KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Romeo Crennel stood in the middle of the Kansas City Chiefs’ locker room Sunday, the emotion threatening to overcome the good-natured coach.
Chiefs owner Clark Hunt was at his side, offering support. Members of the team hugged each other, the mud smearing with tears on their cheeks. And over along the wall stood the empty locker that once belonged to Jovan Belcher, his jersey still hanging from a hook.
Just one day after Belcher, a former University of Maine football player, killed his girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself, the Chiefs banded together to play their finest game of the season, an inspired 27-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers that ended an eight-game losing streak suddenly rendered trivial.
“As far as playing the game, I thought that was the best for us to do, because that’s what we do,” Crennel said, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. “We’re football players and football coaches and that’s what we do, we play on Sunday.”
According to authorities, Belcher shot his girlfriend multiple times early Saturday at a residence near Arrowhead Stadium, then sped to the team’s practice facility and turned the gun on himself as Crennel and General Manager Scott Pioli watched in the parking lot.
Pioli walked through the press box before the game and said he was doing “OK.”
“It’s been an incredibly difficult 24 hours for our family and our entire organization,” Hunt said. “We have so many guys on our team and our coaching staff who are really, really hurting.”
Chiefs players gathered in the tunnel leading to the field for a brief prayer before their pregame stretching. A few fans in the half-empty stadium held up signs referencing the shootings, and there was a moment of silence to remember all victims of domestic violence.
Kansas City police have not released a motive for the shootings, which claimed the life of Belcher and 22-year-old Kasandra M. Perkins, and left a 3-month-old girl, Zoey, an orphan.
“I’m just trying to get through the rest of today,” said the Chiefs’ Brady Quinn, who threw his first two touchdown passes in three years. “The emotions of what has taken place will probably hit home for a few guys the next few days, when they realize what’s taken place.”
Cam Newton threw for 232 yards and three touchdowns for the Panthers (3-9), who were informed the game would be played as scheduled while they were heading to Kansas City on Saturday.
Panthers Coach Ron Rivera greeted Crennel at midfield and gave him a hug.
“They played an inspired football game,” Rivera said. “They did some really good things, and we have to give them credit, because they suffered through a very difficult time.”
Kansas City took the opening possession and marched 74 yards in just six plays, including a 21-yard pass to Dwayne Bowe and a 34-yarder to Baldwin that got the Chiefs to the Carolina 2.
Hillis powered in to score the first touchdown for Kansas City on the opening possession of a game since Dec. 26, 2010. It was also the first touchdown drive engineered by Quinn since December 2009, when he helped the Browns beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
Hillis ran to the sideline after scoring his first touchdown of the season and handed the ball to Crennel, then gave the guy who managed to hold the team together a hug.
The Panthers answered with a long touchdown drive of their own. The big play came when safety Abe Elam watched Olsen haul in a 47-yard pass from Newton for the tying touchdown.
The Chiefs had tacked on a field goal when the Panthers struck again, this time after Newton completed three passes to convert third downs, the last finding Smith in the end zone.
But Kansas City finished off the half with one of its best drives of the year, an 80-yard march that took up the final 7:25. Hillis was stuffed at the line on third-and-goal, and Crennel allowed the clock to hit 2 seconds before calling timeout. On the final play of the half, Quinn saw Moeaki open in the back of the end zone and delivered a soft toss for a 17-14 lead.
Breathing room came late in the third quarter when the Chiefs used 17 plays to go 87 yards on a drive that lasted another 10 minutes. Quinn finished it with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Baldwin.
Carolina mounted a comeback with the opening drive of the fourth quarter, with Newton hitting Murphy on a quick slant route from the 8 to get the Panthers within a field goal. But the Chiefs added their own field goal, and then burned enough of the clock to ensure the victory.
One that allowed the Chiefs to celebrate in the midst of their mourning.
“There were pockets in the game where reality hits you again, and that’s sobering,” said Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker.
“I’ve been telling people, Jovan was like a brother to us. His family was family to us. Our hearts go out to them, man, and the game maybe took our heads off it for a while — it brought us closer as a team today, I think — but it’s never going to be easy.”