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When Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher jogs out of the tunnel and heads to the visitors' sideline at Heinz Field before Thursday night's NFL regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a barrage of boos will greet him, and he'll be momentarily overwhelmed by a flood of emotions.
Though Fisher, 51, will be coaching his 242nd consecutive game for the Titans – by far the longest current streak in his tenuous profession – he'll be anxious about this early test against the defending Super Bowl champions. The former Chicago Bears safety will also feel euphoric, experiencing the high that comes before a physically charged clash. He'll carry a streak of unspoken swagger, too, channeling the pride that comes from a fervent faith in his football team.
At some point, if only for a fleeting instant, the grief will come rushing to the surface. Silently, as he has so many times over the past two months, Fisher will say a prayer for Steve McNair(notes).
"The guy was like a friggin' son to me," Fisher says of his former quarterback. "I still can't believe he's gone."
McNair, 36, was killed July 4 in a downtown Nashville condominium in what police ruled a murder-suicide: Sahel Kazemi, a 20-year-old woman with whom McNair was having an affair, shot the player as he slept on a couch and then took her own life.
In the aftermath, Fisher attempted to help shift the public focus from the tragedy's sordid details to the legacy that McNair left as a teammate, citizen and father. "The bottom line is, you want to dwell on the 'why,' but you can't," he says. "You have to just celebrate his life and celebrate him as you knew him."
Fisher also reached out to McNair's wife, Mechelle, and the couple's two sons with whom she lives in the Nashville area: Tyler, 11, and Trent, six. (Steve McNair has two older sons from previous relationships.) The coach picked up the younger boys and brought them to the Titans' training camp on several occasions, and they were on the field before the team's first home preseason game in August.
Others who grew close to McNair during his 11 seasons with the team, including former halfback Eddie George and current linebacker Keith Bulluck(notes), are also determined to stay involved in Tyler and Trent's lives.
George and his family arrived at the McNair family home to comfort Mechelle and her children within hours after learning of Steve's death. "They're going to grow up with their father's spirit," George says of McNair's sons.
"We keep them close to us," Bulluck says. "I know I'll do the best I can to reach out to them. Whenever I can help, I'll definitely be there. I know how much Mac loved those kids. A lot of us will be looking after them."
Fisher promised himself he'd do whatever it takes to support the boys, be it emotionally or financially, during a long, somber flight home from Kuwait shortly after he learned of McNair's death. Fisher had been in the Persian Gulf with four other current and former NFL coaches on the inaugural NFL-USO Tour, a transformative experience that included visits with U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait.
For Fisher, the trip's highlights included late-night storytelling sessions with Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, Tom Coughlin and John Harbaugh as they bunked together in a single room inside one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces in Baghdad. He also snuck down to one of the many ponds the former Iraqi leader had commissioned outside the palace, spliced together some old, rusty parts to form a functional fishing rod and, using cut-up hot dogs as bait, impressed a patrolling officer by catching a 10-pound catfish.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, Fisher and his fellow coaches sat in the second row of a ceremony in Baghdad at which 257 servicemen and servicewomen from all over the world were sworn in as U.S. citizens. "It was an incredible experience," he recalls. "Everybody was crying."
Soon Fisher was crying, too. Scheduled to return on the 4th, the coaches were delayed by a sandstorm in Baghdad and, upon arriving in Kuwait via military aircraft that night, narrowly missed their connection to New York. Sitting on the tarmac waiting for a driver to take them back to the terminal, Fisher heard his cell phone ring.
George, a member of the franchise (formerly the Houston Oilers) from 1996-2003, was on the other line.
"Is it true?" George asked.
"Is what true?" Fisher replied.
Fisher's stomach dropped as George delivered the horrible news, and the next 24 hours were a grief-stricken blur. The next flight wasn't until morning, and Fisher, confined to his room at a nearby Ramada Inn for security reasons, didn't have cell phone or satellite phone service. He slept about an hour before boarding a 13-hour flight home on Kuwait Air, where he thought about McNair's impact on his life and the experiences they'd shared.
Of all the players Fisher has coached over the past 15 years, McNair was the one to whom he was the most attached. After the Oilers drafted "Air McNair" in 1995, Fisher slowly nurtured the raw passer, helped develop the former Alcorn State quarterback into a consummate pro and grew to trust him as an extension of his authority.
The coach marveled at the player's toughness, paid him many a postgame hospital visit and decided there was no one he'd rather have take his team into battle. Fisher and McNair nearly won a Super Bowl together, and the quarterback shared the 2003 MVP award with the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning(notes).
"The relationship between Steve and Jeff was so special," says George. "We were like his kids. He really cared for us as football players, but also as young men. He cared about our families. That's the kind of human being Jeff Fisher is.
"As a player, Steve inspired you. You'd see him getting drilled in the ribs, to the point where he could barely breathe. Most quarterbacks would walk off the field and never come back; Steve embraced the pain, and it inspired us to the point where we couldn't be hurt, either. There was a toughness that permeated through the entire team."
Even after the awkward end to McNair's career in Tennessee – he was locked out of the facility during the '06 offseason as the team put him on the trading block and eventually dealt him to the Baltimore Ravens, where he enjoyed a renaissance in leading them to an AFC North title that season – the coach and quarterback remained close.
Two weeks before McNair died, he attended Fisher's charity softball game in Nashville. "He played shortstop like he was 18 again," Fisher recalls. "Afterward we were having a beer in the dugout and we started talking about things, and he told me he was interested in looking into the coaching thing. We talked about him coming to training camp with us. It would have been great."
– Jeff Fisher on Steve McNair
McNair was already a mentor to Titans backup quarterback Vince Young(notes). Long before the Titans made Young the third overall pick in the '06 draft – essentially selecting him as McNair's replacement – the veteran had provided guidance to the promising player. McNair provided tutelage from the time Young attended football camps as a teenager to recent years in which Young attempted, as McNair once had, to develop into a pro-style passer.
"Steve's death was hard on [Young]," Fisher says. "Steve had been in his life for a long time."
During one of Tyler and Trent's visit to training camp, they found Young napping in a darkened locker room and woke him up the way kids do. "They jumped all over him," Fisher says. "He had the biggest smile. It was a great moment."
Later, Trent looked up at a wall in the hallway between the weight room and locker room and noticed a mural of McNair dropping back to pass. "Hey Tyler," he said to his big brother, "look – there's dad!"
Recalls Fisher: "At that point, Tyler lost it."
As long as Fisher is part of the organization, you can be sure the Titans will never lose that deep connection to McNair and his heirs.
It's no surprise that when they take the field on Thursday, Tennessee's players will be wearing memorial No. 9 decals on the back of their helmets. Fisher's tribute to McNair will occur on the inside, where a permanent mark resides.
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- Steve McNair
- Jeff Fisher