When you have gained universal respect and admiration of your contemporaries by working through physical and emotional pains without an excuse - legitimate or made-up - you've done something right.
When fans of rival teams show reverence and respect to your work (and the ones who have met you in-person), regardless of the color of your uniform, you've done something right.
When we wonder why are you gone at the age of 36, just two years into the retired life and still ingrating yourself into the fabric of the city you were hailed in, you've done something right.
Even if many believe you've done something wrong.
The tragic murder of Steve McNair has my words jumbled, my thoughts heavy and my memories ever more crystallized. Of thousands of athletes I have watched or listened to perform, read about or spoke to in person over a near-life time of loving sports, "Air" McNair is one of the few whom I have ever admired. While the passings of many public figures have troubled me over the years, whether through nature taking its course or the mistakes of (wo)man, this is one what truly brings a profound sadness to my heart.
As some may know, despite New York City being the native land, I grew up a San Francisco 49ers fan. More so as the Joe Montana era came to an abrupt end, I was a part of the Steve Young generation of the Niner faithful. Young's elusive mobility matched with his strong left arm and uncanny intelligence makes him unique in the realm of his fellow Hall-of-Famers in that few before him have ever combined all three aspects for such a sustained period of time. Often forgotten is that all of this was made possible by an innate toughness that willed him through whichever games he could suit up for. As millions of NFL fans came to know, numerous concussions ended his career, but they also defined it as a sprained thumb or a bum ankle couldn't keep him off the field. Defenders had to nearly kill this man to keep him off the gridiron, even if his post-football life could have been greatly jeopardized. However, Young was what we all
When McNair came of age with the Houston Oilers (whom eventually became the Tennessee Oilers, then Titans), the traits that I loved (and feared) about Young were duplicated in the former third-overall draft pick. Here was a guy who was listed as doubtful almost every week of his 13-year career, yet started all but eight games since his first full-game action in 1995. The accolades and the games need no mention as you've seen them throughout the last 24 hours, but they were a testament to his success. McNair's success came despite choosing substance over style, the size of the Titans' television market, the diminished prestige of black college football programs and the unforuntate stereotypes of the black athlete (not smart enough to be a quarterback, can never become as good of a passer as a runner, not the ideal face of a franchise).
Some of the best words in this brief time since the news broke comes from Clay Travis for AOL's NFL Fanhouse when he describes the relationship between McNair and his adopted city:
If ever there was a better connection between a city and a player, I haven't seen it. McNair and Nashville were a perfect pair, the lovers who never could quite get it right, the Super Bowl-losing quarterback with a golden arm who was born on Valentine's Day, and the city that turns its failures into ballads heard round the world.
It would be extremely easy to cast aspersions onto either McNair or the young woman, Saleh Kazemi, as the details point in one direction or another. Truth or not, it would not be a stretch to say that the benevolent player in the Nashville and Mt. Olive, Mississippi communities was far different from the man who will be buried; a man who from all reports was guilty of adultery. Yet, despite how some feel about cheating on the one you're with (something that angers me to no end with family and friends), the misdeed does not and should not overshadow what a person means to a part of the world that (s)he provided so much goodwill and pride. As the adage goes, people who live in a glass house shouldn't throw stones.
It has been rather easy for many of us to forget that another life - as the method is still being determined at the moment - was cut short, even if she will only be known for this tragedy. However, Kazemi, for the worse, will be remembered as the single woman who was slain with a married man. We know little about the woman except for this story and a previous DUI arrest shortly before her death, yet this does not mean that her life did not provide some of the same zeal, affection and importance to those who knew her best.
Something that's overlooked, but rather convenient to believe is that the death of McNair could be lumped in all of the off-field troubles of the NFL, despite the fact that he was a retired player. This may appear as a stretch to some, but in this personal accountability era of the National Football League that was ushered in by Commissioner Roger Goodell, the casual onlooker, disillusioned fan or the uninterested is probably thinking to him or herself , "what's wrong with these guys?" or "this is what happens when you try to have your cake and eat it, too". Circumstances matter little to those who believe that popular athletes exist to only tantalize the masses with their talent, but enrage them with their personalities and off-field lifestyles. This would be a most unfortunate result of McNair's death because unlike Adam "Pacman" Jones or Chris Henry, he did not hold nearly the same disregard for public safety that those two did.
These are the kinds of events at times that can test someone's passion and faith in the world, not just sports. No matter how you cut it, this was a senseless and horrendous crime, one that only hits home either when it's someone we know personally or someone we enjoyed from afar personally. They make us wonder if the fame and fortune is worth the brutal demise. Certainly, if this was Steve McNair, the truck driver instead of Steve McNair, the former star quarterback, his death would be another story on the evening news that seems to repeat itself every day except for the person and location. It would be no more disheartening as two lives were violently ended, leaving two families without loved ones.
What has so many of us whom are invested in sports reacting to these deaths is that few people in this world are recognized by millions who will never meet them, but share an appreciation for a talent displayed for one and all to see. This isn't biased hero worship or demonizing of a public figure as those extreme sides of the interested crowd exist in all parts of our society. This is a NFL-loving public looking to one another in bewilderment, shock, sadness, anger and confusion saying one collective "damn!".