Season of loss in Kansas City
Elizabeth Merrill [ARCHIVE]
December 5, 2012
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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...
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