped run McNair’s camps, saw how involved and engaged he was when working with young players.
“Touchable. Just so touchable and approachable and always spending time with those campers,” Williams said. “A generation of young people came to Steve’s camps.”
Williams estimates 11,000 kids attended those camps.
“And all of them for free,” Williams said.
George remembers McNair making a speech before one of his camps. He had something written down — a script. It seemed inauthentic, though, so McNair ripped up the paper before speaking from his heart.
“He gave this really impactful, heartfelt speech that moved the crowd into giving toward his foundation,” George said. “I thought that was remarkable.”
That was the side of McNair that so thoroughly masked the other.