Crennel's poise through heartbreak inspires Chiefs to emotional win
KANSAS CITY -- They call Kansas City Chiefs coach Romeo Anthony Crennel "RAC" because of his initials. From now on, he has a new nickname.
"You can call him 'Rock,' " Chiefs center Ryan Lilja said in the locker room Sunday afternoon after the Chiefs' 27-21 victory over Carolina, a game that was played under extraordinarily tragic circumstances at Arrowhead Stadium. "He was our rock steady. I know no one was hurting more than him. What he went through and what he's going through, nobody in this building is hurting more than him. And he was a steady, consistent leader for us."
During his 31 seasons in the NFL, Crennel has been a three-time Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, the head coach of the Cleveland Browns for four seasons and the defensive coordinator-turned-interim head coach-turned head coach of the Chiefs. None of that vast wealth of experience, however, prepared him for the shocking event that happened on Saturday morning.
Around 8 a.m., Jovan Belcher, a fourth-year linebacker who had started 10 of the team's 11 games at inside linebacker, arrived at the Chiefs' training facility, just down the road from Arrowhead Stadium, in an emotionally agitated state. At the time, no one knew that Belcher had just shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, at their home a few miles away.
After thanking his coaches for what they had done for him, Belcher left the facility and started heading back out to the parking lot. He was pursued by Crennel, general manager Scott Pioli and, reportedly, linebackers coach Gary Gibbs, all of whom tried to talk to Belcher and calm him. But it was too late. At that point, Belcher pulled out a gun and fatally shot himself.
One can only imagine the scene as police cars and emergency vehicles arrived, and the team facility was locked down. After gathering his players together, Crennel had to tell them what had happened. Then the team had to decide whether to proceed as usual and play a football game the next day.
Although the question first was put before the team's captains, the consensus of the entire team, to a man, was to play. As it turned out, it was a therapeutic experience because it allowed players and coaches alike to take their minds off of what happened on Saturday, even if it was only a temporary relief.
"It was tough," tight end Tony Moeaki said, "but we were told we were playing at noon, and Scott and RAC showed their leadership and were strong for us. We knew we had to go out and play and be focused for that three or four hours. So that's what we did."
In winning for only the second time this season, the Chiefs played nearly a perfectly clean game -- shocking given the situation. They committed no turnovers, had only one penalty, allowed quarterback Brady Quinn to be sacked just once and put together three long touchdown drives.
But enough about the game itself. The story line on Sunday was an emotionally hurting group of players coming together under the leadership of a strong, even-keeled man who hurt more than anyone else.
"You can measure a man by how he faces adversity," said Lilja, one of the last players in a Chiefs locker room that emptied quickly after the game. "That tells you all you need to know about Coach."
Despite witnessing a scene that could scar him mentally for the rest of his life, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Crennel somehow managed to switch back to his role as leader of this football team and give it the emotional nourishment it so badly needed.
"I did the same thing that I always do," Crennel said after the game. "I'm thoughtful about what is important, what I think they need to hear, what they need to know, and then I tell them that. The thing that helped me the most was talking to them yesterday morning and telling them about the circumstance. We were able to lean on each other a little bit and let a little bit out. By letting a little bit out, that helped us all get through what we had to get through."
One player who felt the affects of Saturday's events more than most was Brandon Siler, a sixth-year linebacker who joined the team as a free agent last year and had played mostly on special teams this season. He made his first start on Sunday, in Belcher's inside linebacker spot. Although he led the team on to the field and tried to whip up the crowd before kickoff, Siler admitted that the experience was odd for him.
"It's a Catch-22," Siler said. "It was my first start of the year, but there wasn't the excitement of having your first start. It was kind of weird. With what had taken place, it was hard to be happy about that. But we got in there and we got us a win, and that's what he would have wanted."
Belcher and Perkins had recently had a baby, a three-month-old girl they named Zoe. But apparently the couple had had a falling out. According to reports, Belcher was waiting for Perkins when she came home early Saturday morning after attending a concert and going out for drinks with friends. The two reportedly had a heated argument.
There was another report that Belcher was knocked woozy in a Nov. 18 game against Cincinnati and experienced short-term memory loss after that game, but Siler disputed it. Both Siler and Lilja said they never detected any warning signs of depression or anger in Belcher.
"He was a hard-working guy, a quiet guy," Lilja said. "He came to work every day and did the right things. ... What goes on outside the practice field and the locker room you don't really necessarily know. Everybody's got stuff."
Lilja said that as soon as he heard what had happened to Belcher on Saturday, he couldn't wait to hug his teammates, which he did before the game on Sunday. A lot of different, contrasting emotions filled the Chiefs locker room after Sunday's game. It was more of a group hug than a celebration.
"It was different," Lilja said. "I think there were emotions guys weren't used to feeling after wins -- or losses. Guys were confused. It was new feelings. There were a lot of hugs, a lot of tears and a lot of guys saying, 'I love you -- and meaning it."
Keeping in line with the events of the weekend, Crennel began his postgame interview session by putting the game in perspective.
"I want to start with yesterday's tragedy and remind everybody that it involved two families," Crennel said. "Our prayers go out to the family of Kasandra Perkins. They are grieving and we send our condolences to that family. Our prayers and condolences go out to the family of Jovan Belcher; they are also grieving. Our prayers and condolences go out to three-month-old Zoe, a little girl who will never get to know her mother and father. So we're grieving for all involved."
You knew Crennel was grieving, too, and, not surprisingly, he respectfully declined to answer any questions about the Belcher suicide. He had already done more than his part.
Under the most tragic of circumstances, even when he was hurting deep down within himself, Crennel held this Chiefs team together and gave it guidance and leadership. RAC was a real rock.