Tragedy at Arrowhead, and one unforgettable day

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Chiefs players try to reconcile the loss of a teammate with the terrible tragedy at Arrowhead.

KANSAS CITY --- Clark Hunt spoke with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Saturday afternoon to determine whether the Panthers-Chiefs game would go on as scheduled just 28 hours after linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself in front of the head coach and the GM at the team's practice facility.

Ultimately, Hunt let Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel decide whether they would play. Crennel is a lifelong football man. It's all he knew. He wanted to play.

But Hunt asked him to call the team captains to get their input.

The Chiefs have six team captains, Matt Cassel being one of them. "When Coach Crennel called me as a captain on the team and asked me, I just spoke from experience," Cassel said in the Chiefs locker room after the game. "When I lost my dad in 2008 during the middle of the season, I welcomed the healthy distraction of being out there and being able to practice."

So the Chiefs played.


More: Chiefs plan to help Belcher's daughter


Arrowhead used to be one of the best tailgating spots in the NFL. It's not, really, anymore. Don't get me wrong: some of the best food I've ever had has been made out of the back of a giant red van with Chiefs flags on the side. But the Chiefs have been bad lately. I won't bore you with all the details but four of the Chiefs five worst point-differentials have come in the last five years. So they've been getting blown out. A lot. A group called Save Our Chiefs flies banners over the stadium before games, urging the firing of GM Scott Pioli. Fans want Crennel fired, too.

Still, fans are out here. They don't come in the numbers they once did but they still show up. One family of four from Wichita, Kan., about 2 1/2 hours from Kansas City, bought tickets on Saturday night. The mother said it would be a good lesson to her kids on how to respond in a tragic situation.

"I just wanted to support my team" is the phrase I heard again and again. There was more confusion than anger. More than half of the fans I spoke with didn't think the game should be played.

The mood wasn't visibly somber in the parking lot. Sure, fans were feeling it. They talked about it. It was there. But you'd have a hard time seeing that with the same red Chiefs buses, the same grills heating up and all the normal tailgating going on. It looked the same. But it didn't feel the same.

Chiefs fans, like Chiefs players, tried to treat this as a normal day.

***

Players walk into the stadium through a tunnel that fans can stand above, looking down on them as they enter. The players' lot is all blocked off by security.

Chiefs GM Scott Pioli was present when Belcher took his own life, according to police. He pulled into the players' lot at almost exactly 9:30 a.m. As the GM, he took a prime parking spot, right in front. He wore a short sleeve T-shirt and jeans on an unseasonably warm December day. He carried his briefcase and a suit bag. Fans clapped and cheered as he came in, a sign of support. He waved up at them and walked inside.

***

The game was secondary. I barely even remember it. (Yes, the Chiefs did win!) I stood outside the Chiefs' locker room after the game before they shut the door. Players streamed in through the tunnel, through a walkway in front of the media and into the locker room. A member of the Hunt family stood near the locker room door shaking hands with players as they walked in. Anthony Toribio, nose tackle, hugged a number of players as they walked in. Equipment staffers offered up high-fives. There were smiles. It all seemed so normal for a while.

Of course, in a few minutes, Crennel would give the hardest postgame speech of his life. He would tell the players that they played hard, they stuck together as well. Clark Hunt would give the game ball to the entire team, not just one person. They would remember the victims. Crennel would then promise to put the ball in a place in the facility where everyone could see it.

***

Chiefs defensive lineman Shaun Smith is a "Romeo guy" if there ever were one. He played for Crennel in Cleveland. When Crennel took the defensive coordinator job in Kansas City in 2010, Smith later came, proving to be a valuable piece in a division-winning year. Smith returned to the Chiefs this year, midway through the season. He openly campaigned for that roster spot on Twitter.

Several players are extremely tight with Crennel. He had been the defensive coordinator in Kansas City the last two years, a unit that was actually on the cusp of top 10 status. Smith owes a big part of his career to Crennel.

"I told him after the game I loved him," Smith said. "He's like my father. I could feel the pain, the emotion that he's feeling and going through. He loves each of us like we're his son. If something goes wrong he's a father figure to us [and] a coach."

Smith has been through similar situations before. He was on the Bengals when Chris Henry died. He was a Titan when O.J. Murdock committed suicide.

***

Jovan Belcher wasn't drafted. He signed with the Chiefs in 2009, shortly after the draft in April. Two players remain from the Chiefs 2009 draft class: Tyson Jackson, the third-overall pick, and Ryan Succop, Mr. Irrelevant.

"It's just been tough," Jackson said. "It's been hard. I think for everybody in the locker room it was hard trying to focus on football, trying to focus on the tragedy that happened at the same time. It's been tough on us emotionally, it was mixed emotions. You didn't know whether to cry or whether to try to focus your mind and get ready for the game."

Jackson said the only thing comparable he's experienced would be Katrina, which happened while he was at LSU. "But it hit closer to home because it was actually a teammate," Jackson said.

"It's been the toughest day and a half any of us have ever had together," Succop said. "It's very sad what happened. The real story is Kasandra and the little girl. That is very, very sad what happened. We can't lose sight of that. We have to be there to support them."

Succop continued, "The most emotional game I've ever had to play."

***

Crennel walked to the podium, the same one he talks at after every Chiefs' home game. Because of the Chiefs' current record, fans have started to poke fun at Crennel for his grandfatherly approach. They call him Grandpa Romeo.

But on this day, there was no one better to lead the Chiefs than Grandpa Romeo. Ryan Lilja said he was a rock. Succop had few words for what Crennel meant to the team.

Crennel said he wasn't worried about how he would handle it. Life isn't even-keeled but Crennel is. He prides himself in being "the same guy every day." When your team is 1-10, that's frustrating. When you're facing tragedy, it's comforting.

He won't talk about what he saw that day, and that's probably for the best. No one, except Scott Pioli and linebackers coach Gary Gibbs, who saw what he saw, knows what he is going through. That he had that on his shoulders, and still managed to lead his team isn't something I will forget anytime soon.

***

The one I keep coming back to in this is Zoey, the 3-month old child left behind. She'll never know her parents. That's what every player mentioned, the real tragedy. Crennel opened his postgame press conference with words for Zoey and the victims. Derrick Johnson said the toughest thing you can ever do is bury your son or daughter.

Brady Quinn said the players are going to set up a fund for Zoey. He wants her to one day feel what it's like to have a family, because Jovan was part of their family.

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