KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Brandon Siler doesn't know what to think, what to feel. He made his first NFL start in two years on Sunday. The opportunity arrived only because two of his friends had died violently the morning before.
Jovan Belcher and Siler grew close as they sat next to each other in Chiefs' team meetings, a pair of middle linebackers preparing together.
"It's going to be hard,'' Siler said on Sunday, thinking ahead to the next meeting, before his mind shifted quickly to the woman Belcher loved and, according to police, murdered. "I also knew Kassie,'' Siler said, referring to Kasandra Perkins, the mother of Belcher's 3-month-old daughter.
Siler and Perkins saw each other at a Trey Songz concert on Friday night. Less than 12 hours later, she would die from multiple gunshot wounds and Belcher would take his own life in a parking lot of the Chiefs' training facility.
"I have a picture in my cell phone from the night before, you know, of me and her,'' Siler said, his voice growing quieter. "All of that stuff, you have to deal with, and it's not a situation you can prepare yourself for.''
"Complicated grief" is the technical term for what survivors experience when a loss leaves them with unanswered questions or unresolved alienation. The depth of the pain, with its staunch resistance to closure, rarely makes sense to outsiders.
On Sunday, the Chiefs had to balance the weight of mourning Belcher's death, kicking off against the Carolina Panthers less than 28 hours after the linebacker shot himself in front of coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli and, above all, remembering Perkins and Zoey, the little girl left behind.
The team chose to hold a moment of silence in memory of domestic-violence victims and their families before kickoff. In public, the Chiefs did nothing to express grief for Belcher. Before warmups, the players simply gathered in the tunnel to the field and said a prayer. Anything more, in front of many people who now see Belcher as nothing but a killer, would have been inappropriate.
Ceremonial moments can't accommodate complicated grief. When Belcher's teammates tried to explain it, most of them ended up in stretches of football-player optimism, the kind that slaps a grin on any pain. Then they'd pull themselves out of that mode quickly, just as they'd interrupt remembrances of Belcher to refer to the Perkins family and to anguish over little Zoey's future.
The segues might have seemed like well-coached political correctness if one didn't see poised linebacker Andy Studebaker pause for five seconds after a question about how he had learned of the murder and suicide, then push through the answer with his voice cracking. Or if one didn't witness the way center Ryan Lilja ended a solid 15 minutes of eloquence with a description of the locker room after the Chiefs' first win in nine games.
"It was different. I think there were emotions that guys aren't used to feeling after wins or losses,'' he said. "Guys were confused. There was a lot of hugs. …''
At this point, Lilja's voice started to drop, the words coming more slowly.
"A lot of tears, a lot of guys saying 'I love you' … and meaning it." The voice turned to a whisper now. Lilja lowered his head. "So,'' he said as if he might continue. But he couldn't. He put his head down and turned it toward the inside of his locker, as reporters thanked him and left.
The most difficult question of all was whether anyone could have foreseen this, could have done anything to keep Belcher apart from that gun.
Siler rambled through a lot of answers, but when one reporter asked if there had been any signs of trouble, he became perfectly succinct. "No,'' he said calmly. "Not at all.''
The answer matched what police spokesman Darin Snapp had said within hours of the shootings. He said he had never heard of a problem with Belcher before.
"A name like that, we'd hear about it,'' he said, "and I never heard his name come up."
When Siler was asked a slight variation on the question, he had more to say. Quarterback Brady Quinn had told the Kansas City Star that he wondered if he had missed something, if he could have helped. Did Siler understand that?
"I think that's totally natural,'' he said. "I went through it a hundred times in my mind, and I couldn’t think of anything. There are a lot of what-ifs, it drives you crazy. You have to cope with it and deal with it. It’s real and it happened.”
Linebacker Derrick Johnson spoke to the team before the game, a rarity, and he was one of several players who said that they probably needed to talk with each other more. "As men, not just as football players,'' Johnson said. “Generally, men don't really show their feelings, we don't talk about what's going on and don't show emotion. To have an act like this go on that could have been avoided, and as a teammate, we need to do more making sure the teammate is OK. Jovan was a perfect teammate.''
Quinn took a surprisingly broader view, drawing a lesson from connecting with his teammates through the win and from the haunting questions about the violence that made an orphan out of a 3-month-old. Quinn had a great afternoon on the field, the kind of day that, under normal circumstances, might have been memorable for redefining his future as a pro quarterback. But on this Sunday, Quinn’s insight easily trumped his athleticism.
"The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people,'' he said. "… When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth? We live in a society of social network, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that's fine and stuff. But we have contact with our work associates, our family and our friends, and it seems like half the time, we're preoccupied with our phones, and other things instead of the actual relationships in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually figure out if someone is battling something deeper on the inside.''
For now, Chiefs players have so many immediate things to address: trying to put together a fund for Zoey's future and comforting running back Jamaal Charles, whose wife was related to Perkins. "I feel for Jamaal more than anybody, because this was family for him,'' tackle Eric Winston said. "Jamaal has maybe had the toughest day.''
Charles, a man of minimal words, did not speak with the bulk of the media. Players also worry about what their coach witnessed, and many of them took care to hug him on the sidelines at various points of the day. Crennel declined to discuss what he saw on Saturday, after Belcher thanked him and Pioli for their help in his career, then walked off and ended his life. "Hopefully, you respect my wishes on that,'' the coach said, "because it wasn't a pretty sight.''
In the locker room on Sunday, Belcher's uniform was hanging in his stall, the shoulder pads resting on a shelf above everything else. Nearby, the locker of Kevin Boss, a tight end on injured reserve because of a concussion, had been arranged similarly. The mixing of messages about fallen players seemed odd, except that no gesture or emotion traveled a straight line. The guilt, anger and denial stages of grief crisscrossed each other constantly, sometimes in a space of minutes. That's complicated grief in a football locker room, with microphones under your nose.
"We’re all struggling to reconcile the conflicting emotions we have,'' Winston said. He still cared for Belcher, he said, but didn't know how to speak positively about him. "How do you mesh all those feelings together?'' Winston said. "Was he a great guy. Was he not? How do you put it together? Like I said, I can't stop thinking about that little girl.''