The fine print in the lives of McNair and Gatti are eerily similar: McNair, an All-Pro quarterback, overcame injuries to his calf and ankle to earn NFL co-MVP honors in 2003, retired in 2007, was murdered at the age of 36. Gatti, a champion boxer, fought nearly one-handed for several rounds yet still won an epic match in 2003, retired in 2007, was murdered at the age of 37.
Perhaps these two cases are a rare convergence of athletic celebrities meeting untimely, horrific endings in the same month. Perhaps they may eventually lead to a broader discussion about domestic violence and the increasing rate of female perpetrators. Perhaps Kazemi and Rodrigues have nothing in common but good looks and the love of a sports star.
But I do know one thing. After reporting and writing about athletes for two decades, one of the saddest trends (if you can call it that) I've witnessed is the expanding parade of young girls who wrap their hopes and dreams around snagging a man. And not just any man. A man who can bat .300, catch a spiral in traffic, notch the winning goal, score the knockout, drive through the paint ... I'd continue, but the sports dialect is long, and for every play in every game, bout, event or match, there seems to be a female willing to compromise her self-worth.
From all accounts, Kazemi, the 20-year-old who killed McNair on July 4 and then committed suicide, wasn't the typical sports groupie. She wasn't born into the American dream, but once she discovered its allure, she dove in headfirst. In interviews with her friends and family across the last few days, I asked about her aspirations, her goals. She was still a teenager when she met McNair and, according to Kazemi's relatives, already she had lost both her parents (her mother was murdered when Sahel was 9, during a robbery), moved with relatives from Iran (fleeing religious persecution for their Baha'i faith) to Turkey to Florida, dropped out of high school and relocated at age 16 with a boyfriend to Nashville.
Call her descent madness, a slice of evil. But there must have been a time when Kazemi had dreams that went beyond hanging off the arm of a famous athlete. As a child did she hope to be a doctor, a teacher, a mother?Some say circumstances forced her to jump hurriedly from childhood into adulthood; others paint her as a naïve soul forever looking for someone to take care of her.
"She had to grow up fast," says Farzin Abdi, Kazemi's nephew. "She was always working two or three jobs at a time, when all the other teenagers were out having fun. But then she met Steve and it was like, finally maybe she can relax and let him handle everything. Then she was like a little girl again, always happy."
Kazemi, known as Jenny, didn't have much of a sports background, but from the moment she met McNair at Dave & Busters, a restaurant where she was a waitress, she understood he had wealth and fame. Phone numbers were exchanged, and soon Kazemi and McNair were whizzing around Nashville in his Bentley. He helped her move into a new apartment, gave her lavish gifts, took her on exotic vacations.
"Hawaii, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Key West, his farm in Mississippi," says Sepideh Salmani, counting off the locales her aunt visited with McNair. "She'd show us the pictures and tell us what a great time they had. She didn't mind when people recognized him because she didn't have anything to hide.
"She liked being with someone famous. She really wanted to be famous herself. She told us he was getting a divorce ... and when that happened, they'd get married."
No divorce papers were ever filed between McNair and Mechelle, his wife of 12 years; she reportedly did not know about the affair.
Kazemi called McNair "my daddy." Who was that hauling expensive furniture into her new pad? "My daddy," she'd say, proudly. Shortly before she turned 20 in May, McNair made the down payment on a 2007 Cadillac Escalade, which Kazemi described to friends as a "a birthday gift from my daddy." Kazemi was behind the wheel of that black Escalade July 2, when police stopped her for allegedly driving under the influence. In the arrest affidavit, Kazemi tells police "she was not drunk, she was high," while in a video, McNair is seen getting out of the passenger side. He hailed a cab and later posted Kazemi's bail.
A few hours later, on the same day she was jailed after being stopped on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, the barely-out-of-her-teens waitress who had no record bought a 9mm semiautomatic pistol from a man in the parking lot near the restaurant where she worked. She paid him $100.
On July 4, in a Nashville condo McNair rented, he was found shot, execution style, with his young girlfriend of eight months slumped dead nearby. Police say Kazemi shot him in the right temple, then twice in the chest, then another time in the left temple before positioning herself so she'd fall in his lap and shooting herself in the right temple. Five shell casings found beneath her body matched the weapon Kazemi purchased two days earlier. Investigators say Kazemi was distraught over money problems, and a growing suspicion she wasn't McNair's only mistress.
Call her descent madness, a slice of evil. But there must have been a time when Kazemi had dreams that went beyond hanging off the arm of a famous athlete. As a child did she hope to be a doctor, a teacher, a mother? Did she ever want to raise children of her own, maybe teach them that self-worth is brighter than the shadow of the man by their side? Her friends and family, distraught and confused, don't really seem to know; all she talked about was McNair, and the future they supposedly planned together.
This is in no way excusing McNair for the destruction he left behind. He made choices that will forever haunt his wife and four boys. But if this tragedy is meant to serve as a reminder to athletes (and musicians, actors, and anybody with fat wallets and fleeting fame) of the risks that infidelity might bring, shouldn't we also draw young girls into the conversation?
If there are male athletes who treat women as chattel, there are equal amounts of women who act as willing participants. The dance can be traced to Maximus' bedsheets, but the hop from dreamer to predator seems swifter than ever. Too many young girls consider bedding a top athlete a noble achievement.
"It also seems to be related, in some cases, to socioeconomics -- girls from privileged cultures or backgrounds aren't looking to secure themselves with other athletes' money -- they have had the resources provided them to be (or at least dream of being) athletes themselves and to make their own fortunes," Carrie Donahue, a clinical social worker who specializes in adolescent and early adult development and has a private therapy practice in Rye, N.Y., writes in an e-mail.
"When we are talking about young women with far fewer financial resources, their dreams/realities are just so much more limited on a societal level, and so they are grabbing on to the coattails of whomever they can find to lift them out of poverty, depression, complex family dynamics, etc. Of course, there are many athletes in relationships based on mutual respect and a deep sense of connection with their partners, but we can't ignore the realities of a culture that rewards (mostly male) athletes with large amounts of wealth, fame and prestige and at the same time still misses the mark in terms of nurturing young women in the way that we should."
In the days to come, the marriage between Gatti and Rodrigues will be dissected as closely as McNair and Kazemi's affair. Rodrigues was a former exotic dancer from an impoverished background, and the mother of their 1-year-old son. Depending on who is talking, Gatti and Rodrigues either met when she was working the pole at a New Jersey strip club, or when she was studying international relations at a New Jersey college.
Carl Moretti, a promoter of many of Gatti's fights, tells reporters the former junior-welterweight champ spent too much time in strip clubs, picking up the wrong women. Flavia Rodrigues, Amanda's sister, tells reporters her sibling is very religious, incapable of killing anyone. Amanda found her husband already dead, says Flavia, and thought maybe Gatti had committed suicide.
Gatti and Rodrigues seemingly had a passionate, volatile connection. "Among friends who knew him, no one felt that this was a good relationship," Moretti is quoted as saying. "The relationship was not based on love. It could get violent at times." He tells the story, heard second-hand, of Rodrigues throwing a lamp at Gatti on a recent trip to Montreal. The couple reportedly fought in a bar Friday night; Rodrigues told police a drunken Gatti hit her and pushed her to the floor. In pictures of her arrest, she has a bruise on her chin.
"Sure, they had fights," Flavia says. "But he was crazy about her."
"They were always fighting," Moretti says. "It never stopped. But clearly, you didn't think that it would lead to this."
How could this whisper of a woman strangle such a buff, tough boxer? With her purse strap, no less? The mysteries surrounding Gatti's death are curious and complex. We thought the same about McNair's murder, and then it was revealed he was killed by a deeply troubled young woman -- a young woman whose self-worth apparently was caught in the reflection of the rich and well-known athlete everyone seemed to adore.
Kazemi, aka Jenny, was laid to rest last Friday in Jacksonville, Fla., with some 30 friends and family in attendance. In death, she is famous. In her short life, she either wasn't taught or didn't know how to dream really big.