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In the wake of Steve McNair's death, it's clear just how enmeshed he and the Titans have become in Nashville's psyche. Perhaps that's why Les Carpenter's story in Saturday's Washington Post
seemed particularly insightful--an outsider has a far more objective viewpoint.
While local media, Pith included, focused on the details of the crime and how the nature of his death will affect his legacy, Carpenter, from his distant perch, saw something else:
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."
As someone who grew up in Cleveland--a major, if hapless, sports town, where people live and die by their teams' fates--I can't ever remember any similar outpouring for the death of a sports figure. Nor do I recall witnessing any news coverage of a similar reaction to a sports figure's death in any city.
Why did McNair's death strike such a chord? He certainly had some great years as a quarterback, but compared to elite NFL players, his body of work was far from remarkable. And though he was certainly a generous, community-minded soul, he was hardly Mother Teresa.
Perhaps it has something to do with Nashville's relative infancy as a big-league sports town. When you spend decades with the Nashville Sounds as your biggest sports draw, The Titans (and Predators) coming to town is like manna from heaven. Die-hard Browns fans, for instance, live and breathe football, but still, there's nothing special about it. It's just like breathing and eating. They've been doing it since they were kids. But just like religious converts are more zealous than their fellow believers who grew up in the faith, maybe Titans fans reflect that same phenomenon.
And, counterintuitive though it may be, I suspect the scandalous circumstances of his death may have increased the public outpouring of emotion, for a couple of reasons. First, though it was certainly nowhere near the magnitude of a major disaster such as 9/11 or Katrina, the news was so shocking to many Nashville sports fans that it shook them out of their daily doldrums and transported them to that same surreal netherworld people experience after such catastrophic events, a sensation intensified by the 24-hour news cycle. Also, because of the violent nature of his death and the character flaws it revealed, it left those who adored him even more pained and bereaved, with an even greater need to grieve.
Would Steve McNair's death have triggered such a massive public response if he'd died of a heart attack? We'll never know.