Shock gives way to morbid fascination, which turns to rampant speculation, which is followed quickly by moralizing and all of the rest. Steve McNair, this is your death.
We know that McNair, a married father of four, was killed, shot four times. We know, too, that his 20-year-old girlfriend, Sahel Kazemi, was found dead in the same apartment, one bullet in her head. We know she bought a gun. We don’t know why. We might never know why.
We see pictures online of the two of them vacationing together. We hear stories about how McNair had told her he was going to divorce his wife. We hear another report that his wife knew nothing about the girlfriend. Some say that McNair’s house was for sale. Others try to figure out what connection, if any, attaches to Kazemi’s drunken-driving arrest in the days leading up to the slaying—and the fact that McNair was a passenger in the vehicle at the time.
No answers, though. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Two lives are over. One public reputation is shattered. The collision between image and reality is spectacular, again. When will we learn that there often is no connection between athletes and real life, between the pictures we watch on the playing field and what really goes on in the background? When?
It was hard not to like McNair from the distance at which we mostly observed him—from here to Tennessee. He was a tough guy who always played hurt—and who doesn’t like a player like that? He was the kind of quarterback who would get clobbered on Sunday, barely practice until about Friday, but go out there and get clobbered all over again on Sunday. Oh, and he won a lot of games. He came within inches of winning a Super Bowl, too.
This was his public reality. This was his football image.
In a place like Philadelphia, a reputation for toughness is money. In any city, it is a nice way for a professional athlete to be known. It might be the best way.
But there is no automatic transference outside of the chalk lines on the field. We all know that in our heads, but we forget sometimes. We get caught up in the mythmaking. We assign these noble qualities to people who play games, but we have no idea what they are like once the television is switched off.
Then we are reminded, and we cannot catch our breath.
A buddy texted me after the news broke and my reply was something like, “I hope it isn’t too sordid—I kind of liked McNair.” And I did. But then I caught myself. I couldn’t pretend to know him. I saw him only in professional settings. What I was attracted to was the image, not the person. My frame of reference involved only shoulder pads. It is such a narrow view.
Being a sports writer, you get asked all the time about the athletes you cover. Often the question is on the order of, “What’s he really like?” To answer truthfully is to say, “I really don’t know,” because there really is no way to know. If Steve McNair’s wife really didn’t know he had a girlfriend whom he took on vacation and for whom bought an Escalade, what chance does a sports writer have who spends 10 minutes talking to a guy twice a week?
But people don’t want to hear that you don’t know, so you tell a story about some funny anecdote or another. The problem is that public anecdotes are not necessarily a reflection of private lives. Facility in dealing with the media does not make you a good guy, except in a news conference. The opposite is just as true.
But you forget. The spectacle has never been bigger, the publicity never more pervasive. The imagery can be so seductive, and you forget—until something like the death of Steve McNair happens. Only then do you remember what you should have realized all along: that warriors are mostly mythical and that men are the ones who wear sporting accolades, complicated men.