Vahe Gregorian

Chiefs' James Winchester turned to faith to find forgiveness after father's murder

Long-snapper most overlooked position in football, but Chiefs 'have a good one'

KC Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub reviewed the key second-quarter turnover caused by long-snapper James Winchester against the Philadelphia Eagles.
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KC Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub reviewed the key second-quarter turnover caused by long-snapper James Winchester against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Distraught as he was upon learning his father had been murdered last November at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, Chiefs long snapper James Winchester had instant clarity about one thing in the anguished fog of the drive home with his wife, Emily.

No matter what, he immediately told coach Andy Reid and special teams coordinator Dave Toub, he would be back at work days later to play for the Chiefs against Tampa Bay.

It was what his dad would do and want, after all.

And James always wanted to live up to those standards: from following in his path to play football at the University of Oklahoma to dedicating his life to Christianity to knowing you are only part of something much bigger than you.

“He used to always teach us when you have a responsibility and someone depends on you, you come through no matter what,” James Winchester said Wednesday as the Chiefs prepared to visit the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. “That’s just part of working hard and doing your job. He never really believed in calling in sick, calling in when it’s too cold or whatever, making up this and that.

“He was going to be there, 3 o’clock in the morning, every morning, rain, snow, whatever. So for me, it was like, ‘I’m not going to let my team down. They have a job to do.’ And I also felt like Dad would kick me in the tail if I didn’t play.”

Something else became clear to Winchester that week, too, as he sought to summon what his father in word and deed most strived to teach.

In the process he found … forgiveness.

Chiefs long snapper James Winchester, right, followed in the footsteps of his dad, Mike (at left), and played football at Oklahoma. The younger Winchester’s father was murdered nearly a year ago in Oklahoma City. James Winchester/Twitter

That’s something Winchester thinks about even as he relives the torment every day of the shooting of his father, a beloved Southwest Airlines supervisor, by disgruntled former Southwest employee Lloyd Buie, who then killed himself.

There are no words to describe the piercing loss Winchester felt on the worst day of his life.

But this is how he and his family have tried to make sense of the senseless and reconciled to move forward.

“I don’t hold anything against that man,” he said. “Obviously, you’re angry about it, but angry’s not going to get you anywhere in life. That’s not going to do any good. That stuff is only going to breed hate, and that’s not what Jesus teaches.”

James Winchester keeps a Southwest Airlines baseball cap in the console of his GMC Sierra pickup.

It’s a reminder of both his father’s work ethic in 29 years there and the company “coming through like you wouldn’t believe” when Mike Winchester’s wife, Julie, and the family needed it most.

CEO Gary Kelly attended the funeral with fellow executives. And in tribute to Winchester, the airline later arranged a ceremonial commercial flyover before the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game on Dec. 3.

That was all testimony to the reputation earned by his father with Southwest, for which he was a ramp supervisor — in charge of the operations involved with getting planes in and out of the gates.

According to reports from the Oklahoma City police at the time, Buie had lost his job in 2015 after co-workers suspected he was intoxicated at work and refused to take a sobriety test.

The Oklahoman later reported that it was “well-known by employees at the airport that Buie held a grudge against Winchester, his most senior supervisor.”

After speaking with a detective involved with the case, though, an Oklahoma City police spokesman on Friday said it was uncertain if Winchester was any more a specific target than other supervisors in the episode that ended with Buie killing himself at the scene after shooting Winchester from the second floor of a parking garage.

Winchester had been leaving his regular early shift, one he had taken so he could maximize the time to see his children.

That included playing with them often as youngsters, and later at times attending their practices at OU, where James’ older sister Carolyn played basketball and competed in track and younger sister Rebecca rowed.

That dedication to his children was something James treasured about his father, who had another OU-graduate daughter, Emily, with his first wife, Pam, and two young children with his second wife, Julie.

In hindsight, it seemed like he was always teaching them, too.

“As little kids, we’d fight and bicker, and he’d pull us together, sometimes pretty forcefully,” he said. “He’d say, ‘Hey, you get over here, and you get over here.’

“Then he’d say, ‘Don’t ever stay mad at each other, don’t fight with each other. Some day you guys will be all that you’ve got, and just stick together as a family.’”

That included a special attachment between father and son.

When James was a child, before Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything, he would occasionally visit his dad at work and get to explore his love for airplanes by riding a baggage conveyor up into the belly of planes.

“As a little kid, it was the coolest thing ever,” he said, smiling. “I’d still do it today if I could.”

It also was somewhere around then that James and his father would happen upon a certain synergy that helps explain James’ improbable NFL career.

Mike Winchester had been a punter on Oklahoma’s 1985 national title team.

Maybe James would have had a better chance to more literally follow in his footsteps if not for his size 14 feet.

As it happened, he made his own way a bit by happenstance.

Mike Winchester, left, and son James. Facebook

One day, as they worked on punting drills together, Mike suggested the strong-armed James “snap me one.”

“So I leaned over and threw it,” James said. “He caught it, and, I’ll never forget this, he said, ‘Hey, keep practicing that. Keep it in your back pocket. You might use it one of these days.’”

Beyond father and son dabbling in it, the skill remained tucked in that pocket all through Washington High, where James was good enough to play receiver and kick and punt — thus precluding any long-snapping.

But that became his best chance to try out at OU, since he wasn’t quite the caliber to play receiver there.

And even with scholarship offers to smaller schools, going to OU was what it was all about.

“Every kid wants to play in the NFL, but for me, I just wanted to play at Oklahoma,” he said. “No matter what it took, what position, I didn’t care. I just wanted to be part of it like dad was.”

So the first time he ever snapped in a game was after walking on at Oklahoma — just like his dad had done — and getting the job as a freshman in 2008 because of an injury to the starter.

His debut was inauspicious — and conspicuous.

Oklahoma beat Tennessee-Chattanooga 57-2 in what would have been a shutout if not for Winchester’s errant fling on his first career snap.

It didn’t help that the ball was slick and the game took forever to play because of weather delays.

That compounded the jitters of playing on the field where he’d watched home games for years with his family.

“It was pretty embarrassing, but it was you live, you learn, that’s life,” he said. “A coach in college would always say, ‘You’re only as good as your next play.’ That’s true. You can let that one define you, or you can move forward with it.

“There were some valuable lessons there and it pushed me to get better and continue to perfect my craft, and I’m still doing that today to try to get better.”

If his OU career started off in unpromising fashion, so did his NFL prospects.

At 6 foot 4, 220 pounds coming out of college in 2012, he was too light for the job initially.

Even as he was in and out of camps and tryouts, he conceded reality by spending most of three years working as a landman in the oil-and-gas business.

To keep his hand in, he’d sometimes snap footballs — retrieving them himself — on lunch break at local schools or into a golf net in his backyard.

Through rigorous diet and workouts with his father’s college strength coach, Pete Martinelli, he beefed up to 240 pounds by late 2014.

But by 2015, he had come to a crossroads and decided not to attend the annual special-teams combine conducted by Gary Zauner in Arizona, the place to be for networking and opportunity.

“I was actually about a week away from hanging it up,” he said. “The fee was like $400 or $500, and I told Emily, ‘We need to spend that on our wedding. I don’t know if I should do it.’”

Noticing his name wasn’t on the list, Zauner called him. That was all it took for Winchester to give it one more try.

Then-Chiefs assistant coach Brock Olivo took notice, and Winchester has been a Chief ever since.

James Winchester broke through with the Chiefs in 2014, and has been a staple in KC ever since. David Eulitt David Eulitt

It’s a relatively anonymous job, and best it stay that way — as his misadventure against Tennessee-Chattanooga attests.

“I think any long snapper would agree that as long as our name’s not in the paper or really known, that’s a good thing,” he said, smiling.

Every so often, though, his presence is unmistakable — like when he forced Darren Sproles’ fumble last week against the Eagles to set up the go-ahead field goal late in the first half.

On punt coverage, Toub said, he’d consider Winchester among the top three in the league.

That’s in part because of his speed (he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds) and in part because of his grit.

“For me, my mindset is to give everything you’ve got on every play,” he said.

That’s something he also took from his father, to live with that sort of conviction every day in whatever you do.

There is less room for regret that way.

While Winchester struggled initially to deal with not getting to tell his father goodbye or that he loved him one last time, he was consoled by the daily knowledge of it.

“He was our best friend every single day,” Winchester said, “and he showed us by his actions. But past the actions, he told us he loved us every day.”

Between that and their shared faith, Winchester is grateful that this wasn’t something “we had to try to muster up” when the nightmare happened.

Because it’s something they’ve all lived their entire lives.

That brought enormous comfort right after the shooting, and it helps him focus on his infinite blessings in those moments he might otherwise want to know more about why such a terrible thing happened.

Fixating on that won’t change the result, he knows, and it won’t lead you anywhere.

“So we try to do the things we know are right, and live by them and those morals that we read about in the Bible,” he said. “You know that stuff is going to happen in life, and you know you’re not the only one: There’s people all around us who never knew their parents growing up, who had bad relationships, things like that.

“So there’s just so many blessings that we draw from, so many positives, it’s hard to stay down.”

It also helps to have so much loving family, including the extended ones at OU and Southwest and with the Chiefs.

At some point in the middle of so much pain, Winchester said he felt “a peace that really does pass all understanding.”

“You find yourself going, ‘How am I doing so well?’” he said. “And you look around and you realize how many people are praying for you, thinking about you and just going above and beyond.”

He is particularly close to punter Dustin Colquitt and kicker Cairo Santos, whose father died in a plane crash.

Winchester and Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos were men of the hour after Santos’ overtime game-winner against the Broncos last fall in Denver. David Eulitt

“We all share a heartbeat,” Santos said.

All the more so in Winchester’s time of acute need.

“When something like that happens, we often ask ourselves, ‘Why? Why does it have to happen this early? Things are going good, and we love each other,’” Santos said. “But I also saw after what happened with James that I needed to be that person to help him be strong.

“So I think God puts us in those positions where everything we go through in life, we learn to help somebody else.”

That’s no doubt one of the lessons Winchester has had reinforced through all of this, one of the ways he knows he’ll be drawing on his father’s example and lessons for the rest of his life.

A few weeks from now, he’ll be able to do that in a new way.

His wife, Emily, is due Oct. 23, with their first child, Jase Michael.

That’s four days after his father would have turned 53, and Winchester sees something special in the timing.

He laughs as he thinks of all the things Mike did as a father that he swore he’d never do.

Especially because for all that’s changed now, one thing never has, something that has sustained him through the pain and always will.

“I want to be,” he said, “just like dad.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian