During his four years with the Chiefs, linebacker Jovan Belcher, along with his teammates, attended dozens of NFL-sponsored meetings devoted to personal issues outside of football.
The sessions included handling personal and family relationships, depression, finances, drug and alcohol use, proper use of firearms and where to find help and counsel for anything that might be bothering them.
Unfortunately, the programs offered by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, not to mention individual counseling sessions with the Chiefs after the team became aware of problems, failed to connect with a troubled player such as Belcher. On Saturday, Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, at home and then shot himself to death outside the Chiefs’ practice facility.
“Men in general, we don’t talk about our feelings or things we’re dealing with,” said former Chiefs fullback Tony Richardson, a former NFLPA executive board member. “Especially for athletes, we want to be big, strong and think we have everything under control. Then this situation happens, and you don’t have everything under control, and you make a terrible decision that not only ends your life, but ends the life of the mother of your child.”
Before athletes even reach the NFL, the league presents services and programs to players at the East-West Shrine and Senior Bowl all-star games. That’s followed by another presentation at the NFL Scouting Combine, where background checks are made on players and interventions may follow for players with troubled pasts.
At the end of the summer, before training camp begins, the league holds an intense three-day Rookie Symposium in Cleveland for all draft picks.
“You’re now a new player, and we talk about issues from relationship management, to social media, expectations of yourself, being a professional and what counseling services are available,” said former NFL cornerback Troy Vincent, the league’s vice president of player engagement.
“We get into relationship conflict resolution real hot subjects. Let’s talk about how we resolve conflict without physical confrontation. Where do you go for assistance? Where do you go for counseling?”
The veterans are not ignored. During each team’s off-season program, when rosters are at the maximum 80 players, an NFL security team arrives with local, state, and in some cases, federal officials to talk about laws and specifically have a question-and-answer session about guns, Vincent said.
Kansas City police revealed Tuesday that two handguns were used in the killings: one gun at the home and another at the stadium parking lot.
“The NFLPA advocates for responsible gun ownership,” said former Chiefs defensive back Jason Belser, senior director of player services and development for the NFLPA. “We advocate for men being the role models in their families. We advocate for men being professional, taking responsibility.
“I know where Kansas City is right now and the grieving they’re going through now but let’s not tie every football player to a violent act with a gun.”
Once the regular season begins, and the 53-man roster is established, the league holds a mandatory professional development and life skills session for players and coaches.
Running simultaneously is Rookie Success Program, a 12-week mandatory session that must be concluded by week 13 of the season.
“We talk about healthy relationships, where you get into domestic violence, potential depression, anxiety and unhealthy relationships,” Vincent said. “We deal with leadership and workplace conduct, decision-making, traffic education, stress management, time management, social media, money management, substance abuse.”
Both the league and the players association have emergency hotlines for players in need of help. And most every NFL team has a player development department that helps players develop life skills. Katie Douglas is in her third year as the Chiefs’ director of development and replaced Lamonte Winston, who spent 14 years in the position and is now director of player engagement with the Oakland Raiders.
Belser also said four former players — Don Davis, Tom Carter, Martin Bayless and Lester Archambeau — serve as player advocates and “communicate, disseminate information on various programs the league and we have, and the resources we have to address the life issues that players have.”
Davis, a former Olathe South and University of Kansas linebacker, and Brian Waters, a former Chiefs Pro Bowl guard and member of the NFLPA executive board, arrived in Kansas City on Saturday and helped counsel players dealing in their grieving the deaths of Belcher and Perkins.
“Waters came because he is a player who cares,” said Belser, a graduate of Raytown South and son of former Chief Ceasar Belser. “He has a relationship with numerous players on that team, but he was there as a former teammate and a Kansas City Chief for life.”
There’s another group of lifetime Chiefs wanting to lend a hand to today’s players.
The Chiefs Ambassadors, a group of former players, was heavily involved in helping players with off-field issues. Chiefs Hall of Famers Bobby Bell and Ed Budde would visit practice and the locker room, offer advice and share experiences from their playing days.
The Ambassadors became a model for alumni groups around the NFL.
“We have something we can offer players, not just in tragedy situations, but in everyday life transition (after playing), off-the-field opportunities, or just another ear to sit down and talk with and not judge them,” said former Chiefs wide receiver Danan Hughes. “I think that’s invaluable.”
So does Troy Vincent.
“We’ve learned from experts studying the military they’ve told us over and over, your peers, your former players are your greatest asset,” said Vincent, who added NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been talking to teams about retired player involvement.
“Right now, we need everybody. They are tremendous assets in the community.”
But it’s still a question whether any former player could have prevented this tragedy.
“There are some realities that we have,” Vincent said. “They are no different than the greater society. We just need the guys to engage. We can’t emphasize it enough: Make the call. It’s OK. You’re not alone. The systems are in place.”