Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. (Courtesy: Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY - The cars and trucks and bright red buses full of Kansas City Chiefs fans will pass through the gates of Arrowhead Stadium at breakfast time, as some of the most devoted fans in football prepare for another day of tailgating and football.
This is what they do in Kansas City. They wear red jerseys, cook up some of the tastiest barbecue in the country and fill their stadium even when there has been little to cheer for on the field for the 1-10 Chiefs.
This Sunday, as the Chiefs host the Carolina Panthers, it will be no different. Except it will be totally different.
Fans will arrive knowing that just a few hundred yards west of Arrowhead Stadium is the parking lot of the Chiefs training facility, where, on Saturday morning, linebacker Jovan Belcher shot himself in the head in front of Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli.
Belcher had made the 10-minute drive to Arrowhead in his black Bentley after, police said, he shot to death his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, at the home the couple shared. Perkins, 22, gave birth to Belcher's daughter, Zoey, on Sept. 11. The infant is safe and in the care of Belcher's mother, who was also at the home on Crysler Avenue, police said.
NFL teams have played through tragedy before. The New York Giants hosted a game this season less than a week after superstorm Sandy ravaged New York and New Jersey. The Washington Redskins in 2007 played a game the week after safety Sean Taylor was murdered in his home in Miami. The Denver Broncos in 2010 played after wide receiver Kenny McKinley committed suicide in his home.
But this tragedy is different and unprecedented. This time, it involved a player accused of committing a horribly violent crime, and it turned an NFL team's headquarters into a crime scene, with the most high-ranking team officials as witnesses.
Though the Panthers' travel plans continued on schedule Saturday, as did game preparations throughout Kansas City, the Chiefs had a say in whether they'd play this game against the Carolina Panthers as scheduled at noon on Sunday. Crennel gathered his players for a full-squad meeting on Saturday, and later, took a vote of his captains.
Unanimously, they chose to play.
That's what they do in Kansas City.
Fans will crank up their grills, and later they'll laugh as the mascot K.C. Wolf drives recklessly around the field in his traditional pre-game bit. They'll sing along to the national anthem and cheer for defensive end Tamba Hali and running back Jamaal Charles and the rest of the Chiefs as they try to win their first home game this year.
But no one will be able to ignore Saturday's tragedy, perhaps because there are still so few answers about why it happened.
Belcher's former teammates and coaches from the University of Maine said they were devastated. One of Perkins' classmates from Blue River Community College, where Perkins was studying to be a school teacher, said Belcher and Perkins seemed like "the perfect couple."
The couple had recently hosted a large gathering at the home to celebrate Thanksgiving, and Perkins' pages on social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook were filled with happy pictures of her daughter and Belcher, nothing that could preview the violence to come.
Devene Dunson-Rusher described herself as such a close friend of the couple that their house was her "home away from home."
Dunson-Rusher, who is pregnant, told USA TODAY Sports that she last spoke to Perkins a couple days ago. They talked about the health of Perkins' baby, a casual conversation among friends. Perkins did make reference to an argument she'd had with Belcher, Dunson-Rusher said.
"When I talked to her a couple days ago she said, 'The baby is doing great. Javon is being great,'" Dunson-Rusher said. "I know that they did get into an argument, but she said, 'Everything is great now.'"
Observing the couple as friends, Dunson-Rusher said she "always joked around that they would be getting married soon," she said. "They called each other 'husband' and 'wife,' even though they weren't married."
Instead, Dunson-Rusher stopped by the couple's home on Saturday night to leave a bouquet of flowers on the front porch. The shock she feels, she says, won't go away anytime soon.
"It's hell, honestly. Lots of crying," she said, her eyes watering as she spoke. "I'm shocked, very shocked."
Contributing: Jon Saraceno, Gary Mihoces and Mike Vorel. Vorel reported from Kansas City, Mo.
By Lindsay H. Jones