By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BOONE, N.C. — It turned out to be one of the more memorable weekends of this writer's 35-year career, though as I pulled out of my driveway with the rain and wind pounding on my car, I had little idea of what the next 30 hours would entail.
Tropical storm Hanna was pounding me and the east coast, but it didn't matter.
I was excited about my trip to Monmouth University to meet and watch a special young man named Jovan Belcher play football for the University of Maine.
My weekend would continue with a drive to the Bronx for a football game between the Fordham Rams and Rhode Island Rams — a contest that was postponed until Sunday afternoon because of flooding at Jack Coffey Field.
I would spend the evening alone in the press box, with the wind and rain pouring against the structure, watching a down-to-the-wire game between Montana and Cal Poly be decided by a missed Mustang field goal in the final seconds.
And I would return to Fordham on Sunday afternoon to watch John Skelton and company shutout Rhode Island.
But this whole trip revolved around Belcher.
I was on my way to a Maine-Monmouth game on a scouting trip as executive director for The Sports Network to watch Belcher play for the first time on Sept. 6, 2008.
And for some reason, I was feeling like a little boy, on his way to the toy store.
My encounter with Belcher didn't disappoint, either on the field, or in the muddy, wet and steamy locker room.
I've met and interviewed thousand of players, young and old, during my career, writing about sports, but few of them had the special sparkle in their eyes that Belcher did and even fewer left such an indelible mark on my memory banks.
That picture, and the images that many others who encountered this self-made player through the years, is a 180-degree contrast to the events of Saturday morning.
Belcher allegedly shot and killed Kassandra Perkins — his girlfriend and the mother of his three-month-old daughter — before making the five-mile, 15-minute trip to Arrowhead Stadium and the Kansas City Chiefs training facilities.
After arriving there, Belcher put a handgun to his head as head coach Romeo Crenel, general manager Scott Pioli and linebackers coach Gary Gibbs tried in vain to talk him out of turning a tragedy into a larger calamity.
With police approaching, Belcher walked behind a car, witnesses said, pulled the trigger and killed himself, leaving behind a wealth of friends, family and acquaintances trying to make sense of a pair of violent acts that were so dichotomous in comparison to the rest of his life.
At Belcher's childhood home in the Long Island community of West Babylon, N.Y., family and friends turned the front porch and yard into a makeshift memorial to a young adult, who had starred as football player and wrestler at West Babylon High School.
"As a family, no words can express the sorrow we feel over the loss of Jovan and Kasandra," Yamiesse Lawrence, Belcher's cousin, said in a prepared statement, read in front of the Belcher home. "The impact that this inconceivable tragedy has had on our hearts is immeasurable. We are overwhelmed with both sadness and confusion."
Quaresha Boston, Belcher's niece, also eulogized her uncle.
"We loved Jovan. His kindness, humility, respect and gratitude for family and friends were steadfast. The man we knew and loved for over 25 years embraced life and excelled at all he put his energy behind."
"Jovan was overjoyed when Kasandra gave birth to their daughter Zoey," Boston added. "He was happy to be a new father and both he and Kasandra loved Zoey greatly."
Despite the torrential downpour on the day of the game, a large contingent of Belcher family and friends made the 40-mile journey from Long Island to the Jersey Shore to watch Belcher play that afternoon at Monmouth.
The senior captain didn't disappoint any of us who had journeyed there to watch him.
Belcher piled up 10 tackles, with one sack, one pass breakup and two and a half tackles for loss to keep Maine in the game.
The Black Bears pulled out a 21-17 victory when tight end Derek Buttles scored on a 23-yard deflected pass in the end zone from a desperation throw by quarterback Adam Farkas on a fourth-and-21 play with 2:49 remaining.
Then Belcher and his defensive teammates held off one last Monmouth drive, stopping the Hawks just short at their own 43 on a fourth-and-10 screen pass to All-American running back David Sinisi.
There was no doubt in my mind that Belcher was a worthy Buchanan Award candidate.
Belcher, a one-time linebacker, made life difficult for the Monmouth offense throughout the day, as he shifted his position around from side to side and even in the middle of the Black Bear defense on almost every play to confuse the Hawk offensive line.
"I am just happy to win and to help my teammates," said a soaked-to-the-bone and mud-encrusted Belcher, after the game. "All I want to do is win."
Not only did Monmouth struggle with Belcher, Maine's defensive captain, the extra attention that Monmouth was forced to give to him indeed freed his teammates to make numerous plays.
"Jovan is one of those players who makes everyone else around him better," Cosgrove said that afternoon. "He is a great team leader."
Belcher finished the season with 98 tackles, 44 solo stops, 7 1/2 sacks, 17 1/2 tackles for loss, resulting in 77 negative yards.
He also had two forced fumbles and one pass breakup as Maine went 8-5 and reached the FCS playoffs before losing to Northern Iowa.
Belcher ended his Maine career with 293 tackles, 44 tackles for loss and 18 sacks in 44 games, winning All-American honors twice and earning accolades as the Colonial Athletic Association defensive player of the year in 2008.
It was quite a transformation for a player who received no other scholarship offer.
Belcher epitomized the typical Cosgrove player who comes to a Maine program that the veteran coach has dubbed as "the Island of Misfit Toys," of course a reference to the unwanted playthings that were depicted in the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer children's Christmas special.
Late in his senior season, I remember doing a radio interview on a station in Bangor, ME., where Cosgrove and I assessed Belcher's play and talked about his chances of winning the Buchanan Award.
I told the radio audience how impressed I was with Belcher's ability to move around the defensive line and disrupt offenses, while Cosgrove agreed.
Cosgrove also liked to refer to Belcher as a "tremendous student-athlete."
When the voting for the Buchanan Award began, it became very clear, very quickly, that it would be a two-horse race between Belcher and Eastern Washington defensive end Greg Peach.
Midway through the voting process, it was nearly a dead heat between these two great players from opposite ends of the country.
Peach, who has gone on to play for the Edmonton Eskimos and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, eventually out-distanced Belcher for the award 313 to 206, but the Maine graduate had his sights set a little higher.
Belcher was signed as a free agent by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009 and beat the odds to make the roster.
At 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, Belcher moved to inside linebacker and eventually became a starter his first year, despite being undersized.
"His move to the NFL was in keeping with his dreams," said Cosgrove.
Belcher had established himself as an NFL middle linebacker after four solid years and was looking to reap the benefits of a new contract next season.
But the tranquil picture that many of us had seen during his college career masked the troubles of a broken relationship that has been unearthed since the tragedy.
"This is an indescribably horrible tragedy," said Cosgrove. "At this difficult time, our thoughts and prayers are with Jovan, Kasandra and their families."
Even still, it is difficult to understand when any lives end in such a violent, anguished way.
Belcher's teammate, quarterback Brady Quinn, came about as close as anyone to articulating a cohesive thought on what we might learn from such a catastrophe when Quinn spoke in the post-game press conference following Kansas City's 27-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday — a game that went on despite the tragedy.
"The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people." said Quinn. "I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. 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?"
Quinn wasn't finished.
"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."