KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The darkest moments of the worst year in Kansas City Chiefs history had nothing to do with football.
Real life, the type of terrible violence that happens all too frequently across America, had invaded the NFL. Jovan Belcher, a 25-year-old linebacker, returned home from a night of partying with another woman early on Dec. 1, 2012, argued with his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, then killed her.
LOOKING BACK: Who was Jovan Belcher?
Belcher kissed Perkins as she lay dying in the couple's master bathroom, kissed his three-month-old daughter, who was in the arms of his stunned mother, and fled. He drove his black Bentley to work, and in the parking lot of the Chiefs' practice facility, in front of his head coach and general manager, shot himself in his head.
That was a Saturday morning. The Chiefs played the next day on one of the most surreal Sundays in NFL history, beating the Carolina Panthers for their second and final win of the year.
They will play again Sunday, exactly one year since the tragedy. So much has changed for the Chiefs since. Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel, the former general manager and head coach, who received deserved praise for how they handled the aftermath of the incident, were fired, the result of a 2-14 season.
Under new head coach Andy Reid, the Chiefs are winning. At 9-2, Kansas City is destined for the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Twenty-two of Belcher's teammates remain on the Chiefs roster, including nine on defense, and three linebackers - the players who spent the most time with Belcher.
"The best thing we did from last year, from the big tragedy, is put it behind us. It's something that's not talked about," linebacker Derrick Johnson told USA TODAY Sports. "It's remembered, but it's never really talked about because we want the families to be in peace. It's two families that are very sad and are going to be sad for a while. They lost two people, and that will always be remembered."
But Perkins' death still resonates, as does the fact that the incident left Zoey Belcher, the couple's infant daughter an orphan. Perkins was close with the wives of several players, and was the first-cousin of Whitney Charles, the wife of running back Jamaal Charles. This wasn't the bond of a locker room or friendship. For Charles, who has repeatedly declined requests to speak about the incident, Perkins was family.
Zoey, who turned 1 in September and will receive more than $1 million as Belcher's beneficiary, is being raised in Austin, Texas. by Perkins' cousin. Sophie Perkins was awarded custody by a Missouri judge earlier this year after a court battle with Belcher's mother.
The Chiefs have publicly bristled when questions about Belcher and Perkins arise. But publicly, the team is acutely aware that the anniversary may trigger painful memories. The team requested a group of crisis counselors, some of the same people who converged on the facility to help players and staff last year, travel to Kansas City more than a week before the anniversary.
"The Chiefs were proactive and sensitive," Troy Vincent the NFL's vice president of player engagement, told USA TODAY Sports. "I commend what [the Chiefs] did, and our response team. Let's not assume everyone is OK. This was a national tragedy - many of his teammates are still there. There's still a scar there.
"During this anniversary time, those suppressed memories can be triggered. That's very important. So what did we do -- we had someone one site that was a resource."
The league and another franchise will experience another one of these painful moments on Dec. 8, the one-year anniversary of the death of Jerry Brown, a practice squad linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys. Brown died in a car driven by Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent. Brent is facing charges of DUI manslaughter. He voluntarily left the NFL earlier this year.
"It was an emotional roller coaster, but there is no high when you lose a life," Vincent said. "It was an onslaught. Just senseless losses. For us, it was, 'What are we learning from this?'"
In response to the Belcher incident, Brown's death and a pair of suicides by young former players last year, Vincent said the league was forced to re-examine everything it was doing to deal with mental health, domestic violence, alcohol offenses and suicide prevention. In the past year, the NFL has hired Dwight Hollier, a former NFL linebacker with a Master's degree in mental health counseling, to oversee the league's mental health programs, and created a formalized crisis management plan that is consistent for each of the 32 teams.
But the biggest unanswered question, and the one that still haunts Vincent, is what more the NFL could have done to save Perkins. Even a year later, Vincent has a difficult time talking about Perkins without crying.
"When I think about the young lady, I think about my daughters, and I think about we can do for the families," Vincent said. "I live with that image, and it's kind of - it's not an anniversary. It's a daily reminder for me. ... We have to make sure the families know in this particular case that we're still here, and we still pray for peace over those families."
Perkins was just one of 70 people killed in a domestic violence incident in the state of Missouri last year, according to statistics from the Missouri Crime Reporting System maintained by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. But few murder-suicides attracted such national attention, because of Belcher's career, even as a player who was hardly known outside of Kansas City, or back in Maine where he played college football, or Long Island, where he was raised.
"That's the conundrum of domestic violence in general. This is about how badly the whole country handles it," said Dan Lebowitz, executive director the Center for Sport and Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "This is big conversation, not just around the Jovan Belcher situation, but around the acculturation of young boys, and why we still have a definition of manhood that doesn't allow for kindness, compassion and respect for women as part of that definition."
According to the USA TODAY Sports database of 688 NFL arrests dating back to 2000, there have been 84 arrests of an active player on some sort of domestic violence charge. Just last week, A.J. Jefferson, a cornerback with the Minnesota Vikings, was arrested on a felony charge of domestic violence by strangulation, and was immediately released by the team.
The NFL's personal conduct policy allows commissioner Roger Goodell to punish players accused of violence against women, but unlike with violations of the substance abuse policy or performance enhancing drug policy, there is no set guideline for punishing players accused of domestic violence incidents. No player under Goodell has served more than a one-game suspension for such arrests.
Compare that with a drug policy that mandates a four-game suspension for players who fail multiple tests for marijuana, or a PED policy with automatic four-game suspensions for a first violation.
Boston attorney Bethany Withers, who studied how each of America' pro sports leagues treat domestic violence offenders for a paper published in Harvard's Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, found the NFL had the "most robust" personal conduct policy, yet even that did not result in consistent treatment of men accused of crimes against women.
"Part of it is the nature of the crime, a lot of times takes place behind closed doors. Might be less documented evidence compared to someone who, say, blew into a Breathalyzer," Withers said. "There is evidence out there, but it doesn't always result in arrests or convictions."
An investigation by Kansas City Police revealed Belcher and Perkins had a volatile, but not violent, relationship. They argued about money and partying, and Perkins had left Belcher at least once after their daughter was born, and had received couples counseling. Belcher had even been dating another woman before and after his daughter was born, and he partied with her the night before the shootings.
Belcher had no history of arrests while in the NFL - so even a beefed up league domestic violence policy might not have prevented last year's tragic events. But to the NFL, that's no excuse.
"This is part of our DNA. We can't just be talking about mental health, or domestic violence or suicide prevention when we have a tragedy. No, this has to be part of our everyday conversation," Vincent said. "A year ago, we were in a different place. The conversation is much different," Vincent said. "Frankly, it's much more proactive. I can say it today, that we're on offense, and we're raising awareness about things that plague our country, that we're not immune to at the National Football League level."
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