This story appears in the Dec. 10, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
For a Thanksgiving video on the Chiefs' website, fourth-year linebacker Jovan Belcher smiled into the camera and shared what he was thankful for: "First and foremost, God, family and friends just keeping me focused." To friends in private, his recent messages were more complex and unrecognizable as having come from the same person.
Reggie Paramoure, who played on defense with Belcher at the University of Maine, was texting with his former teammate last Friday night. "I see yall boys aint doing too well," Paramoure wrote, referring to the Chiefs' 1-10 start. "Wats goen on wit u besides ball."
"Yea man," Belcher replied, "our 'o' can't even put 7 in the board for us, but everything good bro, baby momma crazy but I have a little girl almost 3 month man and she's a blessing, she makes me smile on the worst day."
"Daughter!" Paramoure wrote, and then jokingly suggested that Belcher better have a gun ready to ward off future boyfriends. "Yea man," Belcher responded, "I got about 8 guns now, from hand Gunz to assault rifles for her little bf's."
The previous week's game had been the first this season that Belcher, 25, did not start. "I'm good bro," he wrote, toward the end of the exchange, "just trying to stay on the field and get this new contract but this losing s**t ain't helping."
On Saturday morning Belcher used one of his handguns to kill Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his daughter, before killing himself.
"Just the night before, I was checking up on him," Paramoure says. "That's what's so surreal, that I was literally speaking to him the night before." Belcher was generally a quiet man, says Paramoure, but, "he was very emotional. I believe that's what made him so good [on the field]."
Why Belcher did what he did is, and may remain, unanswerable. In an age of "like" buttons and online postings, links and tweets, a "profile" can be created with a few keystrokes. But the person behind that profile remains altogether more complex. The contrast between Belcher's blithe Thanksgiving message and the texts he exchanged with Paramoure is emblematic of the diverse characterizations of Belcher, which left even those who knew him well wondering what they really knew.
Belcher was just the kind of player Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove liked. Cosgrove refers to his program as the Island of Misfit Toys -- a reference to the site of exile for flawed, unwanted playthings in the old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer television special -- because no player ends up there by design.
"It's the guys who were too small, or too slow, or not developed enough; guys with something to prove," says Matt King, one of Belcher's teammates at Maine and now an assistant strength coach there. Maine was the only school that offered the undersized Belcher a scholarship, coming out of West Babylon (N.Y.) High. Once there, though, he seemed to fit perfectly.
Belcher graduated with a degree in child development and family relations. He was a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. (Belcher was raised by his mother and older sisters.) He participated in the university's Male Athletes Against Violence group, which seeks to educate men about their role in the prevention of domestic violence. He was humble, the proverbial man of few words.
In late October, when Belcher was in West Babylon for his high school's homecoming game, he avoided the sideline, lest he be asked to give a speech. "To get him loud," says Ollie Roy, 30, a longtime friend from the area, "you'd really have to piss him off."
It could, however, be done.
According to Steven Barker, a former defensive back at Maine, Belcher once had to get stitches in his thumb after he punched a glass panel during an argument with Jessica Higgins, his long-term college girlfriend. The team was forced to run as punishment. "They had their arguments and fights," Barker says, "but nothing crazy." It was, as far as anyone knows, an isolated incident. Most of the time, Belcher was the ideal student-athlete.
Still, Cosgrove knew better than to presume that he could see everything inside his misfit toys. "Everyone has a dark side," he said on Saturday on Maine's campus. "I do know that for all Jovan's successes, he didn't have successful relationships with women."
Kasandra Perkins, 22, was, technically, a girlfriend. But for all intents and purposes, she was a spouse. Belcher and Perkins referred to one another as husband and wife, and Belcher's mother called Perkins her daughter. Belcher brought Perkins and her relatives to a Fourth of July block party in West Babylon last year. On Matthews Avenue, the block where Belcher grew up, it was a big deal.
West Babylon is 80 percent white, but a small geographic triangle that residents refer to as "the CMG" -- because it contains Commander, Matthews and Gordon avenues -- is overwhelmingly African-American, and extremely close knit. Bringing a significant other from out of town to the CMG really meant something.
Roy saw Belcher at the July 4th party and again on the block this October. Belcher was friendly -- he knocked on Roy's door, as always -- but, to Roy's surprise, did not mention his daughter, Zoey, born on Sept. 11 in Kansas City. People who knew Belcher and Perkins in Kansas City had seen the cracks developing in their relationship.
Brianne York, 21, befriended Perkins at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River in Independence, Mo., and noticed that football and a new child were straining Belcher's and Perkins's relationship. Perkins would mention, unhappily, that Belcher was often out late doing "team bonding stuff," she says. According to another of Perkins's friends, Devene Dunson-Rusher, team bonding sometimes meant drinking, and Perkins was uneasy with some of the Chiefs players with whom Belcher was carousing. Before Zoey was born, says Dunson-Rusher, Belcher wanted Perkins to get a job. After the birth, according to York, Belcher was upset when she didn't clean the house. According to Belcher's friends, Perkins wanted to upgrade their lifestyle and move to a different house. Perkins did move to another house, but not with Belcher.
She left with Zoey and moved first into the home of Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, whose wife is Perkins' cousin, and then in with her family in North Texas. But the couple reconciled, and Perkins moved back in with Belcher last month. Belcher's mother had just moved to Kansas City from West Babylon to help care for Zoey and take some pressure off the couple. Briefly, by outward appearances anyway, the two were happy again.
Belcher and Perkins, York says, enjoyed going to gun ranges together. Once, when York was at the couple's house, she noticed a handgun on the kitchen table. "I guess they forgot it was out," she says. Dunson-Rusher recalls once seeing a rifle leaning against a chair in the room she called Belcher's man cave. Again, underscoring how wide the gulf can be between one perception of a man and another, every one of the West Babylon friends of Belcher's who spoke with SI had no idea he was interested in guns.
According to a law enforcement official close to the investigation -- and contrary to published reports -- Belcher spent Friday night "partying" with another woman at the Power and Light District, a bar area in downtown K.C. He returned home between 6:30 and 7 a.m., at which point he and Perkins argued. Then, with his own mother in the house, Belcher used a handgun to shoot the mother of his baby girl nine times. He then drove to the Chiefs' practice facility in a Bentley so new it had temporary plates.
At the facility, Belcher jumped out of the car holding a different handgun and encountered general manager Scott Pioli, who was heading into the building. Belcher thanked Pioli for giving him a chance as an undrafted player. He then confessed that he had shot his girlfriend and insisted that he was not going to jail. He asked to have head coach Romeo Crennel sent out. Crennel emerged, and Belcher thanked him too.
Crennel and Pioli pleaded with Belcher to put the gun down, but Belcher was beyond coach's orders. He turned around and walked about 20 feet. He took a knee -- as football players do at the end of games from the time they're in peewee -- and shot himself in the head.
Inevitably, those who knew Belcher were left wondering what they could have done. Before she blocked her Twitter feed, Higgins, Belcher's girlfriend at Maine, wrote, "I just can't help but to think what if I didn't miss that phone call." Said Jets defensive end Mike DeVito, who hosted Belcher on his recruiting trip to Maine and played alongside him for three seasons, "I wish I had stayed in contact with him, because you'll always wonder, could you have helped?" Said Jarrod Gomes, who played safety in college beside Belcher, "We can't believe it. ... We're trying to figure out what was really going on in his life."
If Belcher needed urgent help, none of the people who spoke with SI knew it. "I'd never seen any outbursts," said Willis Miles, Belcher's uncle.
A video on the Kansas City Star website shows Belcher sprawled on the floor of a church, patiently tutoring an eight-year-old in reading. On Belcher's public Facebook page, he "liked" photography and Family Guy. As professional athletes go, he seemed so knowable. But "likes" can go only so far in revealing the true substance of a person and just what is going on in his mind. Now, all who knew Belcher -- from his mother, Cheryl Shepard, who was to return to New York with her orphaned granddaughter, to the player's friends in Kansas City, Maine and West Babylon -- are left to wonder who they really knew.
Chris Almonte, a 23-year-old father of six and a friend of Belcher's from the CMG, was working in his yard when he got a phone call with the news on Saturday morning. It was so at odds with his conception of Belcher that all Almonte could think to do was to bury the phone in the hole he had been digging, as if that would make the news go away.
Like Cosgrove, Belcher's high school coach, Albert Ritacco, has been around football players long enough to understand what he cannot understand. "I can't find anything negative to say from the four years I coached him," Ritacco says. "But trying to understand what goes on in a man's life outside of football is a little different. I don't know why things happen in life. Who knows?"