Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 2, 2012

In Kansas City, Reality Intrudes

By any measure it has been an awful year for the Kansas City Chiefs. A team that was probably not that good to begin with was ravaged by injuries. Through eleven games of the franchise’s 50th season in western Missouri the Chiefs managed but a single victory. That came in Week 3, when they edged the Saints 27-24 in overtime at New Orleans. Through last week they had played six times at home and lost in front of their own fans every time. It was not until the first quarter of the Week 10 game against Pittsburgh that the Chiefs actually led any game during regulation.

The Chiefs have a proud history. After playing their first three seasons in Dallas they moved to Kansas City as the kings of the American Football League, having beaten the Houston Oilers in the 1962 AFL Championship. Guided by owner Lamar Hunt, who was the founding father of the AFL after his efforts to acquire an NFL franchise were spurned, and led on the sidelines by legendary coach Hank Stram, the Chiefs won the league championship three times and were the winningest team in the ten-year history of the AFL. They were the league’s representative to the very first Super Bowl, and three years later were the second AFL team to win that contest when they beat the Minnesota Vikings 23-7.

But for modern Chiefs fans that is all ancient history. The 1970 victory over the Vikings remains the team’s only Super Bowl championship. Kansas City hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1993-94 season. Having already been eliminated from the postseason this year, the Chiefs are assured of making just three playoff appearances in the last decade and a half. With just one victory coming into this weekend’s game against Carolina, the team faced the possibility of eclipsing its worst-ever season record of 2-14, a mark of futility which it had recorded just twice before; once more than thirty years ago and again four seasons ago in 2008.

All of that losing spurred what can only be described as a revolt among Kansas City fans. Those that bothered to still come out to an increasingly empty Arrowhead Stadium started dressing in black to show their displeasure. A Facebook page entitled Save Our Chiefs quickly garnered wide support, and a companion Twitter account soon had more than 100,000 followers. In the stands at Arrowhead there were more signs calling for the firing of general manager Scott Pioli than there were banners supporting the team. At recent home games a small plane towing a banner advocating Pioli’s dismissal circled high above the stadium. When quarterback Matt Cassel left the Week 5 game against Baltimore with a head injury, some Chiefs fans stood and cheered.

Players on winning teams always talk about how their particular franchise has the greatest fans of all; while there are some cities whose fans have a reputation for being especially hard to please. In truth fans everywhere share much in common. We invest a part of ourselves in the teams that we follow and the players that we cheer on. It is an investment not just of dollars, though certainly there are plenty of those spent on everything from tickets to concessions to souvenirs and memorabilia. In many ways the more significant investment is of our passion. The success or failure of our team is something that we take very personally. Against our own better judgment we elevate our favorite players to the pedestals of hero-worship; imbuing them with imagined character traits unrelated to their athletic ability. When the return on all that emotional commitment is failure rather than championships, the pain that fans feel is very real. So it is that we love to cheer on our champions even as we feel that we have earned the right to boo lustily when they let us down.

Then in a handful of horrific minutes on Saturday morning, fans not just in Kansas City but everywhere were reminded that the games are really not so important. In the end they are but temporary diversions from our daily cares. Our heroes are not larger than life; they are every bit as human as we who sit in the stands. At a Kansas City home a short drive from Arrowhead Stadium, 25-year old Jovan Belcher, a fourth year linebacker with the Chiefs, shot his 22-year old girlfriend Kasandra Perkins multiple times while their infant daughter Zoey was in an adjacent room. Perkins would later be pronounced dead at an area hospital. Belcher then drove to the team’s practice facility next to the stadium. There in the parking lot he spoke to Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel, thanking them for the opportunities they had given him since he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009. As police arrived Belcher walked a short distance away from Pioli, Crennel and another Chiefs employee, and then committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

There will probably be those who will look to the brutal nature of professional football for an explanation of Saturday’s tragedy, but that explanation is facile; it is just never possible to neatly explain the inexplicable.  While there are reports that Belcher and Perkins had argued recently, everything that is known about him suggests Belcher was a quiet, hard-working young man who had shown no signs of being capable of such deadly behavior. He was a star football player and All-American wrestler while attending high school on Long Island. At the University of Maine he was the Colonial Athletic Association’s defensive player of the year in his senior season. With the Chiefs he first made a name for himself on special teams, before becoming a starting linebacker in 2010. This season he had started 10 of 11 games and recorded 38 tackles. Now he and his girlfriend are dead, and their daughter is an orphan.

They played a football game Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium. While some argued for postponing it, both the logistics of the NFL season and the needs of a stunned team to grasp at some sense of normalcy ultimately dictated that it go on as scheduled. There was no plane flying overhead, no signs in the stands demanding the general manager’s ouster. Fans who had dressed in black through loss after loss came attired in the Chiefs traditional red. Just before the opening kickoff, players and fans joined in a moment of silence for victims of domestic violence. Then against immeasurable odds and all logic, Kansas City beat Carolina 27-21. When Peyton Hillis ran in from two yards out for a touchdown on the Chiefs opening drive, he ran to the sidelines and gave Crennel the ball. Then he hugged his coach.

On the Save Our Chiefs Twitter feed, the chatter was about an “amazing win,” a “phenomenal game,” and of praise for the Chiefs players’ newly announced fund to support a three-month old baby girl. Before a disappointing season ends in the heartland, fans will once again be screaming for a new general manager, and a new direction for a team too long adrift. That is what disappointed fans do. But for one afternoon fans in Kansas City and everywhere were reminded that the games are just that, that our heroes are as human as we are, full of failing and flaws, sometimes tragically so; and in the end, there are far, far worse things in this world than a 1-10 record.


  1. Nice.

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