Players for the Chiefs and Panthers gathered at mid-field after Sunday’s game and joined in prayer for their football comrade Jovan Belcher
From Arrowhead Stadium
For Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, the nightmare came when he woke up Sunday morning and realized it had not been a bad dream, that one of his best friends Jovan Belcher was dead. “It was an emotional drive to the stadium,” Johnson said.
For Brady Quinn the realization of what had happened came when he walked into the Chiefs locker room before the game against the Carolina Panthers and saw Belcher’s uniform, pads, helmet and spikes sitting in his locker, waiting for him to come in and start getting dressed for the game. “I kind of lost it there for a couple moments,” the Chiefs quarterback said.
For Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel, the realization of what had happened just 24 hours before was burned in his memory because he had witnessed the moment when Belcher took his life with the same handgun that he’d used just moments before to shoot and kill his girl friend.
“You have to rely on each other, rely on your family and friends and rely on your faith, that’s what our team did today,” said Crennel. “We were able to do that and work our way through the tragedy, knowing that it’s not over today; it still goes on tomorrow, the next day and the next day.
“Life is going to go on as well, and we have to work through it.”
Crennel said he was not going to talk about what he saw Saturday morning, just steps from the locker room the Chiefs use on a daily basis. Moments after he had killed his girl friend Kasandra Perkins in the house they shared just east of the Truman Sports Complex, Belcher drove into the players’ parking lot at the Chiefs offices and workout facility. Alerted by the police just moments before, Crennel, general manager Scott Pioli and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs were in the parking lot to speak with him. A fourth-year linebacker from the University of Maine he made the 2009 team and after one season, he rose to the level of starter and would have been on the field with the team’s base defense against Carolina.
After thanking his coaches and GM for the opportunity, he pulled the trigger and died there, just as police were showing up at the scene.
From that moment on, Crennel has kept a lot of his thoughts to himself. He knew immediately he had a job to do on Saturday and then Sunday for the game and there wasn’t going to be time for tears.
“I’m pretty much even keeled and I felt like I would be able to handle it,” Crennel said of his emotions. “I knew I needed to be strong for the players in that locker room and they needed someone to lead them.”
And that’s just what he did through meetings Saturday night at the team’s hotel and then Sunday morning as the team got ready for facing the Panthers. It began when Crennel polled his captains about whether they wanted to play Sunday’s game as scheduled. The NFL office had told the Chiefs they would go forward with whatever decision the team made.
Crennel thought it important to play the game and his captains agreed.
“We are football players and we are football coaches; that’s what we do, we play and coach on Sunday,” Crennel said. “That’s why I wanted to play the game after talking to the captains. It takes our mind off our misery for a few hours. It helped us do that.”
The Saturday night meeting was another chance to help the team deal with the tragedy and the head coach’s calm demeanor and soothing words had an effect on many of his young players that did not know what to do or how to handle their grief.
“It was the leadership that Romeo showed and the coaching staff, Scott Pioli, what they showed us last night and before the game was what showed us how we needed to handle this situation,” said tight end Tony Moeaki. “Having that example was reassuring.”
OLB Andy Studebaker agreed.
“You couldn’t ask for a better way to lead the whole deal,” Studebaker said. “He provided us with a ton of perspective. We’ve been leaning on each other, embracing every moment that we have together. He provided great leadership in the circumstances we had yesterday. I don’t think you could ask him to handle it any better.”
On Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium there were no outward signs that anything was different about this football game-day. The players wore no memorial for Belcher on their helmets and uniforms, although several players had words and messages written on the tape on their wrists or shoes. In pre-game ceremonies, a moment of silence was held for all the victims of domestic violence.
The pre-game moments were an important part of the day’s equation according to QB Matt Cassel.
“We knew that when we walked out on that field that the Carolina Panthers were going to try and come hit us in the mouth,” said Cassel. “If we weren’t ready to do that and our minds weren’t right, then they would run us right out of the stadium.”
Once the game started, it provided the escape the players needed.
“It’s only a few hours, but it helped,” said safety Eric Berry. “We’ve got a long time to mourn Jovan and the fact that he’s now gone from our family. All we can do is help the ones left behind.”
Belcher and Perkins were the parents of a three-month old daughter Zoey, who was in the home when the shooting occurred. She was uninjured, but now faces the future without her mother and father. Quinn said the players would set up a fund for Zoey’s future, to make sure she’s well taken care of.
“We make sure to take care of our own, so we want to try to put together a fund and we just want her to understand she’s part of a family,” said Quinn. “At some point in her life she’s going to have some questions about what happened and try to find some peace with it,” said Quinn.
The tough part comes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and each day after, when Belcher is not there in the locker room, or in the meeting room. It’s a pain that will continue for some time.
“I sat next to him in our (linebackers) room and he was the best teammate you could ever have,” said LB Brandon Siler, who took his place in the starting lineup. “He was a big help to me in the time I’ve been here. I’ll miss that. It will hurt.”