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Steve McNair’s death weighs on the NFL every Fourth of July

It’s been nine years since McNair’s murder.

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Anxiety reigns among NFL leadership during the July 4 holiday. All recognize its reverent meaning for the nation.

But it is also a signature offseason event that can result in accidents and even tragedy for NFL players.

NFL defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, blew off part of his right hand four years ago toying with fireworks on July 4 while a member of the Giants.

Tragically, NFL legendary quarterback Steve McNair was murdered nine years ago on this holiday.

McNair’s murder on July 4, 2009 rocked the NFL’s core.

Police ruled it a murder-suicide committed by Sahel Kazemi, a woman McNair was involved with in an affair. It is an example long since discussed by NFL teams with their players on how deeply choices can matter.

I spoke with McNair’s mother, Lucille, from her home in Mt. Olive, Mississippi, last Sunday night. She is preparing for the ninth anniversary of her son’s death with the same resolve since his murder, insistent that his mistakes will not define him for her any more than his NFL success and rich community service. She simply celebrates the love for her son.

His former coach, Jeff Fisher, remembers.

“I was traveling on a USO tour with Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, John Harbaugh, and Tom Coughlin,’’ Fisher said. “I was sitting on a tarmac in Kuwait. I turned my phone on not even expecting it to work. And it rang. It was from 27-27.’’

That was former running back Eddie George’s Tennessee Titans uniform number.

“I definitely remember the call,’’ George said. “I was driving with my wife from an event in Atlanta back to Nashville.’’

Fisher answered: “Hello, Eddie?”

George blurted: “Is it true?’’

Fisher asked: “Is what true?’’

That is how Fisher learned of McNair’s murder.

“They set me up with a phone in a Kuwait hotel where I could begin to directly get back to Nashville and learn more. I flew back to Nashville and had the press conference. I think of Steve every day. But the Fourth of July every year rings home to me that we lost our buddy. These stories are important. His story is important. This is a very dangerous time of year for NFL players where career-ending things can happen, as simple as tearing up your knee water skiing, to tragic things happening. The more we talk about it with players, the more we might help them become wiser and safer.’’

George explained that he and Fisher will always share a unique bond from that phone call.

“After we hung up, I got a call from a friend of mine on the Nashville police department who told me they were bringing Steve’s body out of an apartment complex,’’ George said. “Every July 4th I remember that. It’s still hard to fathom that Steve is no longer here. He meant a lot to a lot of different people and especially to his teammates.

The NFL has long performed the delicate dance of attempting to counsel and advise their players without intruding into their personal lives. Some teams are much better at it than others.

The onus falls on the players.

I remember a conversation with former Bears and Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith, now University of Illinois head coach, who said: “When I went off to college, my mother told me, ‘Lovie, don’t do this and Lovie don’t do that.’ I did it. Kids do. And kids come to the NFL and they are searching, finding their way. And they grow into men and that are constantly trying to figure things out. The life they live is a blessing, but it can be a maze.’’

So how do NFL players learn to navigate it?

“The answer is to live respectfully and that falls on each individual player,’’ George said. “What you do in darkness comes to light. And in their situations, everything they do is magnified to the 10th degree. You can become a victim. You can be in a difficult situation that was none of your control. But in what you can control, don’t be that headline. Don’t be that story.’’

Independence Day is an explosive, worrisome period for the NFL and for the nation.

The National Safety Council calls it the most dangerous holiday period of the year. It estimates as many as 194 deaths and 22,000 injuries will occur this week in road traffic accidents. Swimming and firework tragedies abound.

Several incidents, minor and major, happen with NFL players during this period that are unreported, NFL coaches and executives say.

Each NFL team concluded its final offseason camp within the last two weeks. Each NFL coach spoke to his departing players about safety and decision-making during this time off before the start of training camps later this month.

“It’s this week that falls on the NFL calendar that is a major concern,’’ said Fisher. “The players rightfully get a little down time. July 4th in the back of many of their minds is the last time to blow off some steam. They come to camp in the best shape of their lives and a lot of that final preparation for it ramps up right after the July 4th holiday.’’

George offered: “This window, this July 4th celebration time is their last one to let loose, have fun. It’s a time where they can become irresponsible. It’s a time where they sometimes take things for granted.’’

It is a time where the NFL has painfully learned to hope for the best.

And prepare for the worst.