KANSAS CITY, MO. -- The crowd at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday included an unlikely guest, a woman who lives at Hope House, a shelter for domestic-violence victims. She went to the game without any of her fellow residents, using one of the tickets that the Chiefs regularly provide to the house. She braced herself for the moment when the team honored the memory of linebacker Jovan Belcher, who the day before had killed Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his baby daughter, and then himself.
This woman had once come so close to death at the hands of her abuser that she can remember, through her haze, hearing the EMTs saying: "We're losing her.'' Why she went to the stadium on such a haunted day remains unclear. For security reasons, she could not be interviewed directly. A counselor related her experience.
But while many fans at Arrowhead insisted that it would be wrong to honor Belcher before the game, the woman from Hope House didn't expect any better, not for herself or for Perkins, the 22-year-old who had recently called Belcher "Superman'' on her Facebook page.
Then the public-address announcer spoke, asking everyone to pay respect to victims of domestic violence. There was no mention of Belcher, the overachieving No. 59, described as an impeccable teammate and friend in so many of the morning news accounts. The woman looked around and saw comforting messages on the stadium scoreboards, saying she and other victims weren't alone. She couldn't believe it.
Back at the house, she would tell people she had been moved to tears. Later in the week, at a support group, she explained a completely foreign feeling that came over her.
"For the first time ever, I thought: It's OK to be me. It's OK to be the victim,'' she said, according to Rita Witt, the house's vice president of clinical services, who oversaw the group. "I have their sympathy; I have their support.''
Other women in the group said they felt the same way when they learned of the moment of silence.
"They carry all this shame: 'Why was I so stupid? Why did I stay all those years?' '' Witt said. "To have the Chiefs do this, it was a gift. It sort of gave [the women] permission to feel validated, not shamed.''
It's hard to believe that a pro football team's gesture could mean so much. But too many athletes have been credibly accused of harming women, then returned to their sports and won back their jobs and the crowd. The victims are either forgotten or demonized.
This crime is different, more devastating and definitive. There's no hedging about what happened. Belcher shot Perkins nine times at their home, drove to the Chiefs' training facility, and after briefly talking with three of his bosses, knelt down and, as the police closed in, put a single bullet in his head.
Despite all the questions that remain, Kasandra Perkins' death fully explains itself. There may come answers about conflicts between the couple, Belcher's specific mental state, substances consumed, side relationships. None of them will change the fact that a man who shared Perkins' life ultimately took it away. That is domestic violence in its simplest, most obvious form.
Everything else is just a theory, impossible to verify, at least until the toxicology reports come out. Even then, people will make the most of the answers that suit them.
If someone thinks that firearms fetishism can turn an argument into a murder, reports that the couple owned at least eight guns would feed the theory. If someone believes that guns save lives, they'll have to look past the fact that those eight didn't protect Perkins.
If someone believes that Belcher had a fundamentally abusive nature, two campus police reports from the University of Maine will carry extra weight. The reports are, at most, suggestive. He punched a fist through a glass window, reportedly because of an argument with his girlfriend, and had to pay restitution. On another occasion, police went to his dorm because someone had reported excess noise from Belcher and his girlfriend outside his room.
If somebody else saw him as an entitled athlete with the impulsiveness of a toddler, the report that police found him sleeping in his new Bentley -- which probably cost more than the value of the house he was renting -- outside another woman's apartment building near 3 a.m. Saturday would support that view. The Chiefs were providing counseling for him and Perkins, knowing that they had troubles.
If someone thinks that pro football destroys men, turning women like Perkins into collateral damage, e-mails sent to Deadspin will receive maximum credence. The anonymous correspondent, ostensibly a friend of Belcher's, wrote that during a Nov. 18 game against Cincinnati, Belcher took direct blows to the head and afterward "was dazed and was suffering from short term memory loss. He could not remember the events that had taken place prior to that game.''
The e-mailer speculates that brain trauma plus painkiller use, presumably a football necessity, and alcohol abuse "put [Belcher] in a state that he would not otherwise be in.''
None of this evidence suffices as an explanation. The e-mails to Deadspin undermine their very point, an attempt to generate sympathy for Belcher. The correspondent ultimately blames the victim, a game more vicious than football.
Perkins was lazy, we're told, failing community-college classes her boyfriend had financed, refusing to work minimal shifts at a retail job. She took the couple's baby, Zoey, and moved in with her family for a while, threatening to take as much of Belcher's money as she could. An obligatory gold-digger reference follows, and then …
"I'm in no way trying to defame her character, however; she is the catalyst to this incident.''
Perkins might have been a catalyst for arguments. She might have pushed buttons. But she didn't agitate Belcher into shooting her nine times. He made that choice, with his mother and 3-year-old daughter, Zoey, in the house. Perkins' death explains itself.
The responsibility can't be shifted. No thoughtful person will allow it.
Witt has a reliable clue for anyone tempted to trust an apology after an abusive incident. She says to listen closely for the "but.''
"He'll say "I'm so sorry, I love you, I miss you so much,' " she said. "And then you'll hear: 'But if you just hadn't done this, or if you did this, I wouldn't have been forced into it.' " After that, she says, there is only one option. "Pack your bags, girlfriend.''
* * *
The guns debate touched off by Belcher's murder-suicide built a lineup of stars rather quickly. Bob Costas put his microphone in the camp of people who can't fathom owning firearms. Charles Barkley and the Steelers' James Harrison proudly explained why they do.
Domestic-violence victims don't have that kind of platform, that ability to encroach on jock turf. Barkley wants the debate shifted to condemnation of domestic violence, but he can't personalize the issue. The people who can usually have to hide.
Even when victims want to be heard, they doubt they'll be believed. Their stories make people cringe. It's more comfortable for listeners to pretend that it's all fiction.
"I can't tell you how many times I've heard 'That sounds like a Lifetime movie,' " said Pam, one of five non-resident clients of Hope House who agreed to joint interviews. " 'Surely, you're making that up.' "
The news of Perkins' murder frayed her nerves, already laboring under a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress.
"I don't even want to know about it,'' she said slowly, starting to cry. "A friend of mine brought it up, and I told her: 'Don't you know that could have been me?' It's not against her [Perkins], I just can't talk about it.''
Some of the women still feel threatened by their former partners, years after the relationship ended, so only their first names will appear here if they are identified. Michelle keeps the drapes at her home closed at all times, just in case. Another woman has installed surveillance cameras around her house.
Pam calls the county jail regularly to make sure her ex-husband hasn't somehow been freed. After he whacked her repeatedly with a skillet 14 months ago, according to police reports that say he confessed everything, he burned their house to the ground and vowed to kill her if she tried to leave him.
Pam brought a flip phone to the interview. It contained a series of photos from the year before, showing eggplant-colored bruises all over her body. She says the pain was excruciating, but nothing compared to what she feels when people dismiss what happened to her.
A man at church, she says, told her that the court case should only be about arson, not the assault. During the divorce another man told her that she should have stood by her husband.
This is why victims find it impossible to explain themselves. Too often, when they try, they register as hysterical females.
"Who believes that when you're driving home from work at night, you have to hold your cell phone out the window so he can hear the traffic and know where you are and why you're not home when you said you would be?'' Witt said. "Now if you tell the police that, what are they going to think?''
Pam's personality will switch from frantic to poised and then back again in no time. Even 14 months later, this all seems new for her. Valerie, six years removed from an abusive marriage, took her hand and held it for 20 minutes during one rough stretch.
"You don't understand, I'm scared he's going to kill me. It's not make-believe, it's not exaggerated,'' Pam said, forgetting that Valerie has been in her place, that she doesn't need to be convinced.
Neither of their husbands had drinking problems or took drugs. "If you'd ever met him, you would never have guessed,'' Pam said of hers.
The two were married 31 years, rearing two children. She said she saw mental illness in him and felt emotionally abused for a long time. Yet the physical violence of that afternoon caught her off guard.
"I don't like the word 'snap'; that makes it sound like they're crazy and not culpable,'' Pam said. "I say they're crazy with culpability.''
* * *
As they tried to talk about the unspeakable this week, some of the Chiefs could have used a Valerie, holding their hands. They had grief counselors at their command, but if you asked a player whether he had sought their help, the answer would most likely be of the "I'm fine without it'' variety or a hedge and subject change.
This is how they play through debilitating pain, putting tourniquets on their emotions. Nate Jackson, a former Denver tight end, captured the attitude in an essay for The Daily Beast that called the NFL "a breeding ground for mental illness.''
Romeo Crennel, the head coach, said players were using the counselors, but not him. No, he was fine. He only needed to talk to his wife and daughters.
He didn't want special help after he, general manager Scott Pioli and linebackers coach Gary Gibbs witnessed a 25-year-old protégé's suicide in the parking lot.
On Wednesday, Troy Vincent told USA Today Sports that the league was taking the decision about therapy out of their hands. They would each receive mandatory counseling.
Now the NFL's vice president of player engagement, Vincent is in charge of supporting the athletes' lives off the field. In his playing days, Vincent became one of the earliest athletes to speak out forcefully against domestic violence. In October of 1994, a few months after O.J. Simpson's arrest, Vincent appeared on a panel in South Florida and described horrific beatings his mother took from a live-in boyfriend.
"To see my mom holler, it hurt,'' he said. "It's disturbing to see a woman be a prisoner in her own home.''
Perkins' death may help bring one woman out of isolation. Valerie has rebuilt her life in many ways, but she still feels herself sitting on life's periphery, reluctant to watch the news. Posts about domestic violence keep cropping up on Facebook, in response to Belcher's crimes. "Maybe I'll put what I'm thinking out there, now that this is prevalent,'' she said.
"They're talking about it. Maybe I'll educate some people ... if they'll listen to me.''