Grills burned, cups were refilled and pregame tailgating seemed typically festive on the west side of the Truman Sports Complex near the Chiefs’ practice facility Sunday morning.
But the day was anything but typical, and not simply because the Chiefs won for the second time in 11 games, defeating the Carolina Panthers 27-21.
Some 24 hours earlier, a couple of hundred yards away from the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot, an unthinkable tragedy reached its grizzly conclusion when Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher put a bullet through his skull in the presence of head coach Romeo Crennel, general manager Scott Pioli and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs. Belcher committed suicide after fatally shooting his 22-year-old girlfriend, the mother of his infant daughter, at their home.
The events of Saturday morning turned Sunday into something surreal.
There was heavy-hearted Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt on the field before the game, explaining how the organization lost two members, Belcher, the fourth-year linebacker, and Kasandra Perkins, the victim who worked with the Chiefs Women’s Organization, a volunteer group of “wives, fiancees and significant others” that builds community goodwill, according to the team’s website.
Hunt said the team declined to honor Belcher with a decal or patch of his initials or uniform No. 59 on the Chiefs uniform. The team instead observed a moment of silence.
“It was a tough line to walk considering the circumstances,” Hunt said of the decision.
Fans found the day difficult to define.
“There’s a different feel in the air,” said Brandon Cain, who lives in North Kansas City.
Before they started to eat and drink, Austin Thibodeaux of Lee’s Summit and others in his tailgating group in Lot C prayed for Perkins, Belcher and their daughter.
“We wanted to pay our respects,” he said, “and then keep it the same as every other week.”
Some questioned whether the game should have been played as scheduled. Hunt said the decision was left to Crennel and the team, and when the Chiefs emerged from the tunnel before the noon kickoff — “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for Coach Romeo Crennel and your Kansas City Chiefs!” — the ovation from the announced crowd of 62,860 was louder than what might be expected.
In the moment of silence, which preceding the National Anthem, Belcher wasn’t mentioned.
But players also remembered their teammate, Perkins and their daughter.
In the locker room, some wore T-shirts that included a photo of Belcher and “Rest in Peace.” Wide receiver Dexter McCluster, whose locker is next to Belcher’s, wore his during interviews.
As the last players filed in from the field, Pioli could be seen hugging each player. The doors closed and Crennel delivered perhaps the most emotional postgame speech of his career.
“You overcame a lot, you stuck together as team like we talked about, helped each other, family and friends, you relied on those people or you relied on your faith to help get you through this,” Crennel said. “And we got through it, in a grand way because everyone made a contribution, everybody helped. And that’s what a team is about.”
Cheers followed. Hunt said every player and coach deserved the game ball, which Crennel said he would display where everyone could see it.
But when the locker room doors opened to reporters and cameras, the mood was more reflective than celebratory. Players talked about their initial reaction to the news, where they were, how they felt and whether the game should have been played.
“Sometimes you have to go out and let your emotion and frustration out on the field,” defensive end Shaun Smith said.
The locker room was nothing like center Ryan Lilja, the former Kansas State standout from Shawnee Mission Northwest, had experienced in his nine NFL seasons.
“Guys are confused,” he said. “… A lot of hugs, a lot of tears, a lot of guys saying, ‘I love you’ and meaning it.”
The events were especially difficult for Brandon Siler to negotiate. It was Siler, the sixth-year linebacker from Florida, who made his first start of the season Sunday — in Belcher’s spot. Siler signed with the Chiefs as a free agent in 2011 but missed last season because of an injury.
“I came here to play, I came here to start,” Siler said. “You’d think it would be an exciting time, but not how it happened. As men, we have a job to do and we had to do it.”
On the field, the Chiefs played their best game of the season, scoring a touchdown on their first possession and leading at halftime for the first time this year. With two touchdown passes, Brady Quinn played one of the best games of his career. Running back Jamaal Charles surpassed 100 rushing yards. The defense came up with big stops in the fourth quarter.
All against a backdrop of grief, remorse and confusion on a most unusual football Sunday.
“I think it was an eerie feeling after a win,” Quinn said, “because you don’t think you can win in this situation.”