Column: Game must go on in the NFL

Associated Press
Friends and relatives of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher grieve outside the player's home on Dec. 1, 2012, in West Babylon, N.Y. Police said the Long Island native shot and killed his girlfriend before taking his own life on Saturday in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Frank Eltman)
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Sometimes, the game must go on.

Especially in the NFL, where the games always seem to go on.

The assassination of President Kennedy a half century ago didn't stop the NFL from playing games barely two days later. The tragedy that unfolded Saturday in Kansas City won't stop the Chiefs from taking the field Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium against the Carolina Panthers, either.

A young woman is dead, killed in a shooting that left a 3-month-old baby without a mother. Her killer is dead, too. Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot himself in front of his coach and general manager outside the Chiefs' practice facility.

There's no way to make sense of it all.

But a football will sail into the air and reality will be suspended for a few hours. The Chiefs will find a way to play through their shock and grief.

It seems too soon, yes. It surely is for coach Romeo Crennel.

One day he watches in horror as one of his players commits suicide in front of him — but not before thanking Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli for all they've done for him. The next, Crennel is on the sideline trying desperately to find a way for his underachieving team to win a game they likely have no desire to play.

There's no playbook for this kind of thing, though the initial outcry on social media was for the game to be postponed. But the mayor of Kansas City said it was important for the team to carry on and by the time it was announced the game was a go, the charter carrying the Panthers had already headed west.

As painful as Sunday will be, the NFL got it right. The game itself is about as meaningless as they come, pitting a home team with just one win against a Carolina team going nowhere at 3-8, but it was a game that had to be played.

There will be tears in the stands, hugs on the sidelines. Teammates will grieve and so will fans. No doubt there will be a moment of silence for Belcher and 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins, the mother of their child.

Maybe fans will look at their heroes on the field and realize that they are human, too. Maybe it will put a face on the epidemic that is domestic violence and might somehow help prevent even more tragedies in the future.

How Crennel or Pioli will get through it, I can't imagine. More than likely they will still be in shock from what they witnessed, something so awful that it will surely scar them for life. They weren't harmed, but in some way they're victims, too.

Football is by its nature a violent game, something those involved in the NFL understand all so well. But it's a controlled violence with people watching to make sure rules are enforced and limits aren't violated.

That two people died in a murder-suicide involving a current player isn't an indictment of the NFL because the same kind of crime happens in neighborhoods around the country on an all too regular basis. And there's no empirical evidence to suggest that NFL players are more prone to hurt people than anyone else.

By all accounts, Belcher was a quiet fourth-year player who graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in child development and won a starting spot in the NFL through hard work despite not being drafted.

"He was a good, good person ... a family man. A loving guy," said family friend Ruben Marshall, who said he coached Belcher in youth football on Long Island. "You couldn't be around a better person."

Pictures on Perkins' Facebook page show a seemingly happy couple cuddling their infant daughter.

But things aren't always as they seem, especially in the NFL. We see the players making big checks and driving big cars, but it's a tough job to get and a brutal one to keep.

The pressures to perform are immense, the contracts never really guaranteed. A player like Belcher is always one bad game away from getting the ax and being forced to find a new career.

And we haven't even begun to explore the possibility of brain injury. Too many former NFL players have done too many irrational things for it not to be raised as a question. Belcher was listed in a 2009 injury report as being limited in practice because of a head injury but not much else is known.

There are no easy answers.

So they will play a game Sunday. As difficult as it will be for the Chiefs, it won't be easy for the Panthers, either, playing through a delicate situation they never could have imagined.

The fans will come to cheer, but hopefully they also come to reflect, too.

In the midst of a miserable season for the Chiefs, nothing can be more miserable than this.

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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