Chiefs find strength to work through Jovan Belcher tragedy
- By Jeff Darlington
- Reporter, NFL.com and NFL Network
- Published: Dec. 3, 2012 at 10:28 a.m
"Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."
In a room full of men left without answers, less than 28 hours after finding out Jovan Belcher had ended two lives, including his own, Kansas City Chiefs running back Peyton Hillis stood before his armored co-workers with an emotional pregame message.
He cited this bible verse, Ephesians 6:10-20, which he'd also written on a T-shirt to be worn underneath his pads during Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers, urging the players in a crowded locker room to take strength in this moment, to stand side by side for one another.
This was among the roughest of days for a team, not only because of the senseless and horrific actions of a friend one morning earlier, nor because these men would now literally don the armor of their craft to play what some outsiders believe is nothing more than a game, but because these are the days when life's depths are explored.
"It was a powerful moment," quarterback Brady Quinn said during a phone conversation Sunday night. "We needed something to bring us together, and Peyton's speech before the game did it. He talked about how this whole situation brought him closer to his faith, how it made him think about life and what we're here for.
"He hoped we'd play for each brother next to us, because we're family."
On Saturday, Belcher, a defensive leader for the Chiefs, killed his girlfriend. He killed himself. He left a daughter without her parents and two families without their loved ones. And -- although this was somehow so seemingly insignificant, given all of the rest -- he left a group of grown men reeling with shock and grief.
"Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace."
As he drove toward the Chiefs' facility Saturday morning for a team meeting, Quinn got a call from a teammate asking what would soon become the simplest of questions in a day crowded with wonder: What happened?
"(The teammate) said he couldn't get into the facility -- that there were cop cars everywhere at the stadium," Quinn said. "Once we all got assembled, Coach (Romeo) Crennel told us the situation. We got together and prayed as a team. Eventually, the meeting broke and we went our separate ways for the day, until later that night."
Quinn, the team's starting quarterback, said there was never any sense, as the meeting ended, that Sunday's game would be cancelled or postponed. Many players felt that without football, they would spend the hours they would have spent playing sitting idle and alone instead, soaked in their own thoughts. Grieving together felt better -- even if Quinn later noted that playing the game was "mentally draining."
"We had to pull together, use the brotherhood that we have," wide receiver Dexter McCluster said. "We see each other every day. We see the coaches every day. We have to lean on each other and hold each other up. And I think we did a good job of that."
Whether the game should have been played or not is perhaps still a discussion worth having, if only for the sake of setting precedence in the case of, God forbid, any future tragedy. Regardless of the answer, the Chiefs did play through this. And although it was unimportant, they won the game.
"I don't have a blueprint, and I don't think anybody else does," tackle Eric Winston said. "For the guys that need help, I hope they get it. I think we're all going to need some help at some point. But this is what we do, and I don't know if it's right or wrong, but being out there helps me."
"In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."
Quinn's memories of Belcher paint a picture far different from the one the world has now been left to digest. He recalls an ideal leader, a player who stretched across from him during every practice, with whom he jokingly exchanged trash talk on a daily basis in training camp.
So on Sunday, when Quinn sat at his own locker and stared in the direction of Belcher's, where his jersey and belongings awaited an arrival that would never occur, the reality of the situation weighed heavily.
"Jovan was not the type of guy -- not that there is a type of guy -- but you never would have suspected it from someone like Jovan," Quinn said. "It just goes to show you that people are battling all sorts of things in their lives. When you don't take the time to get to know someone, you might not know they have any issues."
And maybe, somewhere deep within this tragedy, that's where a lesson is buried.
Although the Chiefs played a sound football game Sunday, although Quinn played well and running back Jamaal Charles gave a performance worthy of a win, Quinn made it clear that the moments before and after those four quarters far outweighed the time spent on the field.
There were, after all, lessons to be learned. Lessons about communication, about dealing with life's problems in a way Belcher was unable to do, about the conversations we have with friends and family that could change the course of tragedy. During his postgame news conference, Quinn drove home this point.
"I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently," Quinn said. "When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back (with) 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."
"And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all of God's people."
Whether it was Hillis' speech before the game or Crennel's speech after it, these were the moments Sunday that were bigger than football, even if football was the reason they were all here together. These were the moments, Quinn said, that provided important perspective, that reminded these men they are not just teammates in a game but brothers in this world.
On Saturday and Sunday, Quinn said, football "took a back seat." Instead, conversations about life came to the forefront. Conversations about how a daughter is left without her parents. Quinn mentioned to Crennel that he'd like to spearhead an effort to raise money for Belcher's daughter, similar to the fund that was created when Quinn was in Denver in 2010, when Broncos wide receiver Kenny McKinley also took his own life, also leaving a child behind.
"I mean, football was just set aside," Quinn said. "(Belcher's) little girl is going to have a lot of questions as she gets older in life, and we want to make sure there's someone to take care of her. And furthermore, we were all just trying to make sure everyone on our team rallies around each other, gets closer to their faith and realize that you're not going to understand everything in life."
How or why any of this happened is beyond reasonable explanation. Whether or not a football game should have been played one day later, given what a head coach witnessed and a group of friends felt, also feels secondary. However, the combination of these two outcomes left a team with a situation to handle. And the Chiefs handled it with grace.
Will they grow stronger? Weaker? It's hard to say. But a group of men mourned together on Sunday in a manner that instigated healthy conversations, heavy conversations. Maybe this was an unorthodox way to mourn. Then again, is there such a thing as a normal way to mourn?
As this weekend ended, even if the grieving had only just begun, it was not the armor they wore on the field Sunday that mattered most to these players. Instead, it was the armor they attempted to wear while off of it, each piece donned with the help of one another.
"After the game was over, I was just very proud of everyone, very proud of the organization for how they handled everything," Quinn said. "We really came together, and we were all there for one another. And hopefully, that continues."