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Crennel, Quinn open up on Chiefs' inspired win through heavy hearts

"In this crazy state of mind he must have been in,'' Linta said, "I truly believe he didn't go to the facility to make a spectacle of himself, or to do anything like Columbine. If you knew the kid, you knew how grateful he was for what he'd been given, with the chance to play in the NFL. I believe he went there for one reason -- to thank them. To thank Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel for helping make his dream of being an NFL player come true.''

Could it be true? Could Jovan Belcher, the undrafted kid from Maine signed by Pioli in his rookie season as general manager in 2009, really have had the presence of mind to go to the Arrowhead complex with one overriding intention? To thank the man who signed him and the men who coached him up, head coach Romeo Crennel and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs? To thank them as the last act of an underdog life gone terribly bad?

Linta didn't know how right he was.

***

In the fall of 2008, Joe Linta, who fancied himself a scout as much as an agent, watched some tape of an all-conference defensive end from Maine who'd come highly recommended by the coaching staff. Linta has some big clients -- Joe Flacco for one -- but he reps the lesser guys, low-round picks and college free agents. And he thought this ball of energy, Jovan Belcher, would work out well for teams and either be a late-round pick or find his way into someone's camp as a low-bonus free agent.

"In the undrafted free agent business,'' Linta said, "you've got to act quickly. The biggest word in that business is 'next.' If you wait even a few minutes, the team you think is the best fit is just going to move on to the next kid. It's like the commodities trading pit. I had a long relationship with Scott [Pioli] going back to his days with the Patriots, signing free agents there, and there was a trust built up. I didn't have many teams interested, but I knew Scott was interested. Jovan had the traits Scott wanted to build his team with: tough, smart, played hard, kept his mouth shut, exuded 'team.' Scott told me, 'Joe, I like this kid. I think he has a chance.' I wasn't getting much action on him the night the draft ended, and Scott was interested, so he signed with the Chiefs. In a way, because of my relationship with Scott, Jovan almost went in there as a teacher's pet.''

Belcher made the team as a special-teamer and backup inside linebacker. The next year, when Crennel arrived as defensive coordinator, Belcher became a two-down inside linebacker, starting and coming off the field on passing downs. He started 41 of 43 games under Crennel's tutelage, and he played well enough last season to merit a substantial raise: He signed a one-year deal for $1.927 million this offseason.

I have only one recollection of Belcher before Saturday. On a visit to Chiefs camp in 2010, I was going over the roster with Pioli, and he mentioned how Belcher was exactly the kind of player he wanted to build his team around -- a person of character who played hard and who could be trusted off the field. That's the only image I have of Belcher. On Sunday, Crennel told me: "I loved having him around because he sat in the first row in meetings and always paid attention. He was first in line in the drills, a very strong-willed individual. Football was very important to him. He was driven to succeed.''

A hard-trying everyman. Every roster has 20 of them: low-round picks or free agents, fighting to stay in the league, fighting for the big contract, hoping to make enough money to do what Belcher did -- buy a Bentley, lease a home in a prosperous neighborhood, invite his girlfriend to live with him, and welcome their child into the world, which Belcher, 25, and Kasandra Perkins, 22, did this year.

And that, until Saturday morning, is all we knew of Jovan Belcher.

Crennel spoke to me Sunday after the Chiefs game, but he said he didn't want to discuss specifics of what he saw and experienced outside the building. Pioli would not speak either -- to anything. Both men had been debriefed by the police for a lengthy police report, but have not spoken publicly about what happened.

But as I reported on NBC Sunday night, a source close to law enforcement on the scene Saturday told me the story had some differences from the one widely reported over the weekend. When Pioli arrived at the Chiefs' complex around 8 a.m., Belcher had just arrived and was out of his car. Pioli got out of his car and noticed that Belcher was in an agitated state, according to my source. As they spoke, Pioli saw Belcher had a gun. Though Belcher was clearly unstable, the source said Pioli didn't feel threatened because Belcher never pointed the gun at him. Belcher and Pioli were alone in the parking lot, a few yards apart, for several minutes.

(The source did not tell me if Pioli knew exactly what Belcher had done before he arrived, but he said clearly Belcher had shot someone and spoke of the police coming for him soon.)

At one point while the two men were alone in the parking lot, the source said, Belcher said to Pioli: "I came here to tell you thank you. Thank you for my chance. I love you, bro.''

The source said Pioli tried to calm Belcher, but had little success. At one point, Belcher asked Pioli, "Can I talk to Romeo and Gary?'' Crennel and Gibbs, he meant.

Pioli took out his cell phone and called Crennel, asking him to get Gibbs and come outside. (Imagine what Pioli had to be thinking here: I'm calling two of my closest coaching friends to come out into an open parking lot with an unstable man with a gun, who apparently has shot someone, and is impervious to any attempt to calm him down. How dangerous is that?)

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Within minutes Gibbs and Crennel appeared. They, too, tried to calm Belcher, to no avail. Belcher thanked them for his NFL opportunity, and he began to walk away from them.

"I wasn't able to reach the young man,'' Crennel said softly over the phone from Kansas City Sunday.

Belcher walked a few steps away, put the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger.

There will be counselors, for players who felt they didn't do enough to recognize Belcher's desperation, and for the three men who witnessed a man killing himself with a gunshot to the head. The counselors, according to one grief counselor I spoke with Sunday, will probably say something like this: Jovan made a decision by himself, having nothing to do with any of you. To Jovan, personal business had to be taken care of, and there was nothing that you could have done, so you can't punish yourself.

***

Now, for better or for worse, the Chiefs made the decision to play Sunday's game against Carolina. I asked Crennel what he said to his team Saturday night.

"Words,'' he said, "there are not many you can say. I just told them, 'What has been done cannot be undone, and we have to live with it. The way to get through it is to lean on each other, lean on your family, lean on your faith.' It's what we do -- we play football, we coach football. And for a couple of hours, we could brush the misery aside and do something we love to do, and maybe that would help us and help the community.''

The fans at the game, Brady Quinn told me, "were amazing. We haven't given them much to cheer this year, but they came out and encouraged us from the minute we came out of the locker room. It was emotional. You just can't thank them enough for making the day OK.''

Then some things started happening that hadn't happened to the Chiefs in this miserable, fire-everyone year. The Chiefs had turned it over a league-high 32 times in their 1-10 start, and here they were, efficient. Touchdown, field goal, touchdown by halftime, and they led the Panthers 17-14 at the break. At one point, Quinn, a career 53 percent passer, completed 14 passes in a row -- the longest consecutive-completion streak of his NFL career. "I don't know what happened,'' said Quinn, a very religious man. "I'd like to think maybe I had some help, somewhere, from No. 59 [Belcher]. But no, I can't explain it.''

Dormant players, disappointing players, woke up. Jonathan Baldwin caught his first touchdown pass of the year. Peyton Hillis ran for his first touchdown of the year. Tony Moeaki caught his first touchdown pass of the year.

A rookie left tackle, Donald Stephenson, in his second start subbing for the injured Branden Albert, held the Panthers' $12-million-a-year defensive end, Charles Johnson, without a sack -- and to just one tackle. A undrafted free agent (like Belcher) free safety, Tysyn Hartman, led the team in tackles with six. Another undrafted free agent (like Belcher) cornerback, Neiko Thorpe, stopped Pro Bowl Carolina receiver Steve Smith twice on the Panthers' desperation last drive.

Watching the game in New York, I noticed safety Eric Berry leave the game in the second quarter, and he was gone until late in the third quarter. When he returned, he had a giant wrap on his hand, like the hand had been casted, and he played the last 20 minutes of the game favoring the hand. I didn't hear a report about it, but with regular secondary players Brandon Flowers and Abram Elam out, the Chiefs couldn't afford to lose Berry -- and they didn't.

On Saturday night, Crennel had told the players to simply focus on the task at hand. Play football for three hours. Concentrate on your job as well as you can.

With five minutes left in the game, the butterfingered, careless Chiefs had zero turnovers and zero penalties. This is the 50th season of the franchise. The Chiefs had never played a game without a turnover and without a penalty. Everything can't be a movie. With 3:36 left, Quinn was called for delay of game. That was it ... 56 minutes without a penalty, and a grand total of one on the day, for five yards.

When it was over -- Kansas City 27, Carolina 21 -- Quinn buried his head on Crennel's shoulder, and they embraced for five or 10 seconds. "I was fighting tears,'' said Quinn. "I just said to Romeo, 'I am so proud of you.' He is a leader of men. To witness something like that, and to get us ready to play a football game, that is what a leader of men does.''

In the locker room, weary Chiefs players didn't know what emotion to have. Crennel told them to be sure to remember the family of Kasandra Perkins. And he told them there would be a long road of healing ahead.

"It's not over yet,'' Crennel said. "For some of us, it will be with us for the rest of our lives."

And now for the rest of the story.

The show went on around the league in Week 13, with a cloud over it. And this is what happened in a league that promises less December drama than usual:

• We know 33 percent of the playoff teams. Three division titles were decided on Sunday -- Atlanta winning the NFC South, New England the AFC East (for the ninth time in 10 years) and Denver the AFC West. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning clinched division titles on Dec. 2. Seems like old times. Houston clinched a playoff berth, but not the AFC South title because those pesky Colts lingered within three games of the 11-1 Texans.

• The Eagles fired defensive line coach Jim Washburn this morning, and officially lead the league in mayhem. Andy Reid hired journeyman defensive line coach Tommy Brasher, and I wonder what he said to ol' Tommy. Maybe, "Tommy, you've got four weeks, and your players have their bags packed for the offseason already. Good luck." Washburn didn't like the firing of Jason Babin last week and said so internally. But this doesn't matter much. The whole staff will be gone unless owner Jeffrey Lurie has a stunning change of heart -- which the Eagles' fans will not let him have -- after the season, a season with a losing streak that reached eight last night in Dallas.

• Tom Brady made history. (I have a feeling I'll be writing that sentence a few more times in my career, and his.) No quarterback until Sunday had ever won 10 division titles in a career. And Brady threw a touchdown pass in his 44th straight game, putting him 10 games from surpassing Drew Brees for a record that's probably treated with more reverence than it deserves, considering how the air is so filled with footballs these days. Stats or no stats, Brady's in the pantheon with the all-time greats, up with his boyhood hero, Joe Montana. How high he goes depends how healthy he stays, because he's said to me and many others he wants to play until he's 40, at least, which means five more seasons. At least. That should be enough time to catch Montana in Super Bowls. The score today: Joe 4, Tom 3.

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• Paul Tagliabue moves close to a decision on the Saints' bounty case. Jason La Canfora reported Sunday on CBS that Brad Childress will take a holiday from Browns coaching duties today to testify about what he knew of the bounty case when he coached the Vikings in the January 2010 NFC Championship Game. I get the feeling Tagliabue is rushing to justice (and I'm not implying anything careless about the proceedings, simply that he wants to get the case adjudicated soon) so if Jonathan Vilma has to serve a suspension, it gets served at least in part this season. No one knows which way, if any, Tagliabue is leaning, which is the only proper way for someone attempting to be an impartial arbiter to solve this knotty problem.

• Charlie Batch gets the biggest win of his NFL life. And he's going to be sore when he wakes up this morning. "I'll let you know what hurts [Monday],'' Batch, the soon-to-be-38-year-old Pittsburgh passer, said from the team plane last night before Pittsburgh left Baltimore. "I'm kind of aching a little bit right now, in fact.'' Batch twice got creamed late in the fourth quarter as he drove the Steelers to two fourth-quarter scores and a 23-20 stunner of a win. The hit by 345-pound tackle Haloti Ngata seemed the worst, and Batch confirmed it. "I released the ball,'' said Batch, "and it was like a bulldozer hit me. Wow. That hurt. But I didn't hear the crowd, so I figured Mike [Wallace] caught the ball. It was worth it." The win, Batch said, was particularly emotional because, as he said, "I played bad last week, and I just figured Ben would probably come back this week, and maybe that's the last game I ever start in the NFL. To have one more chance, and to have it be a win over Baltimore, in Baltimore, it can't be much better.''

• Art Modell gains in the preliminary Hall of Fame voting. Last year, when the list of 25 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 2012 was announced, Modell's name wasn't on it. This year it is, along with another another contributor rebound candidate, former GM George Young. This year's list has 27 names on it because of a tie for 25th, and it just makes it tougher for any candidate to be elected. The 44 Hall selectors now vote for their final 15 names, and those 15 will be discussed, along with the two senior nominees, in New Orleans the day before the Super Bowl. A maximum of five modern-era candidates can be elected, which means Modell, who died in September, has to make the cut to 15, then has to survive hours of debate in the meeting to make the final five. On the bright side for Modell is the fact that there may be no lock candidates this year, and he'd be helped by a muddied pool.

• Finally, this piece of wisdom from one of Sunday's heroes. Brady Quinn, drafted by the Browns in 2007, hasn't had a lot of great moments in the NFL. In fact, he hasn't had a lot of good ones. But yesterday was a great day for Quinn, and for his Chiefs. He was the most mature adult in the room -- the room being the entire NFL -- in Week 13 when he eloquently used his post-game platform to address the larger society and how it may have failed Jovan Belcher. "When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that's fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis."

That, folks, is the best message I can leave you with today.

***

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