My heart goes out to the Kansas City Chiefs organization and everyone affected by the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide. With time passing and a locker room of individuals to support each other, the Chiefs will move forward with their season, but more importantly their lives. I talked about the tragic Torrey Smith situation earlier this year, and certainly this echoes many of the same feelings. The Chiefs’ situation is different for many reasons, one of the more significant being the league and the team had to decide whether or not to go ahead with their game against the Panthers this past Sunday. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in, and it creates a mixed bag of emotions on both sides when two realities collide in such tragic manner.
On the surface, canceling the game seems easy, and in many ways the right thing to do. Unfortunately professional sports seasons are set to tight schedules and predetermined timelines, meaning the Chiefs and Panthers wouldn’t have had a chance to make up the game later in the year. While that itself appears insignificant, with playoffs approaching and win-loss records used to determine seeding, it’s a decision that affects the entire league. This season will not be about the playoffs for Kansas City; it will about making it to the end of the schedule with their emotions under control and their lives intact.
I was in my second year at Simon Fraser University in the fall of 2001. The terrorist attacks of September 11th caught the entire world by surprise and impacted lives on a level much deeper than sports or games ever will. I remember that Tuesday like it was yesterday. The radio reports were too outrageous to be real, along with the television images on monitors stopping hundreds of students on campus in their tracks to turn as one and witness the events unfolding far away.
We were scheduled to head from Burnaby, British Columbia to play Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington on Saturday, Sept. 15 that week. As the only Canadian school playing in the NAIA (now the only Canadian NCAA school), we were already more tuned into the American football scene than most.
I can remember the eerie sense at practice the afternoon of the 11th. Our team had two Americans on the roster at the time. We practiced as usual after our regular team meetings, but there was a creeping sense of…off. Not wrong, not selfish…just off. By the next day, Wednesday, we were instructed that both schools were awaiting word from higher ups regarding the status of the game. It was predetermined that the game could not be made up at a later date, as scheduling conflicts and the realities of the bigger picture colliding with our season sunk everyone into a mess. Our coaches had spoken to PLU and both teams affirmed their desire to play while simultaneously offering their support if the other chose to withdraw.
As students at university, our minds were in tune with the real world and the immense gravity of the situation. How does one put such a colossal tragedy like a terrorist attack or player suicide in perspective two days after the event? You can’t. You might rely on your weekly routine to carry through until that’s no longer possible. Then you reflect and consider yourself lucky.
That could have been any team parking lot in the NFL. O.J. Murdock of the Tennessee Titans committed suicide in July, albeit in the parking lot of his former high school. Anybody see that one coming? We wanted to play in the worst way possible, and yet knew there were people hurting in the the worst way unimaginable. It would have been selfish to continue through no fault of our own.
Lost in the Belcher tragedy was the uncomfortable situation the Carolina Panthers were in. They most likely found out about the death on Saturday around the same time as the rest of the league and media, but unlike everyone else they had to sit in limbo and wait for a decision to be made about the game. The game was eventually played and the Chiefs won, but it took a lot for the Panthers to be there. I’m not questioning anyone’s professional integrity, but if you think Carolina didn’t have heavy hearts and a sense of guilt about them, you’re out of touch. Nothing they did or didn’t do created the situation or could help it. Their only answer was to proceed as normally as they could, or not. All things considered, both the Panthers and the Chiefs deserve tremendous credit for putting on an NFL caliber game. There’s no pride in beating on a broken opponent, no matter how much you need the win. You’ve already won before the game even starts because you get to go back to some sense of normalcy.
The game between Simon Fraser and Pacific Lutheran on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001 was cancelled on Friday. In all honesty, it hurt both teams to remove an important game on a tight schedule, but not a single person raised a complaint. Every game across the board in the U.S. was cancelled that week, so it wasn’t like our case was different. Instead on that Saturday SFU held a scrimmage. The starters played one series, before yielding to backups, freshmen, and practice roster players in what turned out to be a hotly contested pride fight on a day when nothing else was supposed to matter.
Was it a real game? No, but it was fun. Did the result matter? No, but we felt a bit better. The tension of waiting, the power of habit, and the weekly routine were all satisfied. Everyone returned on Monday to resume the next week and get back on track.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that nobody in the NFL wants to play the Kansas City Chiefs for the rest of the year. On one hand, it’s unfortunate the games must go on and no time will be awarded to the Chiefs to recoup. On the other, playing the Chiefs as tough as possible is the biggest favor the rest of the league can do for them. Both teams play, one wins the game. Forget about the season; when much of life doesn’t unfold on schedule regardless of the best laid plans, there’s no right or wrong. Nobody wins when reality collides with the everyday in such tragic fashion. All you can do is show up, and carry on.
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.