During each Chiefs practice, Jovan Belcher sprinted to the front of the line ahead of any teammates who dared to out-run him.
Whether it was running from calisthenics to position drills, or from sideline to sideline during wind sprints, Belcher beat his fellow linebackers down the field. Every time.
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It was that kind of hustle and desire that fueled Belcher’s rise from small-school linebacker to a three-year starter for the Chiefs.
But somewhere all that energy went haywire on Saturday morning when Belcher shot and killed Kasandra Perkins, who was the mother of his three-month old daughter, at their Kansas City home. He shot himself to death 20 minutes later in front of Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli on the parking lot of the team’s practice facility.
“This wasn’t forthcoming of his character,” said former college teammate Raibonne Charles, who played defensive line at the University of Maine. “Jovan is a very passionate, very emotional person, and you could tell that by watching him play the game. But this is a shock to us all.”
Belcher, 25, beat the odds by making the Chiefs as an undrafted rookie, playing mostly on special teams in 2009. He became a starter at inside linebacker in 2010 and made a career-most 120 tackles in 2011.
This season, he started 10 of the first 11 games, recording 37 tackles. In four seasons, he never missed a game and was seldom on the team’s injury report.
So when news of the murder-suicide spread across the country Saturday morning, those who knew him the longest were in a state of shock.
“I just crumbled inside,” Charles said. “He was such an inspiration to me as a player. He was able to accomplish through his hard work and overcome so much …”
Former Maine defensive line coach Dwayne Wilmot, now the defensive line coach at Yale, hinted that Belcher, who earned a degree in three-and-a-half years in child development, overcame some immaturity issues early in his college career.
“Everyone has times they wish they had made different decisions, and Jovan had some of those,” Wilmot said, declining to elaborate. “But he matured and grew as a person to be the man everyone knew and loved.”
That love, Wilmot said, particularly showed during game days, in which Belcher’s family came to see him play. Belcher’s mother was at his home when the shooting occurred.
“He lived for his mom and his family, and vice versa,” Wilmot said. “They were one of the closer groups I’ve ever come across. They warmed your heart. I get emotional thinking about it.”
Belcher participated in an anti-domestic initiative, the Male Athletes Against Violence organization, while in college and mentored a local youngster by going on outings with him.
All of which makes Saturday’s events all the more baffling. Belcher, who was introverted in the locker room and didn’t call attention to himself, was never a discipline problem on the team or faced any known legal problems while with the Chiefs.
“Jovan was a happy, proud father, with pictures of his baby on his Facebook page,” Belcher’s agent, Joe Linta, told Sports Illustrated on Saturday. “This is shocking. Something went crazy wrong, and we’ll probably never know what it is.
“He came to my youth clinics in the offseason and worked with kids. He was a gracious, unselfish, hard-working, dedicated kid — very, very caring of some of the underprivileged kids who came to the clinics. I saw him in a real positive way.”
Belcher did not take the most direct route to the NFL. He played linebacker, offensive tackle, nose guard and fullback at West Babylon High School on Long Island, N.Y., leading his school to its first undefeated regular season as a senior.
But Belcher was better known as an All-American prep wrestler and had Division I scholarship offers in that sport. But he wanted to play football, and Maine was the only school to give him that opportunity.
“They called and wanted me to play football for them, so I jumped on the first train up there,” Belcher told The Star in August. “I try to bring the wrestling mentality to everything I do. It’s a certain mentality you build in wrestling that brings you through life.
“Wrestling really builds your mental toughness. You learn great balance on the field, but it’s mostly mental toughness, pushing through the hard parts.”
Belcher started all 45 games in his four-year career at Maine, and as a senior captain led the Black Bears to the playoffs. Belcher rolled up 17 1/2 sacks in his last two years at Maine and was the runner-up for the 2008 Buck Buchanan Award, which is named for the former Chiefs Hall of Famer and given to the best defensive player at that level.
“You don’t normally make it to the NFL from the (Division I-AA) level, but it was how he was on the field,” Charles said. “He seemed like his motor never ran out of gas, no matter what happened, and you can tell that by watching him with the Chiefs. He’s always flying to the ball, he’s always in on tackles, he never stops …”
“He always did the right thing. He was one of those guys you told him the right way to do it once, and he did it. He never accepted anything less than the best from himself or the guy next to him. He held himself to a high standard on the field and held everybody else the same.”
Charles, who trains athletes and plans to play for an indoor football team in the spring, said he had not been in much contact with Belcher in recent years.
“He’s busy,” Charles said. “When you get to that level, all of a sudden you have a thousand more friends.”
But even his closest friends and teammates had no inkling there were demons inside Belcher that would cause him to snap.
“Jovan was one of those guys who was friendly to everybody,” Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn said. “It wasn’t like he closed himself off or wasn’t cordial. He was there every day in the stretch line, and he was always talking to the quarterbacks, talking trash to us sometimes, joking with us back and forth.
“He was one of the guys who was a leader on the team. He would step up and say something to us or try to motivate us no matter what it was, whether it was what he expected out of the offense or what he expected out of the defense. Even during the short period of time I was on the team, he was one of those guys who was able to reach out and be accessible to guys. He made me feel part of the team right away.”
The Star’s Adam Teicher and Sam McDowell contributed to this story.