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McNair's hometown comes out to mourn local legend

MOUNT OLIVE, Miss. -- The family and friends who grew up with native son Steve McNair didn't have to say goodbye to the ex-NFL quarterback by themselves Friday night. The tiny town of Mount Olive had plenty of company.

People drove in from nearby states and joined the locals parking cars and trucks on the side of the four-lane divided highway that runs beside Reeves Funeral Home. Some left cars across the highway, dodging traffic to join the line of people waiting to pay their last respects.

Frankie Delancy of nearby Harrisville worked with McNair's mother, Lucille. Delancy wasn't surprised to see the long line twisting through the funeral home parking lot, onto the paved road and out onto the shoulder of the highway.

"He was a great person. You can see the turnout here for him. If you can't tell by looking at this, I don't know," she said.

The visitation in McNair's hometown followed two days of mourning in Nashville where thousands remembered the 2003 co-MVP of the NFL who led the Tennessee Titans to the 2000 Super Bowl. A capacity crowd of 8,000 is anticipated Saturday at his funeral in Reed Green Coliseum on the University of Southern Mississippi campus in nearby Hattiesburg.

It was a far different turnout than the modest funeral for Sahel Kazemi, the 20-year-old girlfriend who shot the married McNair to death in his sleep on the Fourth of July and then shot herself in the head. Her brief funeral in Florida was closed to outsiders.

An officer helping direct traffic in and of the funeral home could not estimate the crowd. Mount Olive has 1,000 residents, and McNair's death left them stunned and distraught.

The town sign had a banner hanging underneath saying that McNair would not be forgotten.

Glenda Felder, 54, followed McNair's career since he was drafted by the then-Houston Oilers in 1995. She has his rookie card and went to Nashville and Baltimore to watch him play for the Titans and later the Ravens. She drove 6½ hours from Baytown, Texas, to pay her respects and also plans to attend the funeral.

"He was a great man despite the end. He was a great man. I can't judge him, can't judge anyone. We all make mistakes," she said.

Others at the funeral home included McNair's agent, Bus Cook, and Atlanta Falcons running back Jerious Norwood.

Mourners shared their memories of McNair's athletic accomplishments.

Mount Olive High School coach Sonny Magee has mentored nearly every athlete here in the last 35 years. Only McNair provided him a highlight reel's worth of memories. Whether he had his large hands wrapped around a football, a basketball or a bat, McNair made the kind of plays that astounded Magee.

"He'd do things you wouldn't think a person could do," said Magee, who was McNair's head basketball coach and an assistant football coach at the local high school. "Shoot, he'd be running and throw a 60-yard pass right on the money. Yes, sir."

By the time McNair left for Alcorn State in Lorman, Miss., where he set records and made a run at the Heisman Trophy, he had become the pride of Mount Olive, the kid who could make everyone smile. He seemed perfect not just for 2½ hours every fall Friday night, but every day.

"Athletics, it makes the town go in a sense, and when somebody like this makes it big everybody around here is proud of him," said Norman Johnston, an assistant football coach at the high school. "So when a person like him dies, it affects everybody. Rich, poor, black, white, it really has an effect on people because it doesn't happen every day that somebody makes it big."

Mount Olive, like a lot of the small towns in the Deep South, is football crazy. Replays of college football games were on the TV on a summer afternoon in the local pharmacy.

Life is slow here. Coke in a bottle is served from an old cooler tucked behind a marble soda counter at Powell Drugs.

Football fills the void for the kids who look up to the players and for the men who constantly handicap the high school team's chances. People look forward to fall Friday nights all year long. They talk about it, think about it, examine the roster for defects and seek out the coach to offer advice.

McNair tied the state record for interceptions and dominated conversations until his retirement after the 2007 season. He was the quintessential country boy: hardworking, polite and a pleasure to be around.

"He liked to ride horses, four-wheelers, shoot ball, swim," said Mount Olive resident Andrew Autry, who spent time in both the huddle and the saddle with McNair. "You know, that's about all you can do in the country."

He ran errands for his mother, Lucille. He grilled meat during an annual barbecue for residents and he checked on the local team, held camps and signed autographs.

He bought uniforms for the high school and gave a 647-acre farm to his mother that locals have dubbed "The Ranch."

Even Mount Olive residents who never met McNair felt they knew him. That is why the McNair family has provided buses for those who want to go to the funeral about 35 miles south of Mount Olive.

"As a whole, the town is distraught," lifelong resident Mary Barnes said. "You can just feel the silence and the mourning in the town. There's just such a silence here now."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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