The door shut behind Brady Quinn, the last Chiefs player into a locker room that, remarkably given the extraordinary circumstances, was a victorious one.
A large cheer erupted from the room, a celebration of a dramatic accomplishment — a 27-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The shouts of joy were not specifically for Quinn, the quarterback who led one of the most unlikely victories in Chiefs history. But they might as well have been.
Quinn carried the burden from the events of the day before, when teammate Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend to death and then ended his own life.
Quinn spent much of the time leading up to Sunday’s game wondering what he could have done to prevent the tragedy. He then wondered on the eve of the game how he could possibly prepare himself to play.
He responded with one of the best games of his career, completing 19 of 23 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns. When it was over and he finally joined the celebration, the gravity of the situation finally hit him.
Quinn sat down in front of his locker and glanced across the room. There stood the locker of Belcher, preserved as if he was preparing for the game. Whatever emotion left in Quinn quickly drained.
“I looked across and saw his jersey hanging up, his locker filled with everything, and that’s when it kind of hit me,” Quinn said later. “I think it was an eerie feeling after a win because you don’t think you can win in this situation.”
Quinn’s passer rating was 132.1, the highest for a Chiefs quarterback since Matt Cassel in a game against Indianapolis last year. But perhaps more importantly, Quinn was their emotional leader.
He had been through a similar situation before, and now his teammates looked to him through a most difficult time. Quinn played for Denver two years ago when a teammate, Kenny McKinley, committed suicide.
The Chiefs were remarkably focused Sunday. They were penalized just once, for delay of the game late in the fourth quarter when they were trying to chew up the clock. For the first time this season, they committed no turnovers.
“The fact they had to lean on each other a little bit more this week maybe was helpful to them,” coach Romeo Crennel said. “The thing I was worried about was that they would not be mentally prepared. I knew they were prepared from a football standpoint. I didn’t know what our mental state would be, and that’s one thing you can’t predict.
“I don’t think you ever know if they can block it all out, but in the locker room there was an energy before the game.”
Searching for some inspiration before the game, Quinn took some from the words of Crennel, who spoke of Belcher and the intensity he brought each week.
“He talked about Jovan’s passion for the game, his dedication,” Quinn said. “I kept thinking in the back of my head ‘That’s what we’re playing for’ and all we wanted to do was try to get a win. I just tried to keep that in the back of my mind, that this is how he would have wanted to play, that this is how he always tried to play.”
The Chiefs played as efficiently offensively as they have all season. After Quinn’s passes of 21 yards to Dwayne Bowe and 34 yards to Jon Baldwin, the Chiefs scored their first opening possession touchdown since December 2010.
They kicked a field goal on their next drive and took the lead for good on Quinn’s 1-yard scoring pass to Tony Moeaki on the final play of the first half.
The 2-10 Chiefs broke their eight-game losing streak. In a season that already seems to have stretched for years, they have four games remaining, beginning Sunday against the Browns in Cleveland.
They’ll have to find the energy for those games after an emotionally draining two days. Quinn acknowledged that will be as much of a challenge as what the Chiefs have gone through the past two days.
“I don’t know,” Quinn said when asked about what the rest of the season would bring. “I was trying to get through the rest of today, to be honest with you.
“I think the emotions of what has taken place are probably going to hit home for a few guys, probably in the next couple of days when they really come to realize what has taken place.”