KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Romeo Crennel likes to say his best quality is his even spirit. He learned it from his father, a lifetime military man. In the midst of battle, the advantage is with the man who can keep his mind, and Romeo has always remembered this. Stiff upper lip and all of that.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
He's worked for and around screamers, from Bill Parcells to Bill Belichick, from Charlie Weis to Todd Haley. Those men scream and they curse. Romeo has always smiled and hugged. This is his way. Always has been, even when people have wondered if a man can really make it in football without being an ornery old cuss.
When the Giants won the Super Bowl his first season as a defensive-line coach, he joked about how easy it was. When the Chiefs won just one of their first 11 games this season, he said he would keep working hard and turn things around. Never too high, never too low. Romeo won't try to be someone he's not.
As it turns out, his even spirit and gentle soul made for the perfect man in an unthinkable situation.
Romeo Crennel's finest hour of the season came from the darkest moment of his life.
Watching him on the sideline you might not have known Romeo was coaching 28 hours after eye-witnessing tragedy. He saw a man he loved - linebacker Jovan Belcher - put a gun to his head and pull the trigger in the parking lot of the team's practice facility Saturday morning shortly after murdering his longtime girlfriend.
That image won't leave Romeo's memory soon, maybe never, and there are many who wondered if this game should even have been played. Many wondered how the game could even be played. But Romeo saw football as therapy, teammates as brothers who needed each other now more than ever. That even spirit never defined him so completely.
His focus on his players as men never served him so well.
"We need to work our way through the tragedy," he says. "We know it's not over and it will still go on tomorrow. And the next day, and the next day. But life is going to go on as well, and we have to get through it. So that's what we're going to try to do."
The Chiefs beat the Panthers 27-21 on Sunday, just their second win of this terrible season, but that's not really the point. As Romeo said, even if they lost, maybe just being around the game and routine helped shift people's minds away from tragedy for a few hours.
Maybe that helped. Maybe football can be part of the healing process here. Maybe he doesn't know any other way.
Romeo coached this game much the way he always does - bifocals on the tip of his nose, play card tucked inside his pants, more encouragement than criticism. When the Chiefs played defense, he stood in the middle of the fire, hand signals and play calls, the conductor of a violent symphony. When the Chiefs played offense, he stood mostly to the side, offering a word every now and then, deciding when to punt and when to go for it on fourth downs.
This is the only noticeable difference in how he coached. The Chiefs went for it on three fourth downs, converting all of them, each on touchdown drives. Romeo had been one of the most conservative fourth-down coaches in football - only once before going for it when kicking was a reasonable option. On Sunday, he went for it every time he could.
Maybe the circumstances were just different. Maybe Romeo wanted to use his team's emotions for good. Maybe this had nothing to do with watching a man kill himself. Only Romeo really knows.
He got his job in no small part because his players love him. That's how it's always been for him, through coaching stops at five colleges and four NFL teams. They rallied for him last year, after Haley got fired, winning two of three games and pushing him toward the permanent head coaching position.
They rallied for him on Sunday, too. Quarterback Brady Quinn played his best game in three years, Peyton Hillis and Jon Baldwin scored their first touchdowns of the season, Jamaal Charles rushed for more than 100 yards again, and a string of defensive backups like Brandon Siler, Tysyn Hartman, Travis Daniels, Cory Greenwood and Shaun Smith played like starters.
It was beautiful to watch, a wounded team finally playing like the playoff contender most expected before the season, even if only for one game. People who know this group of players well aren't sure they would've reacted as well for a different coach, a different man.
"You just let him know you're here for him," cornerback Brandon Flowers says.
"I can't imagine what he's going through," kicker Ryan Succop says.
"We all really need to take care of each other now," lineman Eric Winston says.
Romeo returned the love as best he could. He hugged his guys before the game, patted them on the back during, and told them he loved them after. In the locker room, the guys gathered in a muted celebration, owner Clark Hunt gave Romeo the game ball.
Romeo told them he would put the ball in a place where everyone could see it.
"Because everybody helped," he told them. "And that's what a team is about."
Romeo Crennel knows that the grief and pain are only beginning.
That might be easy to miss, especially through the miniature controversy about whether this game should've been played as scheduled. You might take Romeo's push to move on as a man sweeping tragedy to the side. That would be wrong.
"We know there are funerals we're going to have to deal with," he says. "It's not over yet. It might not be over for a long time."
For now, Romeo is moving on the only way he knows how. He wants his players and coaches to do the same. In a private moment shortly after watching death, he told his team that all they have is faith and family and friends.
Tragedy happens every day in our country, unfortunately, each one unique. A murder-suicide by an active player the day before a game is thought to be unprecedented in major professional sports. The league and team have each made counselors available to the coaches and players, but the truth is nobody can be sure of the best way out of this grief.
Romeo is no different. He has no textbook. No checklist. He said the biggest progress he made was in talking to the team on Saturday, in "letting a little bit out." He will have more chances like this, and maybe this is the best way to lead a group of men from an unthinkable tragedy. Maybe not.
But it is his way, the only way he knows, and at least so far it makes him the perfect man for an impossible situation - his most inspiring hour of the season born from the darkest moment of his life.
"I knew I needed to be strong for my players in that locker room," he says. "They needed to see a strong individual leader. The experience will probably change me, but I'm not changing. I'm the same guy every day. That's been one of my qualities."