The purple jersey with an enormous "77" emblazoned across the front was passed between tearful mourners as Korey Stringer's family and friends remembered the Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle.
From the podium, Stringer's teammate Ross Moss urged the mourners to "touch it, kiss it, wipe your tears on it."
Stringer died Wednesday from heat stroke, a victim of the relentless heat wave that enveloped the Midwest this week as well of his determination to be the best. His death provoked soul-searching among National Football League officials, who were asked whether they pushed players too hard.
Taking ‘Baby Steps’
Outside the Washburn-McReavy Chapel in Edina, Minn., a huge crowd of sobbing fans gathered to pay respects to the 27-year-old Pro Bowl player who neighbors remembered as man whose heart was as large as his frame.
At 335 pounds, the 6-foot-4 Stringer spent most of his professional playing years battling his weight problem, but in the end his girth — and the unremitting heat — got the better of him.
For his teammates still struggling to come to terms with his death, Stringer's presence loomed large during the service. "We have taken baby steps going on without you because we know you would want us to," Moss said.
The temperature Tuesday morning hit the low 90s, with humidity that made it feel like more than 100, and the Vikings worked out in full gear and pads, which experts say could have contributed to Stringer's death from heat stroke.
Tiki Barber, a halfback for the New York Giants, said pride and the determination to be a leader were also possible factors.
Stringer couldn't complete practice on Monday because of the heat, and according to team representatives on Tuesday he was determined not to quit. He practiced for two hours, vomiting several times but refusing to take himself off the field.
"I think it's a pride thing," Barber said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "You've done it for so long. You don't want to let your teammates down. These guys depend on someone, and guys like Korey Stringer want to teach the younger guys how to be a professional and fight through things like this."
Pushing for the Team
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue issued a statement expressing sadness over Stringer's death. He did not indicate that the league was considering any change to its training rules, calling team doctors "extremely knowledgeable regarding the hydration of players, fluid replacement and other methods used to prevent heat stroke."
He said, though, that the NFL would make sure that all teams review their training practices.
Vikings coach Dennis Green is known around the league as a "player's coach," rather than a strict taskmaster who pushes his players to their physical limits.
The warning signs were obviously there for Stringer, but they were not heeded. Team officials have not yet spoken about the actions of the coaching and medical staff on Tuesday, but Barber suggested there was probably little they could have done.
"We've been taught since we were children playing this sport that you've got to be tough, you've got to suck things up, you've got to keep pushing for the team," Barber said. "Oftentimes, you ignore the warnings. You look at the charts they put out for us, some of the signs of dehydration, cramping, dry mouth, headache — things like that happen every day, and you don't think it's a bigger problem until something tragic like this happens."
Pro Athlete Deaths ‘Surprisingly Rare’
There have been 18 heat-related deaths among high school and college football players since 1995, but this is the first such death among players in the NFL or AFL, according to league records. That could be because even though pro football players work out in gear that would quickly bring down a normal person under similar conditions, these athletes are better prepared for it.
"Honestly, I'm amazed it doesn't happen more often," Dr. Tim Johnson said on Good Morning America. "But in part it doesn't because they are conditioned. They typically work up to this gradually."
High temperatures put particular strains on large athletes, said Peter Lavine, a sports medicine specialist.
"The more weight they are carrying, the more they are going to have to be on top of making sure they have adequate amounts of fluids, and also not getting depleted of minerals, salts and things like that," he said.
Stringer was a seven-year veteran who had assumed a leadership role on a young team. He was respected by his teammates not just for his play, but for his sense of humor. They said he was devoted to his family and was committed to giving back to the community.
If he felt any pressure to practice hard, it likely came from within, since he would have been all but assured of a starting role.
"It's on you," Barber said. "You pride yourself on being able to fight through these things."