Mark Clayton: "I didn't want to believe it"

WESTMINSTER -- For two NFL seasons, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Mark Clayton shared a huddle and locker room with the late former Ravens quarterback Steve McNair. In the wake of McNair being killed in downtown Nashville on Saturday in a shooting death that has been ruled a homicide by law enforcement officials, Clayton is grieving the loss of his friend.

"It hit me hard at first," Clayton said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "I was definitely shocked. I didn't want to believe it was true. I can rest in the fact that he was saved and had a relationship with Jesus Christ.

"Steve fulfilled his purpose and left his fingerprints on a lot of individuals, including me. He will certainly be missed, but we understand that we will meet again. I send my deepest condolences to his family."

Rather than focus on the grisly details of McNair's demise, Clayton prefers to focus on how the former NFL Co-Most Valuable Player lived his life.

As he kicked off his four-day football camp Tuesday on the McDaniel College campus, Clayton recalled how the three-time Pro Bowl selection was quick with a smile and a laugh.

On the football field, McNair always maintained his trademark composure.

"He was very poised, very calm, even-keel all the time, on and off the field," Clayton said. "He was a fun-loving, big, old gentle giant. I always said to him that he was cornbread-fed. He was a Mississippi country boy at heart. He never changed."

McNair was shot four times, including two gunshot wounds to the head. His 20-year-old girlfriend, Sahel Kazemi, was also found dead with the handgun next to her body. It was the same handgun she had recently purchased in a private transaction, according to Nashville police.

Police haven't determined yet if it's a murder-suicide, but are reportedly leaning in that direction.

McNair, who died at the age of 36, was married to Mechelle McNair, his college sweetheart, and was the father of four sons.

The circumstances of the former Ravens and Tennessee Titans star's death and the revelations about his personal relationships have become tabloid fodder, spawning considerable national debate and some harsh criticism of McNair in some circles.

Clayton defended McNair's character, urging people to not be judgmental of a man who was extremely community-oriented. That included helping victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"The only person that can judge anybody is a person who has never messed up, a person who doesn't know what it is to fail or have a mistake," Clayton said. "If you've ever had a mistake or messed up or disappointed anybody, then you have no room to judge anybody. No room."

At his football camp, Clayton spends a lot of time counseling the youngsters about the importance of making good choices and avoiding trouble.

"All we can do is alert them because everybody is going to stumble at some point," Clayton said. "I let them know that it's not about stumbling. It's about getting back up and going on to the next thing. We all stumble."

Clayton, who said he has recuperated from a bout of plantar fasciitis that bothered him during offseason minicamps, runs a camp for players ages 7 to 18.

The camp emphasizes football skills, teamwork and self-discipline.

Clayton said he only has one rule governing the camp.

"If you're not having fun, you'll get sent home," Clayton said. "That's my only rule. I always tell them to have fun because it's football, you're young and you should really just be enjoying yourself."


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