HATTIESBURG — Titans quarterback Vince Young didn’t expect to speak Saturday during his mentor’s funeral. He wound up summing up the emotional day with just a few words.
“Steve was like a hero to me, and heroes are not supposed to die,” Young said before stopping to rub his eyes as he talked about the man he knew from football camps as a teenager and called “Pops” — Steve McNair, his predecessor with the Titans.
McNair was shot and killed on the Fourth of July by his girlfriend, 20-year-old Sahel Kazemi, who then shot herself in the head.
Nearly 5,000 turned out to say goodbye to the 36-year-old during one of the biggest funerals in the recent history of Mississippi, McNair’s home state.
Fans and old friends filed into the Reed Green Coliseum on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, and McNair’s family rented buses to haul in people from his hometown of Mount Olive. Not far away sat men who competed against McNair or coached him on the field.
The high school football team McNair’s son plays on wore their jerseys in honor of the man they often saw smiling from the sidelines.
“Mississippi has lost a tremendous legend,” said Cardell Jones, McNair’s college coach at Alcorn State.
The hearse carrying McNair’s silvery-gray casket was escorted 30 miles down Highway 49 by nine police officers on motorcycles and several vehicles carried family members. After the two-hour service, the procession headed back down the road for a private burial at Griffith Cemetery, about 20 miles from Mount Olive.
Police escorted McNair’s wife, Mechelle, and his mother, Lucille, into the stadium beforehand. Near the end, a handful of people surrounded his mother and his sons, waving them with fans and programs and giving hugs.
Brett Favre, who had a home near McNair’s here in Hattiesburg, sat a few rows behind the McNair family but did not speak. Titans coach Jeff Fisher, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler attended. Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, also was on hand.
Young was added to the service late, and the quarterback drafted by Tennessee in 2006 to replace McNair remembered him as a father and mentor. Young said he felt selfish at times taking McNair away from his four sons to help him through his own life.
He then pointed at the Oak Grove High football team sitting in the stands and told them not to give up if they have someone who inspires them.
“Pay attention to that guy because every day you know I had to hear that guy’s voice,” Young said.
Lewis played against McNair and was his teammate the final two years of his NFL career. Lewis said he learned studying film and proper technique wouldn’t help him beat a quarterback fueled by will, heart and sacrifice.
“I find myself in awe when I speak about a man like Steve McNair,” Lewis said.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was among those who sent flowers. Titans owner Bud Adams attended a memorial service Thursday night in Nashville, where thousands more attended. Fisher was called up to speak from the audience, and he pulled Young over to the podium and led the audience in the Lord’s Prayer just as he did during 11 seasons with McNair before every kickoff.
Bobby Hamilton, who played at Southern Miss and in the NFL with New England and Oakland, used to sleep on the floor of McNair’s oldest brother, Fred, when he played at Alcorn State. He also cheered on McNair during his career and recalled how McNair rallied Alcorn State once by scoring two touchdowns with less than a minute left.
“It’s very painful. We know he was a warrior. … I can’t even say the word how this warrior went down,” an emotional Hamilton said.
The program included memories from McNair’s mother, his wife and sons, brothers, and nieces and nephews. Photos were also displayed of the quarterback who played 13 NFL seasons with Tennessee and Baltimore before retiring in 2008.
Coach Nevil Barr brought the jersey-clad Oak Grove team to the service. Steve McNair Jr. attends Oak Grove, and his father joined Favre at a summer workout two weeks ago to play catch with the kids.
“He was on our sideline every Friday night supporting his son,” Barr said. “He loved to come watch Steve Jr., and we loved having him there. He always had that smile.”
Deloris Cagins of nearby Columbia wore the purple and gold of McNair’s alma mater, Alcorn State, and had a pompom tied to her walker. She has relatives who eventually joined her beloved Braves, where McNair made a Heisman Trophy run and set a number of NCAA Division I-AA records before going third overall in the NFL draft in 1995 to the then-Houston Oilers.
“Alcornites to me are a different breed of people,” she said. “It’s like a family. If you do something, we’ll support you.”
Chris Talbott and Teresa M. Walker/The Associated Press