K.C. Chiefs moved on from tragedy
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They will play football Sunday on the anniversary of the darkest day in Kansas City Chiefs history. It's the biggest game of the year, against the Denver Broncos. Cars will crawl through the Arrowhead Stadium parking lots, near the spot where Jovan Belcher took his own life, and clouds of barbecue smoke will hang in the morning air as if nothing ever happened. Fans will wear tattered No. 58 Derrick Thomas jerseys, a reminder of another tragic loss many years ago. It will be hard to find any No. 59s.
When a story is so horrible that it's almost unspeakable, the best thing to do is hide the script, change the characters and move on. But forgetting is impossible; in late autumn, the skies turn slate gray in Middle America, the air turns bitter cold, and the landscape inevitably becomes barren. There will always be reminders.
Thanksgiving is one. A year ago, three linebackers for the Chiefs gathered with their significant others to eat turkey together, a sign of friendship and solidarity in the middle of a woeful season. A few days later, one of those linebackers shot and killed his girlfriend, the mother of his baby, then killed himself just before a team meeting.
"Let them rest in peace," Chiefs players and representatives say when asked about Belcher.
One year later, it's too soon -- but also distant. Their world is completely different now, with a new coach (Andy Reid), general manager (John Dorsey) and quarterback (Alex Smith) and a 9-2 record. The change in atmosphere has been likened to the movie "Pleasantville," with bright colors replacing the black and white.
The team has moved on; Kansas City has moved on. There are no flowers or memorials marking the spots where Belcher and Kasandra Perkins died. The house they lived in on Crysler Avenue, the house where Perkins was shot nine times, is occupied again, with a grill on the deck and a dog yapping at the door. A person who lives there doesn't want to comment, in part out of fear that the cars and gawkers might return to their quiet suburban street. The occupant, who requests that his or her gender not even be used, doesn't think about what happened there. "Her spirit isn't here," the person said.
At Arrowhead Stadium, there is no locker-room shrine for Belcher, no mention of the man who spent four seasons in a Chiefs uniform. His No. 59 was not issued to an active player this season. So no, there will not be much reflection on Sunday, a day meant to be forgotten.
"You say the word 'anniversary' like all of us know the day and we've got it down on our calendar," said former Chiefs linebacker Brandon Siler. "It wasn't a day to mark on your calendar. I have no clue when that happened, and I'm really not interested in knowing when the anniversary of it was. I don't think of it like that.
"Every now and then I think about it and I pray about it. And then I leave it alone."
But in addition to devastating two families and leaving a 3-month-old baby girl orphaned, the events of that day, Dec. 1, 2012, deeply affected a team, a franchise and numerous people around them. It made an already-close locker room even closer, altered a few career paths and made successful people re-evaluate their lives.
Here are some of their stories.
Dec. 1 was the tipping point in Kansas City, proof that a franchise was completely, hopelessly screwed up. Before that day, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt had big problems, sure. His general manager, Scott Pioli, was so reviled by fans that some of them paid to have a banner flown over the stadium during game days, calling for Pioli's firing. His quarterback, Matt Cassel, had 14 turnovers in the first five contests, and when he was knocked out of the Baltimore game with a head injury, a smattering of fans cheered, sparking a national controversy.
His team was 1-10 and had made just one playoff appearance since the 2006 season, the same year his legendary father, Lamar, died of cancer.
According to former Chiefs chairman Jack Steadman, who's known Clark Hunt since he was a baby, the younger Hunt was pondering change before that first day of December. But now things were much more complicated. The people he would need to replace -- Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel -- had been in the parking lot that morning and witnessed Belcher kneel down, make a sign of the cross and fire a bullet from his .40-caliber handgun into his head.
There was no way to tell what Hunt would do next. His daddy was a kind and humble Texan who had the same general manager for 20 years and kept his home number listed in the Dallas phone book. Clark, a boyish-looking 48-year-old owner with a full head of thick brown hair, was a mystery. Hunt waited until the 2-14 season mercifully ended then moved quickly to snatch up Reid before he hired a general manager.
And in an apparent nod to the massive control Pioli yielded, Hunt altered the management structure, making Reid, Dorsey and Chiefs president Mark Donovan direct reports to him. The changes have helped the Chiefs perform one of the biggest turnarounds in recent NFL history, with the nucleus of last year's team. Hunt's poise during the chaos of 2012 defined his leadership, Steadman said. He is no longer known as just Lamar Hunt's son.
"It took him a couple of years to get comfortable," Steadman said. "But he has really grown into the job. We've had low times before, but that was just terrible. It had a terrible impact on the team. We needed to recover in the city. There had to be major change, and fortunately, Clark was able to handle that, and he did it in a beautiful way."
After Sunday's last-minute loss to the Chargers, Hunt worked his way through the locker room to talk to players, just like his father did. He left quietly. His brown hair had a tint of gray.
It isn't that simple, is it? A change in leadership, a new quarterback who doesn't wow you on the stat sheet but doesn't make mistakes? Ask people at Arrowhead Stadium about the biggest difference between this team and 2012 and they'll immediately say it's Reid, a coach who took the Philadelphia Eagles to five NFC Championship Games, a man the players love.
But this team is also inexorably close because it had to be after Dec. 1.
"People you struggle with, people you go through hard times with," said Chiefs offensive tackle Donald Stephenson, "it's human nature to be closer with those people."
The Chiefs like to talk about "family" a lot, and it's an overused word in sports. But losing Belcher, Stephenson said, was like losing a member of the family. And the players have a hard time saying that. If they call him a friend, it's as if they're condoning murder. If they talk about him at all and don't mention Perkins, it sounds as if all they care about is a football player. So they don't say much at all, at least to the outside world.
Belcher was popular on the team, an undrafted, undersized linebacker who beat the odds by going from the University of Maine to the NFL. Even the players who were trying to beat Belcher out for a starting job loved him. The Chiefs' punter, Dustin Colquitt, knew exactly where Belcher sat during special-teams meetings.
After the murder-suicide, the Chiefs planned more group outings together. They wanted to be on top of each other's lives.
"During the season, this is the group of people you spend more time with than you do with your family," Colquitt said. "I just think when something like that happens, you've got to go beyond the, 'Hey man, how you doing?' It's, 'Hey, how's the family? How's your wife? How's your girlfriend? How's the kids?' Give me more than just a nugget. I want to know the whole thing. I want to know how you're doing as a person.
"Unless you were here last year, obviously, you can't appreciate that. Something like that has never happened, and it may never happen again. I hope it doesn't. We got closer from it, and we learned that every aspect of a player's life is important, not just football."
One of Belcher's best friends on the 2012 team was Brandon Siler. A year earlier, Siler came to Kansas City from San Diego, hell-bent on taking Belcher's job away from him. Football was everything to Siler back then. Losing was devastating.
It's not so unusual that the two men would become so tight, Siler said. In the NFL, you're built to be confident, to know that you're better than the man you're competing against, and that roster decisions are out of your hands. Siler wound up mentoring Belcher.
They leaned on each other during an eight-game losing skid, they hung out at the house on Crysler Avenue, and they spent Thanksgiving together, laughing and eating with star linebacker Derrick Johnson.
On Dec. 1, Siler lost two friends. He saw Belcher and Perkins on the last full day of their lives, a Friday. He worked out with Belcher early in the day as they prepared to play the Carolina Panthers; he ran into Perkins that night at a Trey Songz concert. Siler hugged her, and they took a picture together.
"I go back and look at that picture all the time," Siler said. "It's surreal that they could be here, and in a bad decision in one moment, both of them could be gone."
Siler finally got his first start for the Chiefs on Dec. 2. The day after Belcher's death. The final month of the season was a blur of losses, uncertainty and second-guesses. Siler beat himself up over what he could have done differently to help his friend.
On New Year's Eve, a day after the last game -- and loss -- of the season, Siler cleaned out his locker. His contract was up, and Siler figured he probably wouldn't be back. He wasn't. He headed home to Florida, went back to school, took 16 hours in the spring semester and has nearly completed his degree. Siler plans to go to law school after that.
He works as a real estate agent in between classes, stays in shape and has gotten five of what he describes as "almost-calls" from teams asking if he's ready to go if needed, but the follow-up call has never come. And that's OK now. Before Belcher died, he was angry about football, bitter at how the league casts away older players for younger and cheaper talent. Now he has a deeper appreciation for life, a clarity that usually comes many years later. He's 27 and wants to be everything he can, a great father, a real success story. He can do that without football.
For the past 10 years of his life, Siler, who played for Urban Meyer at Florida, has been told when to eat, when to wake up, when to train. Now he's in control.
"I'm still fighting to get in every chance I can," he said. "I get excited to hear every phone call, but at the same time, I'm not angry with the game. Instead, I look at it like I got six years in the game, and I appreciate every minute.
"It wakes you up, and it kind of makes you see football as a game instead of the only thing in life."
After Dec. 1, a house in Independence, Mo., lost its laughter and energy. When Perkins wanted companionship, or was on the outs with Belcher, she'd retreat to the VanCompernolle home and hang out with her pals Shelby and Kelsie, who are sisters. The VanCompernolles used to joke that they were Perkins' "normal friends."
"It was almost kind of like a fairy-tale life," said Konnie VanCompernolle, Shelby and Kelsie's mother. "What 22-year-old doesn't like money and everything that comes with it? I mean, it was a pretty glamorous life."
And then it wasn't. First, the good memories: Perkins used to stay with the VanCompernolles when Belcher went off to training camp every summer because she didn't like to be alone. Konnie would cook meals for Perkins, who would take a picture of the food and send it to Belcher, who was in training and watching his weight.
Belcher used to come over often, too. He was polite and respectful and would occasionally bring his mother, Cheryl Shepherd. They seemed like normal people, Konnie said.
Belcher and Perkins could be affectionate and loving, but they were also young and immature. They fought frequently, mostly about money. In the last weeks of her life, Perkins stayed with the VanCompernolles when she was at odds with Belcher.
"I never thought they'd get married," Konnie said.
She never thought he'd kill her, either.
Their fights were never supposed to escalate to this. At times, they seemed trivial, about Belcher's belief that Perkins wasn't doing her share, about Belcher badgering her to finish school.
Perkins, according to VanCompernolle, came to Kansas City from Texas with no car and few possessions outside of her clothes. Everything she had was Belcher's. In those final days, there were talks of her standing on her own two feet. But then she was back with Belcher, who enlisted his mother to come from West Babylon, N.Y., to Kansas City to help the couple take care of baby Zoey.
When Perkins was killed, the VanCompernolles wanted people to remember their friend. Kelsie and Shelby talked to the local media about the fun times they had with Perkins, who wanted to be a teacher.
In Independence, they'll never forget her. But one year later, Konnie vacillates between her love of Perkins and feeling defensive when the world calls Belcher a monster. He was not a monster, VanCompernolle insists. He was a young man with pressures, of keeping his starting job, of a new baby, of a contract year. He drank heavily at times, and was more than twice the legal limit for driving in Missouri the morning he killed Perkins.
Of course there are no excuses for what he did, she said. But for nearly a year, there hasn't been a right way to feel, either.
"It's not fair," Konnie VanCompernolle said. "We lost two great lives. I loved Jovan. He was honestly the nicest guy you'd meet. I don't know … I just hate it. It just makes you so sad. They were so young. There was no need for it.
"I just think he snapped."
Cheryl Shepherd, Belcher's mother, was in the house the morning Perkins died. She heard the gunshots, called 911 and pleaded for Perkins to hang on. Perkins was like a daughter to Shepherd, Konnie VanCompernolle said. Belcher, according to multiple people interviewed for this story, was very close to his mother.
"She was always a rock in his life," said Joe Linta, Belcher's agent. "She was very influential to him. He even revered her quite a bit."
In June, Shepherd went to court seeking custody of Zoey. After a three-day hearing, Jackson (Mo.) County Probate Commissioner Daniel Wheeler granted custody to Perkins' cousin, Sophie, who lives in Pflugerville, Texas.
Mark Roberts, Sophie Perkins' attorney, said Zoey, to his knowledge, is doing well and that his client didn't want to comment.
"She just wants to move on if possible," Roberts said.
Calls to Shepherd weren't returned.
Zoey Perkins, who is now 15 months old, will receive more than $1 million under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. The Chiefs also started a trust fund to help care for her.
Romeo Crennel, who courageously walked out in the parking lot knowing Belcher had a gun last winter, was fired on New Year's Eve. He moved to New York City, in desperate need of a break, and collects $3.5 million a year for the next two seasons from the Chiefs. People close to Crennel say he is finished with coaching, not just because of what he witnessed that day but because he's 66 and has seen enough.
Rumors swirled that he was doing private consulting work for New England. Wikipedia lists him as a defensive adviser for the Patriots, but Crennel says that post is untrue. He is enjoying time with his grandchildren, enjoying life for the first time in decades.
After a couple of attempts to reach Crennel, he sent a text.
"I've been trying to move on from that incident," Crennel wrote. "It's best as I see it to let Jovan rest in peace. Sorry I'm not able to help you this time. Sincerely, RC."
The year zoomed by fast. Linta, who represented Belcher and Crennel, went from mourning Belcher to signing Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to a six-year, $120.6 million deal, the richest contract in football.
"The highest high and the lowest low of my career occurred within about a couple of months of one another," Linta said.
In West Babylon, high school football coach Albert Ritacco came out of retirement and returned to the game. He did it because of Belcher. Ritacco saw him a few weeks before he died, at a West Babylon football game. Ritacco used to always ask Belcher to speak to the team, and he would tell them about dreams and making it from nowhere to the NFL.
But on this particular day, Belcher didn't feel like giving a speech and met Ritacco after the game. When the longtime coach told Belcher he was retiring from teaching, and football, Belcher suggested he keep coaching. But it wasn't that easy. West Babylon, Ritacco said, wouldn't let him coach if he didn't teach at the school.
Ritacco eventually landed a job in a nearby school, coaching junior varsity players. He wanted to do that for Belcher.
"I miss him," Ritacco said. "He was a big part of my life. Now it's a year later, but it's like yesterday."
The move has sort of rejuvenated Ritacco, but it's different. He no longer gives speeches about Belcher, but if anyone asks, he'll tell him or her about the kid who seemingly did everything right for 25 years and then did something horribly wrong.
The kids don't ask. Life moves on.