No one saw it coming, not Jovan Belcher’s Kansas City Chiefs teammates, his coaches, his family members, his friends, his agent, certainly not Kasandra Perkins, the girlfriend and mother of his infant daughter that he gunned down in their home Saturday morning.
They all knew him better than any fan, and yet none of them knew he was capable of such unspeakable violence.
It is a reminder to those who judge athletes’ character by what they accomplish on the field, the court, or the ice, know them only by an assigned number and a surname on the back of a jersey, understand them only through media guide bios, interviews, and Twitter posts that we don’t know them at all. We know what they do for a living, and there is a significant difference.
You don’t know them any better than you do the stranger next to you on the MBTA train, the co-worker you wave to in the hallway at lunch time, the dental hygienist you see twice a year.
Those uniforms might as well be masks that hide the real person underneath.
“These guys at the Chiefs, they were with him from 8 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m., but they don’t know what he was doing at 10 at night any more than I do,” said Belcher’s agent, Joe Linta. “My experience . . . [he] was a polite, honorable young man. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something underneath the surface and nobody knows it.”
Remember that the next time you say, “Athlete X seems like a good guy.” Why? Because he fights through injuries, or throws touchdown passes, or backs up teammates, or says the right things to the media? Jovan Belcher seemed like a good guy.
The Belcher the world saw playing linebacker on Sundays was a Horatio Alger tale in the defensive huddle. He was a feel-good story of hard work, determination, and overcoming adversity. He was an undrafted free agent out of the University of Maine in 2009 who beat the odds and opposing offensive linemen to will himself into a starting linebacker in the NFL.
He was also a troubled 25-year-old capable of murdering one of the people closest to him.
Belcher was like one of those cardboard cut-outs at the supermarket, a two-dimensional figure in a three-dimensional world. The third dimension was a place where he argued with Perkins and brooded over her being out late at an R&B concert the night before he ended her life and his own, according to reports.
For Perkins’s family and those who knew Belcher, this is the ultimate blindside hit.
“You’re right,” said Linta, who also represents Chiefs head coach and former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. “I’ve been lucky in 20 years. We have one kid that got arrested one time; we fired him.
“You just couldn’t see this coming.
“I went to Long Island, met him and his mom. There were pictures and trophies in the house. It was a house where you felt a lot of love and respect. All along, after five years, up until Saturday morning, that was the picture of this kid I had and what he was.”
It’s debatable whether the Chiefs should have played on Sunday. What is not debatable is that any line of storytelling that paints the Chiefs’ players and coaching staff as the courageous mourners who heroically overcame grief to defeat the Carolina Panthers, 27-21, is both insensitive and inane.
Certainly, there is sympathy for Crennel and Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, the former team-building partner of Bill Belichick. They witnessed Belcher thank them before he turned a gun on himself in the parking lot of the Chiefs’ practice facility, as police approached him. But the victims in this case are the 22-year-old Perkins, her infant daughter with Belcher, Zoey, and the families affected.
Just like in life, even in death, athletes are different from the rest of us. They’re afforded exalted status, even when they kill another human being. Kansas City left Belcher’s locker intact with his jersey in it for Sunday’s game, as if he were a martyr and not a murderer.
Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, who played one of the best games of his disappointing career, completing 14 straight passes at one point, told Peter King of Sports Illustrated that “I’d like to think maybe I had some help, somewhere from No. 59 [Belcher’s number].”
Yes, it was the divine intervention of a man who killed his girlfriend that made Quinn a competent quarterback for a day. Only in the detached-from-reality world of sports is this plausible.
Belcher wasn’t befallen by a tragedy. He was the perpetrator of one.
“There is no honoring his memory,” said Linta. “Everyone has their own recollection of a person that goes through death or this kind of thing. He was a very honorable young man until something went crazy wrong or terribly wrong on Saturday. Mindful or not of sound mind, he did what he did, and we’re never going to erase that.”
There should be no memorial to Belcher in the Chiefs locker room or patches on the team’s jerseys or messages written on cleats.
That should be reserved for Perkins and other victims of domestic violence.
There is a tendency to think of professional athletes as somehow being above the problems of the average population because they’re bigger, faster, stronger, and wealthier. They’re regarded as invincible.
It doesn’t matter how much you can bench-press, how fast your 40 time is, or how much pain you can endure if you’re fighting an opponent you can’t defeat — your own warped mind.
There’s no way of knowing what caused the mixture of desperation, despair, and derangement that caused Belcher to ruin so many lives.
There was no way of knowing the real Belcher at all.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.