A Family Left Behind

After burying her husband nearly a decade ago, Mechelle McNair was determined to keep their sons safe and carry on with the business of living. It wasn't always easy.

For more, watch E:60's story, "Heir McNair," on Sunday at 9 a.m. on ESPN, or stream it on WatchESPN.

Her husband would have done things differently. He probably wouldn't have spent most of the summer dreading this moment, standing in front of a college dorm, trying not to cry.

He'd handled everything -- the bills, the taxes, the boys' baseball swings -- until it was just her. And them. But this moment in front of the school is a good one. Nine years after Mechelle McNair's world caved in, her oldest son, Tyler, is going to NYU on an academic scholarship. He didn't just turn out all right. He's going to kick the world's ass.

They are best friends. Maybe they would have been anyway, had Steve McNair not been killed. Tyler tells her everything, even the stuff that can get him grounded. In happy times, they belted out SWV songs in Mechelle's little, red, two-seater Mercedes, his tiny head bobbing to the music. She once took him on a girlfriends-only trip to the Bahamas, and if anyone took issue with it, well, tough. Tyler was her road dog.

In the worst times, she kept both of her little boys beside her in bed, where she could keep them close and safe.

Mechelle is 45 now, and she does not look old enough to be dropping a son off at college. She was slow to trust after her husband's death and never remarried. She already had two men in her in life: Tyler, 19, and Trent, who just turned 14.

They carry pieces of Steve, from Tyler's mannerisms to the way Trent calls people "Buddy." But now one of them is leaving, and Mechelle is just trying not to lose it. The boxes are unpacked, the dorm room is clean, and there is nothing else to do but say goodbye. They hug, and Tyler wants to tell her something before she goes back home to Tennessee. He says she needs to go out more, to have fun sometimes. It surprises her and forces her to ask the inevitable question: Who am I when my kids are grown and gone?

"I look at Tyler," she says, "and he knows exactly what his passion is.

"What's my purpose? What's my passion?"

On the morning of July 4, 2009, Mechelle McNair woke up with a crushing headache. She stood up, the pain radiated from the right side of her skull, and she had to lie back down. She noticed her husband wasn't home and made a number of phone calls trying to find him. Nobody knew where he was.

She got on the elliptical machine, hoping some exercise would get rid of the headache. It would not go away. She would wonder, later, about signs.

Her mother, Melzena Cartwright, saw the news on TV. Years ago, after Cartwright lost her own husband, Steve had told her to pack her bags and come live with them. When news of his death flashed on the TV screen, Cartwright rushed through the house to Mechelle's room. Mechelle had just found out. "Mama," Mechelle asked, "do you think it's true?"

Steve McNair was born on Valentine's Day, and he died on the Fourth of July. The enormity of his death cannot be overstated. Here was an NFL quarterback one season into retirement, a former co-MVP and a Super Bowl participant, murdered.

Twitter wasn't a factor yet, but there were plenty of media outlets to feed off of the stunning story of a Tennessee football hero killed by 20-year-old Sahel Kazemi, a woman with whom he'd been having an affair.

The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department ruled it a murder-suicide, concluding that Kazemi shot McNair four times -- twice in the head -- in the early morning hours of July 4, most likely while he was sleeping on the couch of his rented condo. Kazemi then lay down beside him and fired a bullet into her head. The tabloids fed off the story and ran photos of McNair vacationing with the young waitress and texts they sent to each other in their final hours.

Everyone wanted to know what Mechelle was feeling. How do you think she was feeling?

"I didn't know about her at all," Mechelle says. "You're going to have people who say, 'Oh, she knew.' Did I know about some other people and some other things? Yes. But did I know about her? No, I did not."

Initially, she did not believe her husband was dead. The man who had taken epidurals and basically crawled around in pain six days a week but somehow played football on Sundays couldn't be gone. She wanted to see him so she could help him.

When it hit her, she fell to the floor, screaming. Her children had never seen her like that.

Tyler, who was 10, started crying. He ran to the kitchen and got a knife. He said he couldn't live without his daddy and wanted to kill himself. Mechelle grabbed him and told him to stop. She said she couldn't bear to lose both of them.

How was she feeling?

Just 24 hours earlier, McNair had taken his sons fishing. It was a good day for two little boys who saw their dad as a superhero. He cleaned the fish when they got home that night, washed his truck and began to doze off on the couch.

But his phone kept ringing. He told Mechelle that the alarm was going off at his restaurant, but she knows now that Kazemi was probably the one who called.

He said he had to go, and kissed the boys goodbye.

"Don't go," Tyler and Trent told him.

McNair said he loved them. He kissed Mechelle and told her he loved her, too.

"I'll be back in a little while," he said.

Nearly 5,000 people mourned McNair at Reed Green Coliseum on the campus of Southern Miss. At the time, it was considered one of the biggest funerals in the state. Trent, pictured right, was 5. He leaned on his mother, Mechelle, and Tyler, at left. George Clark/Hattiesburg American POOL/Getty Images

The vision of a 10-year-old boy holding a knife was like a cold bucket of water in the face. From that moment on, she could not let her children see her break down. She would go to her room, door closed, and sob. She would lean on her friends, who dropped everything to be with her in Nashville, or cry to her aunts and uncles. But her sons were terrified and confused. She would not lose it in front of them.

Steve McNair was buried on a Saturday in his home state of Mississippi. Brett Favre and Ray Lewis and Jay Cutler showed up for the funeral. Trent, who was 5, rested his head on his mother's lap during the service.

She tried to explain to the boys what had happened, the best she could, but Trent wanted to read about his father in the paper. He ran his finger through the print and sounded out the words he knew. He asked how somebody could do this to his daddy.

Mechelle told him she didn't know. She is a spiritual woman who thanks God every morning for waking up and for allowing the rest of her family to wake up, too. God got her through this, she says. God and her friends and family who cooked and took the kids swimming and handled everything. She is thankful for that last day McNair had with the boys and for that night when they argued and made up.

"At the end of the day, that's my husband," she says. "I loved him. I still love him. He was human. He made a mistake. Nothing's going to change how I feel about my husband. He took care of us. He loved us. I do know that. Regardless of how he left here, I know he loved us.

"I can't say that I didn't have my bitter moments. And that I still don't sometimes. But I'm not going to hell blaming somebody or having the hate and animosity in my heart. I'm not going to do it."

They met at Alcorn State, a historically black college in rural Claiborne County, Mississippi. The closest town, if you want to call it that, is Lorman, a community with one known claim to fame, the Old Country Store, which serves fried chicken that people drive hours for. Mechelle didn't particularly want to go to such a tiny school. She had hoped to go to Southern Miss. But she put off doing the paperwork, and Alcorn was the school that offered her a scholarship.

Freshman year, she had a human anatomy class with McNair, and he spent most of it staring at her. She made faces at him to try to get him to stop. He was quiet until you knew him, and he waited a while to talk to her. The fact that he was the quarterback everyone on campus was talking about held no currency with Mechelle. She wasn't into sports, and she already had a boyfriend.

But McNair was persistent. He sat behind her in class and constantly flirted. He did annoying things, peeking at her test answers, sticking his giant feet on her book bag. Eventually, he grew on her. To Mechelle, he was sort of a gentle giant, romantic enough to hide an engagement ring in a piece of strawberry cake, country enough to skin a deer and cook it up for his teammates.

Before she met McNair, Mechelle never thought she would get married. She had plans. She wanted to be a doctor and wanted one child, but she didn't think much about a partner. She never imagined she'd leave Mississippi after college to move to Houston with a man who had just been selected at No. 3 in the NFL draft. But plans change. They got married in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1997, and a year later, Tyler came along.

Although she didn't grow up playing sports, Mechelle quickly acclimated herself to the life of a football wife. Ex-linemen tell stories about how she used to sit in the stands and yell at them to protect her husband. She had plenty to cheer about by the time the franchise moved to Tennessee in 1997. McNair threw for 3,228 yards and 15 touchdowns in '98, and he led the Titans to the Super Bowl a year later.

He was known as one of the toughest men in football, playing through myriad injuries.

"He would just come home and be, like, dead," Tyler says. "He didn't want to do anything. He didn't want to watch TV, didn't want to eat anything. He'd say, 'I just need some rest.'"

There were good times, too. Times when the family would pair up in teams and wrestle, Mechelle and Tyler on one side; Trent and Steve on the other. Times when McNair would take the boys out on his motorcycle and they didn't even need to talk.

"Steve was a good person," Mechelle's mother says. "He was a good dad. There wasn't anything those children wanted that he didn't get for them."

Though McNair was an NFL quarterback, he never wanted to force football or sports on his children. He told them to find something they loved and to do it well. Courtesy Mechelle McNair

He was 36 when he died, and he had just opened Gridiron9, a catfish-and-burger joint in north Nashville. In his last days, McNair seemed overwhelmed at times, almost as if he was at a crossroads, Mechelle says. He was still trying to figure out his world outside of football.

He split time between his home in Nashville and his farm in Collins, Mississippi. He felt comfortable in the country, near his siblings and his mother, Lucille. (McNair also has two older sons from previous relationships.) The transition from football player to businessman was not smooth. The last full conversation he had with Mechelle centered on the restaurant's nightly receipts constantly being off and her desire to help. She was so happy at the end of their talk, when he said she could attend the next employee meeting. McNair had dreams of his restaurant becoming a chain. A few months after his death, the restaurant was sold.

He did not have a will, creating a painful mess that dragged on for years. In 2011, a legal spat between Mechelle and Lucille over property in Mississippi played out in the local news media. Mechelle had always considered herself a private person. But after Steve's death, the most intimate details of her life were fodder for public consumption. Conspiracy theorists flooded the internet and airwaves. A "True Crimes with Aphrodite Jones" episode filmed in 2013 even pointed suspicion at her. (She was never a suspect). That same show aired as a rerun last week, on the night of the Super Bowl.

Aside from kid functions and dinners out, she lived the life of a homebody. She had one job: to raise their sons.

When a parent dies young and leaves behind children, people make promises. Mechelle could handle algebra and first crushes, but sometimes, a boy needs a male figure in his life. There were many people at McNair's funeral who vowed to be there for Tyler and Trent. A handful of them delivered.

Former Titans Chris Johnson and Vince Young took the boys to the locker room, just as their dad had done. Ex-Tennessee tight end Bo Scaife filled Tyler's closet with sneakers.

Then there was Mike Mu, a longtime family friend who used to run McNair's foundation. Mu was the one who took them to father-son breakfasts and NBA games. Sometimes on the Fourth of July, he picked up the kids and bought fireworks and did anything that took their minds off the anniversary.

The boys call Mu "Uncle Mike." Every season, Mechelle sends Trent's basketball schedule to Mu and to Zach Piller.

Piller, a former guard for the Titans, was one of McNair's pallbearers. Nine years later, it's still hard for him to talk about McNair. Offensive linemen spend their careers protecting the quarterback, and Piller couldn't. But he could be there for McNair's boys. Piller downplays his involvement. He says that McNair would do the same thing for him, and that what he does isn't much. Tyler disagrees.

"He was the first person to come," Tyler says. "He was the first one saying how proud he was of me and how proud my dad would be."

McNair was known as one of the toughest players in the NFL. His good friend Zach Piller, right, protected him on the field and served as one of his pallbearers. George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Mechelle appreciates the little things, such as the neighbor who used to replace the boys' basketball net whenever it looked worn, or the random texts Piller sends to the boys to ask how it's going.

Sports was always one of the tougher areas for Mechelle to navigate. She never played. When McNair was alive, if one of the boys was struggling with a batting stance or a shot, he could go outside, spend 30 minutes with him and get it figured out. "I know he's in his head," Steve would tell Mechelle. "I know what he's thinking. I've been there."

The pressure to be Steve McNair's son weighs heavily. The boys are constantly chasing a ghost, a man who, in death, is still the biggest sports legend in Nashville.

In the winter of 2016, Tyler was one of the best basketball players at Brentwood Academy, a Christian school with a powerhouse basketball program. He was a tenacious defender who helped his team win two state championships. There was one problem: His heart wasn't in it anymore, and he wanted to dance instead. Dance was his release, a way of working through his emotions. He tried to do both at first, but soon it was too much.

He felt pressure from fans, students and coaches to stay on the basketball team. At first, Mechelle thought he should stick it out. She knew how much potential he had.

But when she saw how committed Tyler was to dance, she told him to do what makes him happy. Tyler believes it's the same thing his dad would have said. He never forced his sons to play sports. He told them to find something they loved and do it well.

"Honestly, the most I've ever felt like a child is this year," Tyler says. "I'm finally doing something I love, and I was happy year-round. I got to dance all the time, I got to travel, and I got into the college I wanted to. It's the most I've felt like a regular person, like nothing has happened."

Piller went to one of Trent's basketball games recently, and the younger McNair didn't disappoint. According to Piller, Trent hit five 3-pointers. Piller likes to mess with Trent sometimes and tells him he could probably jump higher if he'd cut his long hair.

Trent will put his hands on his hips and walk to the bench, and it reminds Piller of Steve heading to the huddle. He sees flashes of his friend, and it helps him stay close to him. Trent is headstrong and stubborn and has a bit of a temper. Mechelle sits in the stands and yells at him to "keep your face straight." She thinks he shows his emotions too much.

"She's very vocal," Trent says. "Most of the time I really don't hear it that much, but when I do, it's a little bit embarrassing. I'm used to it by now. If I'm playing football and I hear her, I kind of just ignore it. But if I'm playing basketball, I kind of look up there and tell her to sshhhhh."

Trent shows flashes of great talent at quarterback, but he won't play the position. He doesn't believe anyone can play quarterback as well as his father did, so why even try?

As they enter new stages of their lives, they wonder what their father would think. Tyler graduated from Brentwood in the spring. He pictured his dad sitting in a pew, his leg sticking out in the aisle because the seat was too small for his giant body. He could see McNair smiling and telling his boy, "Good job, Buddy."

Tyler, right, and Trent served as honorary 12th Titans in a November game against the Baltimore Ravens. Wade Payne/AP Photo

On a recent winter afternoon, Mechelle is sitting in the dining room of their house in the hills of Nashville, waiting to pick Trent up from school. Christmas break is over, and the house is quiet.

Tyler came home for about a month, but he wasn't really there. He was catching up with friends and hanging out at Waffle House at 2 in the morning. That drove Mechelle nuts, the waking up in the middle of the night. She always worried where he was.

When he's at school, he FaceTimes with her at least once a day, so it's almost as if she sees him more when he's in New York. When he headed back east after winter break, Trent refused to go to the airport because he didn't want to cry. The boys are so close that Trent sleeps in Tyler's bed when he's at college. It's his way of being around his brother still. He pushed an air mattress beside Tyler's bed when his brother was home and slept there.

Mechelle is asked whether she thinks they'd be this close had McNair lived.

"Nope," she says. "I think that [Trent] would be attached to his dad."

Everyone changed. Tyler, who is majoring in biology at NYU while continuing to pursue his dancing dreams, forged a path so different from his father's. Mechelle found strength and independence she never thought she had.

In 2013, she sold their 13,000-square-foot house and moved to a smaller home. The house actually had been on the market before McNair died, but then the housing crisis hit, and it bounced on and off the listings for four years. Pat Boone, a singer from the 1950s, eventually bought the home.

The old home had too many memories. Mechelle says she could hear Steve's footsteps in the house sometimes. She and her sons settled into a house surrounded by trees and the occasional deer that plops down in the middle of the yard. She keeps McNair's football memorabilia in the basement, where Trent dribbles his basketball and Tyler practices his dance moves.

Time, if you handle it right, has a way of filtering out the bad memories but leaving the good. This past summer, Mechelle and her sons visited Lucille in Mississippi. It had been a long time since they'd been there. Tyler and Trent immediately flipped into kid mode, running around with their cousins, sprawling out on sleeping bags at bedtime, swearing they'd stay up all night. It was just like 2009. Before everything changed.

"I think it was important for [Lucille] because you see a part of your son you lost," Mechelle says. "I can deal with not having Steve here a lot more because I see him still every day in his boys."

Mechelle knows life will change again soon, when Trent gets his driver's license. He will want to spend more time with his friends, not his mom. Eventually, there will be more goodbyes.

She doesn't want to be a hindrance to him. She never worried about that with Tyler, but for some reason, she thinks about it now that it's just her and Trent.

"I don't want him to look at me and say, 'Oh, my mom is just kind of relaxed,'" she says. "I don't think he's doing that, but I want him to see me doing something where he feels like he has a drive."

She thinks about the next chapter in her life. She received her degree in nursing years ago. Maybe she could do that. She has thought about becoming a foster parent. She loves taking care of people.

"I don't want to be alone," she says. "When I think about it, I don't want to be old and not have anybody to spend my last days with. Right now, my mom's here with me, but like when Trent's gone off to school and meets somebody, and then my mom, who knows how long -- I'm not saying who's going to go before who because that's not necessarily true -- but she's older.

"I mean, I'm here by myself. I don't want to be here by myself. I don't. And I don't feel like that's how God wants us to be."

She is dating someone, but meeting people has been a struggle. She doesn't want to go through any more pain. She says she protects her heart and her kids. Sometimes, when she's rushing to a game or going to Bible study, it hits her -- the absence of tears and drama, the return to normal. Their normal.

"[People] always say, 'Oh, I admire you so much. You're so strong,'" Mechelle says. "That word will always get to me. When people say that to me, I'm always like, 'Where are they getting this from?' I feel like I'm the weakest person sometimes. Because I hurt like everybody else.

"I feel like I'm just living. I'm just pushing forward. I can't wallow in it. I've gotta keep going."

E:60's John Minton III and Ryan Smith contributed to this report.

Elizabeth MerrillMerrill is a senior writer for ESPN.

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