We know almost nothing about Jovan Belcher, except that he is gone, and that he did something terrible before he left.
Belcher was a solid-but-obscure linebacker for an awful team during a lost season. On Saturday, he shot girlfriend Kasandra Perkins in the presence of her mother, then drove to Chiefs headquarters and shot himself, orphaning his and Perkins’ three-month old daughter.
No one who knows him can even begin to guess why he did it. Those who did not know him at all have no hope of understanding.
Belcher was an unheralded prospect from the University of Maine who made the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He earned a starting job in 2010. He registered 257 career tackles but recorded just one regular-season sack in his career. His signature on-field moment was a sack of Joe Flacco in the AFC playoffs after the 2010 season.
I re-watched that play on Saturday night. Second quarter, third down, Belcher drops into coverage, sees there are no receivers threatening his zone and blitzes. He flies into the backfield and levels Flacco. It’s a fine play in what would deteriorate into a 30-7 Chiefs loss.
I sought out that sack so I would have an image of Belcher as a football player, not just the perpetrator of a murder-suicide. Belcher was not well known outside of Kansas City. He was not a star, or a skill position player, or a character. He was a minor part of the Chiefs' success story in 2010, and he was a bit player in the tale of their collapse this year. I wrote more than 100 NFL articles per season during the entire course of his career, but I don’t remember ever typing his name before the start of this article.
He is now, tragically, the story. A suicide. A murderer. A man who orphaned a baby. A man who did the unspeakable as publicly and painfully as possible.
The people who knew Belcher, who cared about him and worked with him, were the people he thrust into the front row of a hellish spectacle. He killed his daughter’s mother while grandma was there. He killed himself in front of Romeo Crennel and Scott Pioli, his bosses, who were trying to calm him down in the parking lot.
It is impossible, and insensitive, to speculate about the shock, horror and anguish of those moments. Kansas City mayor Sly James, forced into the role of spokesman, provided perspective with simple, powerful images.
"I can tell you that you have absolutely no idea of what it's like to see somebody kill themselves," James said on Saturday afternoon. "If you can take your worst nightmare, and then put somebody you know and love into that situation, and give them a gun, and stand three feet away from them and watch them kill themselves, that's what it's like. It's unfathomable. It's something that you would love to wash away from your mind, but you can't do it. There's nothing like it. There's nothing like it. Think about your worst nightmare and multiply by five."
That is what it was like for the people who knew and loved Belcher and Perkins.
The rest of us are left to acknowledge that we didn’t know him, not as a person, a player or a personality. The sports journalism world is now excavating Belcher’s story from the stacks and archives, from interviews with ancillary people in his life. A scouting report here, a snippet of an interview there. There is no hope of finding a clue about what went wrong in Belcher’s mind lying around in old training camp reports or phone calls to high school coaches. We are just looking for a clearer image of the young man. The details of his young life are now “context” for a larger, more horrifying story. We’re trying to backfill a biography, because it is impossible to come to grips with what Belcher did when you're not even certain who Belcher was.
So we search for scraps. Teammate Derrick Johnson called him a “thumper” last year, saying that Belcher was responsible “for probably half my tackles.” Pro Football Weekly wrote in its season preview that “coaches love the fact that Belcher always gives a maximum effort.” Belcher was active in the NFL Play 60 campaign. He was soft-spoken off the field and devoted to his mother, like approximately 1,400 other players in the NFL. Ryan Wilson at CBSSports.com provided details about his college career, including a haunting quote from Belcher’s college coach in 2008: “He has an infectious smile and a very good way around children,” Jack Cosgrove said of the young man who majored in development and family relations.
USA TODAY Sports spoke to Cosgrove after Saturday’s tragedy. "I'm devastated right now. Trying to hold together," the coach said. “It is an absolute and utter shock to be talking about Jovan in the past tense.” Other old acquaintances are trying to come to terms with the unimaginable.
"I'm in complete shock. This is one of the most unexpected things I've ever heard," college teammate Anthony Cotrone said.
Others will speak in the days to come, many will speculate, most of them from a position of near-total ignorance. Twitter has no doubt already determined a dozen causes for the tragedy, diagnosed from armchairs around America, though I refuse to load my feed to learn them. If Perkins’ mother was shocked and has no answers, if Crennel is shocked and has no answers, how can we be any other way?
A successful young man did something abhorrent, pathetic, selfish and sad. What he did can never be explained. Like Mayor James said, this is a nightmare, times five. We will never understand it, and other than remembering to hug our children and reach out to loved ones during dark times, we will probably learn little of value from it moving forward.
We can only take the time to discover who this young man was before he took two lives. The thumper. The guy who made a great sack in a playoff lost cause. The high-effort player with the infectious smile we rarely saw, because we weren’t looking.
Never knowing him hurts now, but not a tiny fraction as much as knowing him.