In a span of one winter’s week last December, the Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys were linked by an unforgettable tragic bond.
On the morning of Dec. 1, a day before the Chiefs were to play the Carolina Panthers, linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and shot himself at the club’s practice facility.
Seven days later, on the morning before the Cowboys were to leave for a game at Cincinnati, defensive tackle Josh Brent was under the influence of alcohol when the car he was driving hit a curb and flipped over, killing passenger Jerry Brown, a linebacker on the club’s practice squad.
The two teams, who meet Sunday in the Chiefs’ home opener at Arrowhead Stadium, were shaken by the deaths of their teammates but temporarily summoned the strength to continue their seasons.
The Chiefs, 1-10 at the time of the Belcher tragedies, beat Carolina for their only other win of the season. The Cowboys, 6-6 at the time, beat the Bengals and followed that with an overtime win against Pittsburgh before running out of steam and losing their last two games.
“It was as challenging a situation as any of us has been in in football,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Jerry Brown was our teammate, he was our friend, and he was a heck of a kid. To not have him be there, it was a very difficult thing for everybody to handle. Because we have the right kind of guys in our organization, I thought we responded the right way.
“There certainly was no blueprint for how any of us could handle that situation. We all kind of leaned on each other, all just tried to figure it out. It was moment to moment, hour to hour, day by day to get through it. I thought our guys responded great to the situation players, coaches and staff
“We tried our best to play as well as we could, to focus on the task at hand, and somehow honor Jerry Brown and his family in the game we played.”
The deaths were a double blow for Chiefs guard Jeff Allen, a rookie thrust into the starting lineup earlier in the season who not only was a teammate of Belcher’s but a former teammate of Brown’s at Illinois.
“It was probably one of the toughest years of my life, having to deal with back-to-back weeks ” Allen said. “For me, football was an escape, to be able to focus on something else.”
Though there was some consideration given to postponing the game in Kansas City, playing the next day proved to be therapeutic for both the Chiefs and, a week later, for the Cowboys.
“It shows the character of a team when you go through something like that and can bounce back,” said Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, who played with Belcher for three years. “When you think of the worst that can happen and it does happen, you’ve got to deal with it by believing in your faith and the players in this room, and I’m sure Dallas did the same thing.
“Playing was the best medicine. Football frees us up, mentally and physically. Football is a stress reliever. It’s a time to do something you love to do and get your mind off the rest of the world.”
Both teams were provided help from clergy and grief counselors who were brought in to help players, coaches and staff members cope with the tragedies. Former Chiefs Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters also showed up, representing the NFL Players Association.
“He didn’t have to be here at all,” Allen said. “He was no longer part of the (Chiefs) organization. But for him to come back and give us some kind of support, it made that day easier.”
Waters, who sat out last season after playing for New England in 2011, signed as a free agent with Dallas last week and is expected to play in his first game with the Cowboys on Sunday against the Chiefs.
It will be the first time most of the Chiefs will have seen Waters since those dark days of December.
“Knowing a lot of guys, and knowing Jovan personally, and knowing guys who were involved with him on a personal level, I wanted to avail myself to those guys as a guy who had been around for a long time,” said Waters, who spent 2000-10 with the Chiefs.
“A lot of those guys were youngsters when I was there. You have coaches, you have player development people, and you have counselors and they did a great job of making those people available. But it’s another thing when you have a guy you played with a lot of years for them to lean on their shoulders.”
Even now, former Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn struggles with the memory of Belcher's murder-suicide. A few weeks ago, when he was in the Seattle Seahawks’ training camp before moving on to the New York Jets, a team psychologist asked how he was doing. Quinn realized he hadn’t fully gotten over it and probably never will.
“When something like that happens, you’re in the midst of a season, and you kind of try to think about it but not think about it,” Quinn told New York Newsday. “You think about it because it’s the loss of your teammate and the family and how they were affected, but you try to push it away because we had games left to play. It was tough. I mentioned that I really never had an opportunity to grieve.”
Quinn occasionally will reach out to his former Chiefs teammates.
“I’m not fully over it, and I don’t know if a lot of those players will be over it,” Quinn said.