In the middle of the locker room at the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice facility is a poster that is at once simple yet profound. Positioned directly above the coaches’ whiteboard, where it can be seen by everyone, it conveys the essence of a sport in which teamwork trumps talent, and where each individual is reliant on those around him to succeed. “Together is powerful,” it reads.
Those words feel more poignant than ever this week, as the Chiefs come to terms with a tragedy of horrific proportions. On Saturday morning, starting linebacker Jovan Belcher shot dead Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his three-month-old daughter, at their shared family home. He then drove to the Chiefs’ practice facility, where he proceeded to take his own life in front of head coach Romeo Crennel, general manager Scott Pioli and other team employees.
Belcher’s actions made international headlines, as did the decision to press ahead with the team’s game against the Carolina Panthers just a day later. This had not been a league-mandated move but instead one taken in conjunction with the Chiefs. Team owner Clark Hunt said the players had been unanimous in their desire to play the game as scheduled.
For most of the world, that was where the story ended. A debate about gun control was briefly sparked when the TV anchor Bob Costas quoted a piece by the Fox Sports Midwest writer Jason Whitlock during half-time of NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast. In it, Whitlock stated his belief that both Belcher and Perkins would still be alive if the player had not owned a gun.
Otherwise, the story faded quickly into the background even for most of the Chiefs’ home state. On the far side of Missouri, in St Louis, not one reporter broached the subject with Rams head coach Jeff Fisher at his Monday press conference. By Wednesday there was no mention of Belcher on the front page of the city’s leading newspaper, the St Louis Post-Dispatch.
In Kansas City itself, though, the picture was very different. Each day brought fresh revelations, with harrowing reports of both Belcher and Perkins’s final hours as well as violent incidents from the player’s past. Police released an audio recording of a 911 call made by Belcher’s mother – who had been visiting the couple – in the moments after Perkins was shot.
It was against that backdrop that the Chiefs returned to practice on Wednesday, knowing this could not be business as usual. “I don’t think things will ever be back to normal,” said the quarterback Brady Quinn. “There’s lives that are affected that will be for a long time. A lot of players will be thinking about it. We’ve lost a friend, a team-mate, a family member.”
A visual reminder of that fact confronts the Chiefs’ players every day at practice – with Belcher’s locker having thus far been left untouched by the team. At Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday the player’s equipment was laid out intentionally and precisely by staff, making for a powerful, and controversial, image in the otherwise chaotic environment of a post-game locker room.
By contrast, Belcher’s locker at the practice facility has simply been left as the player himself had arranged it – with used boots stacked untidily on the lower shelves and his personal effects jammed into overflowing compartments. Feelings about whether or not it should be cleared vary from player to player.
“It is difficult,” said the defensive end Glenn Dorsey. “I’m kind of torn about it. I can understand why it’s still the way it is, and I know at some point you’ve got to move on. I know this type of business that we’re in you’ve got to basically try to put it behind you because the football keeps on going.”
Some players have confessed to not even being able to look at the locker when they enter the room, but for Dorsey that is not an option. For the last four years – ever since Belcher was signed by the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2009 – he has occupied a locker immediately adjacent to the linebacker’s. Suiting up next to Belcher was part of his daily routine.
“He was the first person I’d see when I get here, and the last person every day,” said Dorsey. “He was a playful guy, we’d be joking around all day. We wrestled sometimes. He used to wrestle when he was younger and he would try to show me his wrestling moves.”
Knowing how to remember Belcher has been an enormous challenge for the Chiefs. The team barred players from wearing commemorative patches or stickers during their game against the Panthers and instead held a moment’s silence for all victims of domestic abuse. Nevertheless, many observers were angered by the preservation of his locker –perceived as an inappropriate tribute.
But the players themselves have struggled to reconcile the image of Belcher the murderer with the team-mate and friend that they had known. Many confessed to having avoided newspapers and TV since Saturday. As Belcher’s replacement in the starting line-up, Brandon Siler, put it: “We didn’t know the guy who made those last few decisions.”
After practice on Wednesday, the team travelled together to a memorial service for Belcher. The Chiefs will also be represented at a separate service for Perkins. “I hope it will bring peace to a lot of people, not just people on this team,” said Quinn. “I hope it sends out a message that people need to value the relationships, the people they come into contact with on a day-to-day basis.
It was a similar message to that which Quinn had expressed on Sunday, after leading the Chiefs to victory over Carolina. “When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it?” he had said. “When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?
“We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that's fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis."
If togetherness was important on the field, in other words, then it was even more vital off it. Crennel, Pioli and all other staff who saw Belcher take his own life will all be provided with mandatory counselling by the NFL, while others affected by the events will be encouraged to partake in similar sessions. But a number of players also joined Quinn in stressing the importance of creating support networks for one another.
The person whose life was most drastically altered by Saturday’s events, however, does not have team-mates to lean on. It will be several years before Belcher and Perkins’s daughter, Zoey, can even be told what has taken place. Under the terms of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, she will reportedly receive more than $1m in staggered support payments. Even that sum could never make up for what she has lost.
In the news …
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