McNair’s affair ends in tragedy

Published 2:20 am Tuesday, July 7, 2009

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The star quarterback and the waitress met six months ago, at a restaurant where she worked and his family often ate. He was married and 16 years older, but she seemed happy and eager to build a life with him.

Steve McNair was retired from the NFL and spending time again in Nashville, where he had spent the best years of his career. Sahel Kazemi was 20 years old and swept up: He gave her an Escalade for her birthday and took her on trips to Las Vegas and Key West.

‘‘She just had it made, you know, this guy taking care of everything,’’ her nephew, Farzin Abdi, said Monday.

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They were found dead on the Fourth of July — McNair from two gunshots each to the head and chest, Kazemi from a single shot. Kazemi bought the handgun found under her body less than two days before the shooting, police said. They haven’t yet linked the weapon to the shootings.

On Monday, as the coach of the Tennessee Titans remembered McNair as the man who put the franchise on the map and police continued their investigation, more details of their relationship came to light.

Kazemi appeared confident the pair would last and had introduced her family to McNair, her nephew said. Abdi quoted her as saying McNair was divorcing his wife and that it would be finalized soon.

‘‘I think she had already put her stuff up for sale on Craigslist,’’ Abdi said.

The first sign of trouble was early Thursday morning. Police stopped Kazemi on Broadway, not far from the honky-tonks where throaty country singers belt out tales of unfaithful spouses. She was driving the Escalade SUV that McNair gave her for her birthday in May.

According to an arrest affidavit, Kazemi had bloodshot eyes and alcohol on her breath. She refused a breath test and told an officer ‘‘she was not drunk, she was high.’’ She was charged with DUI.

McNair was with her but not charged. He later made her bail.

The two then apparently spent some time apart.

According to police spokesman Don Aaron, McNair wasn’t with Kazemi when she bought the semiautomatic pistol that was found at the scene. Police have declined to release the caliber or the name of the person who sold it to her.

The next night, McNair was out late with friends, but he and Kazemi got together soon after at a downtown condo within sight of the Titans stadium, a pad McNair shared with a friend. A witness told police the quarterback arrived between 1:30 and 2 a.m. Her car was already there.

When McNair’s roommate, Wayne Neeley, got to the condo at midday, what he thought he saw was his friend sitting on the couch and Kazemi lying on the floor. So he went into the kitchen. Then he saw the blood, police said.

Officers said they found a gun under her body. There were no signs of forced entry into the condo. Police labeled McNair’s death a homicide Sunday but said they were reviewing every possibility before labeling Kazemi’s.

Mechelle McNair, his wife of 12 years and mother of two of his four sons born between 1991 and 2004, has been described by police as very distraught about his death and has not commented on it.

No court records of divorce proceedings have surfaced so far. The strongest public evidence that the McNairs might have been estranged is that their 14,000-square-foot Nashville home has been up for sale recently, listed at $3 million.

Some close to McNair — his brother Fred and his agent Bus Cook — have said they knew nothing of Kazemi before the shootings. Titans coach Jeff Fisher said Monday, ‘‘The Steve that I knew, if he were here right now, would want to say, ’Mechelle, I love you.’’’

Aaron said a solution to the case, now awaiting ballistics and gun powder residue tests, may not be as neatly resolved as people would like.

‘‘It may be we’ll never know exactly why this happened,’’ he said.

McNair, 36, retired from the NFL last year. He had earned the respect of fellow players for shaking off defenders and injuries and the love of fans amazed at how the quarterback kept showing up for work — and winning.

He was known as Air McNair because of his passing prowess and was named to four Pro Bowls in 13 NFL seasons. He shared the NFL’s MVP award with Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts in 2003. In 2000, he led the Titans to the Super Bowl, where they fell one yard short of a last-second touchdown to tie the game.

In retirement, McNair had opened a restaurant, the Gridiron9, near the Tennessee State University campus. It sells deep-fried hot dogs for $3.50, Cajun catfish sandwiches for $6.50 and Southern-style chicken strips for $6.75.

Television news footage showed McNair putting used trays away inside the eatery after dumping scraps in a trash can.

‘‘He had a sweet spirit,’’ Kimberly Hardy, a 25-year-old McNair admirer, said outside the restaurant, where mourners have been gathering and leaving flowers and writing notes on the front window.

The night before he died, McNair went alone to the Blue Moon Lagoon Restaurant where he met another couple around 10:30 p.m. and then left by himself about 1 a.m., said James Weathers, manager of the restaurant.

Weathers said McNair visited there occasionally and ‘‘was always alone, but he’d meet a group of friends.’’ The manager described McNair as always friendly, ‘‘never a big drinker,’’ gracious with constant photo-seekers.

Earlier this year, Kazemi and McNair took trips to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Key West, Fla., and Mississippi, said Abdi, the nephew. McNair had been seen at Kazemi’s Nashville apartment two to three times a week, so often neighbors wondered whether he had moved in.

‘‘They were together all the time unless he was taking his kids on vacation,’’ Abdi said.

Kazemi was born in Iran but left in 2000, fleeing religious persecution for their Baha’i faith, Abdi said. They spent 2 1/2 years in Turkey before moving to Florida. Later Kazemi dropped out of high school and, at age 17, moved with a boyfriend to Nashville, where she sometimes worked two or three jobs to support herself.

She liked not depending on anyone for money, and she told her nephew that McNair admired her independent nature.

‘‘He liked her so much because they would go shopping and stuff and she would want to spend her own money,’’ Abdi said. ‘‘The reason he said he loves her is because she’s not trying to use him like other girls. She was different from other girls he had been with.’’