Monday, December 3, 2012

Prayer on the 50-Yard-Line?

After every NFL game, players from each NFL team have the opportunity to pray, together with players from the opposing team, at the center of the football field.  While fans around the country are bitter after a loss or elated after a win, yelling at their televisions or gloating to their friends, hundreds of players around the country take their knees to submit to something greater, something far beyond the game. 
This picture was captured after the Kansas City game the day after Jovan Belcher killed himself and allegedly murdered his girlfriend.  To me, it signifies the astute reality that they faced that weekend of just how meaningless football is within itself and how meaningful their platforms can be as players of the most popular game in America.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Dark Side of Love in the NFL: A Look at the Jovan Belcher Murder Suicide

This morning I opened my twitter page where I read that Jovan Belcher killed himself at Arrowhead Stadium after killing Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and mother of his 3-month old daughter.  Tears filled my eyes.  For her.  For him.  For everything that I know about the dark side of love and relationships in the NFL.  Twitter followers used words like “Incomprehensible” and “Senseless."  

To outsiders, it may have appeared as if Jovan Belcher had a perfect life.  He was a player on the rise with a contract worth $1.9 million.  He had a beautiful girlfriend and a healthy daughter.  Perhaps it was even hard for Belcher not to buy into that illusion, to begin wondering why, if they he had a perfect life, did he still feel like something was missing? 

Less than a month before their daughter was born, Perkins posted a game-picture of Belcher on her Facebook page with the caption, “In LOVE with SUPERMAN ♥."   Superman?  It could be argued that he was.  

An undrafted free agent in 2009, Belcher displayed such prowess on the football field that he became a starting NFL linebacker just two years later.  He flew through the air, over and around offensive linemen to defeat quarterbacks.  But no costumed Super Hero can remain on duty all the time.  What happens when the mask comes off?

Fans of the game continue to speculate:  Was it steroids?  Concussions?  “He wasn’t a bad guy”, his teammates reiterate.  He was known as much for his work off the field as on.  He worked with underprivileged children in his off time.  He doted on his daughter.  He seemed to love her mother.  So what was Jovan Belcher’s kryptonite?

I don’t know Jovan Belcher.  I’ve never met Kasandra Perkins.  But I do know NFL relationships --  and they aren’t easy.  Love is the NFL is riddled with loneliness, depression, uncertainty, and fear.  Positions aren’t permanent and players are easily replaced.  Players and their partners are often thrust from the only lives they’ve known, far away from their friends and families, into isolation as their alter-egos.  Fans cheer their names, but they don’t know their stories.  And when the player is cut, the cheers continue for the team without them.   Those in romantic relationships with NFL players are well aware of that reality.  “It doesn’t matter how bad things are with our relationship or how upset I am.  I’ll never talk to him about those things during the season,” a fellow NFL wife told me.  Wives and girlfriends of NFL players are left to care for their children alone during the season, miles from their families, and often emotionally far away from the NFL players who live in their homes.

I don’t know what made this Super Hero snap.  I don’t know why this NFL girlfriend lost her life or why their daughter is going to be left to grow up without her mom and dad.  But I can guess that there was a private pain that plagued them both.  Inside the world of the NFL, it’s neither incomprehensible nor is it senseless.  Tragic, yes.  But the pain is not new to NFL families.  Four current or former NFL players have committed suicide in the last eight months.  The details in this story will likely continue to leak out throughout the days and weeks to come.  After all, nothing remains private for fallen Super Heroes.