Season of loss in Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- On Friday, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher asked a teammate if he'd take some photos. He knew Travis Daniels dabbled in photography, and Belcher wanted some family portraits of him, his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, and their 3-month-old daughter Zoey. It would be the first Christmas with the three of them all together. Maybe Belcher could use the photos for Christmas cards. Daniels, of course, said yes. Like everyone else associated with the Chiefs' franchise, they were family.

On Friday, a group called Save Our Chiefs was busy plotting its next moves in a campaign to, according to their mission statement, return a winning team to Kansas City. They'd wear black on Sunday, fly a banner in the airspace above Arrowhead Stadium expressing their displeasure in the Chiefs' losing season, and hold a "Can [Scott] Pioli" food drive.

And then everything changed.

How do you describe a year like 2012 in Kansas City? How do you do it after Saturday, when Belcher murdered Perkins, then drove his Bentley to the Chiefs' practice facility and killed himself? The history of this season should begin and end there, because life and death are so much bigger than football. Even in Kansas City.

To much of the country, Kansas City is flyover territory, a cowtown outsiders are convinced is in Kansas. Maybe after this year, they'd be content with slipping into that anonymity. "Don't make us look bad," one Chiefs fan said Sunday, pondering all the headlines that have come from the 2-10 season, lamenting the most recent ones.

Kansas City's identity, in many ways, is defined by football. There are more sports talk radio stations here than there are Top 40 music channels. When the Chiefs used to win, consistently, the town moved to a different beat. Mondays at work moved faster, and Saturdays crawled inexplicably slower. The team was once so intertwined with the city that Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Kansas City's mayor in the 1990s, used to travel with the Chiefs for road games. He said his poll numbers used to go up during winning seasons. He may or may not have been joking.

On Saturday, his youngest son Evan called when word broke about the murder-suicide. "I don't know," Evan Cleaver told him, "if things can get any worse than this."

No, wins and losses aren't in the same stratosphere as life and death. Anyone in Kansas City will tell you that. But they'll also concede that this, the 50th year of Chiefs football, has been one of the most challenging seasons in franchise history. The team lost eight games in a row. The fans were at the center of a national controversy in October when they supposedly cheered, en masse, when starting quarterback Matt Cassel was knocked out with a head injury. The Chiefs were laughed at on "Monday Night Football" for excessively celebrating a touchdown that didn't even count.

And on Nov. 28, one of the most talked-about stories in the NFL centered on Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, who after a 17-9 loss to the Broncos asked quarterback Peyton Manning for an autograph. Charles appeared in a brief video with his mother, explaining that the autograph was for her. That "scandal," now, is football frivolity.

Now, reporters camp out near Charles' locker, waiting for his comments. Belcher and Perkins met through Charles and his wife, Whitney, a first cousin to Perkins.

In a statement, Charles said Perkins was not only family, but a friend and a loving mother.

"As my actual family and my Kansas City Chiefs family have been altered forever," the statement said, "we ask that you keep us and most importantly their child in prayer."

A thousand miles away, on the Canadian border, Caleb Campbell's cellphone rang sometime around 10 o'clock Eastern Time on Saturday morning. His old teammate Andy Studebaker was on the line, only Campbell couldn't answer. Studebaker had driven to the team facility for a meeting Saturday morning, but couldn't get in because the place was under lockdown. "Something just happened," Studebaker texted Campbell. "Just pray."

Campbell hesitates. Maybe he shouldn't be talking about this. He was cut from the Chiefs almost four months ago, lives in the Buffalo area now and was on his way to church that morning. He doesn't want to take anything away from the guys in the locker room who go to work every day passing the spot where Belcher shot himself in the head.

But some teams and times never really leave you, and that's the way it is with Campbell and Kansas City. In his Twitter avatar and email profile, he is still wearing his helmet and red No. 57 jersey. Campbell served in the Army, graduated from West Point, and this team comes closest to resembling the camaraderie he felt at the Academy. When he signed with the Chiefs in November 2011, general manager Scott Pioli told him, "Something special is going on here," and Campbell felt it, too.

They left for training camp in St. Joseph, Mo., in late July, in the middle of one of the hottest summers in history, and practiced in full pads nearly every day permissible under NFL rules. Campbell knows this might sound cheesy, but every day as they slogged up the hill to the locker room, their pads and legs heavy, he always saw at least a couple of smiling faces.

He lockered next to Belcher, a guy who was quiet around the media but popular among his teammates. Belcher was shaped like a refrigerator, Campbell said, and when he hit him, it was like running up against a heavy-duty Maytag.

They talked about God and politics, and Belcher seemed curious to know more about the world. Every day before they downed an energy drink and hit the practice field, Belcher would tell him, "Let's go get better today."

The Chiefs, Campbell said, didn't just want to survive training camp; they wanted to be better because of it. Because of their talent, and the fact that they were returning a handful of starters who were hurt in 2011, some pundits picked them to win the AFC West. But then how great would they be with all this chemistry they built in the hot days of camp? These are the things these men thought about four months ago, before the cuts, before the losses, before the longest season in Chiefs history began.

"I just really feel for these guys," Campbell said.

"How much can you really endure in one season?"

Campbell still keeps in touch with some of them, and long before Saturday, he wondered how they've handled the losses, and the criticism.

And then how do you handle this?

The Chiefs have provided professional counseling to the team, but some players find more comfort in just talking to each other.

"We as athletes are driven," Campbell said, "and our motivation in life is solely based on fear. Fear of not performing, fear of being average, fear of not receiving the status we once held in our lives. Because of the magnitude of the NFL, the pressure builds up.

"I'm not saying that's what triggered this. Not at all. But that's just the mentality of so many players."

Around 10:30 on Sunday morning, Pioli, impeccably dressed, walked into an Arrowhead Stadium elevator. He greeted the operator, exchanged pleasantries, then fidgeted with his phone until the elevator stopped on the ninth floor and Pioli exited. He hugged a couple of staffers. Twenty-six hours earlier, Pioli was in the parking lot, trying to convince Belcher to put down his gun. He, along with Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, watched helplessly as Belcher decided to die.

Unlike Carl Peterson, the former Chiefs general manager who occasionally wore his heart on his leather-jacketed sleeve for all of Kansas City to see, Pioli does not reveal himself much to the public. He is seen as cold and calculating, an assessment no doubt made in part because of his background with the New England Patriots. To Chiefs fans, he's the man who brought Cassel to town to be the franchise quarterback and the man who doesn't grasp the Midwest or the history of the franchise.

But that, at least for now, needed to be put aside. The Chiefs played the Panthers on Sunday, the game went on, but a mother and father were dead, and things had to be different.

The organizers at Save Our Chiefs made a decision sometime Saturday to scrap their protest plans. There were no banners, and no "Can Pioli" food drive.

They issued a release. It encouraged fans to wear red, gray, or whatever they wanted.

We ask that you do not carry any Fire Pioli signs into the stadium and just go to the game and be fans. Cheer for the players. Be respectful of them and what they go through on a day-to-day basis. We feel that tomorrow's game is neither the proper place nor the proper time to continue these activities but rather tomorrow's game should be a time for all fans to come together and help this team recover from a great tragedy.

The football analysts can give ample reasons why the Chiefs are 2-10. There are the turnovers. The Chiefs had 29 of them by the second week of November.

Tony Moeaki, a promising young tight end from Iowa, says that in the NFL, the margin of error is so slim, and two plays can be the difference between a win and a loss. "We need to realize that more," Moeaki said.

He said the 2012 season is the "strangest" he has ever experienced. In most places, a locker room would fracture with so many losses. But even before Saturday, the Chiefs have remained unbelievably tight. That's why Belcher knew that Daniels liked to take pictures.

"I can't lie. I'm still numb," Daniels said. "We were just with him on Friday.

"It's not only him … Kasandra, she was very dear to us, as well. She was at all the games, and just seeing her through the pregnancy, up to having the baby … It's tough."

It is late in the afternoon Sunday, just after the Chiefs have beaten the Panthers for their first victory since September. Daniels says the only reason he's still in the locker room is that he's waiting for Brandon Flowers. He wants to walk out with him, as he does every Sunday, and talk.

Nighttime is the hardest for some of them. Moeaki lies in bed, and thinks about Belcher, Kasandra and Zoey, and can't sleep.

Daniels can't either.

But Crennel looks his players in the eye, as he always does, and tells them to lean on each other. They've done that all year. It's hard to point a finger at a teammate when he's your friend. And maybe that's why the Chiefs haven't done much of that this season. Players say that's a testament to Crennel.

He's a tough-love coach who has seemingly spent half of his life on the hot seat. For more than a year, his critics have blasted him for being too even-keeled. But now that attribute is what's holding the team together.

Dr. Ann Becker-Schutte, a Kansas City psychologist, says suicide survivors are sort of part of a special grief category.

"There are no answers. Even when people have written detailed notes and stuff, it's still not really an answer. It's always only part. And no one knew what was going on inside of that person's head, and that layer of mystery just makes the grief harder.

"Because you're also angry. It feels like there was some choice, which isn't always accurate."

One of the hottest-selling items at the Sports Nutz store on Highway 40 just up the street from the stadium is a black hoodie. It says "Blackout Arrowhead," and more than 5,000 have been sold during the Chiefs' swoon. Store manager Aaron Lewis was opening up the shop Saturday morning when he heard the sirens scream past just after 8 o'clock. Lewis didn't think much of it; he's always hearing cop cars and rescue squads on the busy intersection.

When Lewis saw a Chiefs breaking news bulletin a short time later, he assumed Pioli was getting fired. But the news was much worse, and for the next couple of days, no one came in to buy the blackout hoodies.

They scooped up the red jerseys, and bought out at least seven hooks of shirts. It was almost like the start of the season again. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

Lewis said that the families of both Belcher and Perkins stopped by in the past year or so, separately, to buy gear in the store. Lewis owns a Belcher jersey at home, but didn't know him. A woman who was in the store Monday and started bawling apparently didn't know the couple, either. Maybe nobody did. But they mourn for Perkins, and for lives they can't possibly understand.

And eventually, they'll move on. Shane Williams, a member of Save Our Chiefs, which has nearly 100,000 Twitter followers, said he isn't sure when or if they'll fly more banners this season. Williams, who went to the game Sunday, still wants change. But Sunday wasn't the time to get into that.

The Chiefs will go to Cleveland this weekend. They'll also go to two funerals.

By late Monday, a local sports-radio jock asked on the air if it was appropriate to start talking about the future, and 10 minutes later apparently decided it was. Soon, the futures of Pioli and Crennel were bandied about again.

Not everything changed.