Home > Hockey, Sports, Weekend Feature > Belcher tragedy a reminder of the toll pro sport takes on the rank-and-file athlete

Belcher tragedy a reminder of the toll pro sport takes on the rank-and-file athlete

Jovan Belcher Kansas City Chiefs Murder Suicide NFL Football

The specifics of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide continue to pour out, and while the broad strokes are grimly familiar, the key difference must not be forgotten: a woman was murdered, and her killer took his own life.

There are memorials and shrines and kind words now for Jovan Belcher, but his crime – and his demons – must not be swept under the rug.

Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins on Saturday, December 1. Immediately afterward, he drove to the Chiefs practice facility, thanked his coach and general manager and shot himself in the head in front of them. He leaves behind a three-month-old daughter that he had with Perkins.

There have been too many pro athlete deaths in the last year, but Belcher’s is the worst in that he is the only one to take a victim with him.

Dave Duerson. Junior Seau. Derek Boogaard. Rick Rypien. Wade Belak. And now, Jovan Belcher.

Concussions. Substance abuse. Roid rage. Painkiller addiction. Depression. One, some or all of these were factors in the deaths of the aforementioned athletes. We deify the men who wear our favourite team’s jersey, but the truth is that these are mortals just like the rest of us, and they are as flawed and weak as anyone. The only difference is that they are in the public eye, and when they fall, we see them fall. When they fall hard, we all feel it.

There’s an all-too common refrain you’ll hear in a bar whenever athletes fight over money: “Those bums make millions of dollars to play a game. I’d play in the big leagues for free!” It’s an easy statement to make from the comfort of your couch, but it totally disregards the brutality of the life these athletes lead. League owners make hundreds of millions of dollars off the pain that their players endure. Those players are absolutely entitled to money for the blood they shed. And that bloodshed is sometimes too much for an athlete to handle.

The NFL and NHL – the two hardest-hitting professional sports leagues in the world – have also been the hardest hit in terms of suicide. Some athletes, like Seau and Belak, were only a few years removed from their playing days. Others, like Boogaard and Belcher, were in their prime. None were superstars. All worked hard and took a beating for a living. They were the grinders and the muscle, the grunts and the footsoldiers. They kept their star teammates shiny, and they got dirty doing it.

Professional athletes are modern day gladiators in a bloodsport built on television ratings. Team games are the biggest draws, and teams necessarily have role players. The high skill guys are in huge demand and make the most money because they do what others can’t do.

On the other end of that spectrum are the guys who do what most players just don’t want to do. They’ve got marginal skill but they’re strong, they’re willing to dish out the punishment and – more importantly – they’re willing to take it. They don’t get paid nearly as much yet they take the most brutal attacks. In football, these are the massive linebackers who crash into equally-sized men on the other side. In hockey, these are the bare-knuckle brawlers who smash each other in the face once a night, get 5 minutes of icetime and spend the rest of the game riding the bench or stewing in the penalty box.

Linebackers crash heads. Hockey fighters take punches to the head. These men are suffering concussion after concussion, and the rest of their bodies are also suffering constant physical trauma. Their job performance is fueled by violence and aggression, and when the game is over they go home to their lives and their families.

It is, understandably, a challenging change in mindset.

Jovan Belcher with girlfriend Kasandra Perkins and daughter Zoe

Jovan Belcher with girlfriend Kasandra Perkins and daughter Zoe.

The fact is, these men surrender the happiness and health of their later years to make their living in a short window of time, and that accelerated scale is sometimes too much for a person. It can leave them ill-equipped to deal with everyday life after – and even during – their careers.

Professional athletes are sheltered and guided through their entire career. They’re told what to eat, when to sleep, what to do on the field, what city to live in, and where to be in order to catch a plane. They have agents who handle their money for them, and their only responsibility is to do what they’re told and play like they’re capable of playing.

But there are aspects of life that no one can protect them against. There’s depression. There’s the pain of injury, and the difficulty of fighting through pain. There’s the allure of painkillers and steroids to find an edge. There’s the trap of having too much money all at once, and not be able to earn in your later years. And there’s the everyday stuff – like Belcher’s newborn daughter – that each person must navigate for himself. And that’s where some athletes suffer the most.

In 2011, the hockey world was rattled by the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. Six-foot seven New York Ranger Boogaard had OxyContin and Percocet addictions, and they caught up with him on a night of heavy drinking in May. His brother found him dead in his bed. Rypien – a borderline NHL pugilist – killed himself on August 15, mere weeks after signing an NHL contract with the Winnipeg Jets. He suffered from depression and had been serving a lengthy suspension for an altercation with a fan in Vancouver the previous season. Only 16 days later, Wade Belak, a former heavyweight who spent most of his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators, hung himself in a Toronto hotel room. He, too, had been fighting depression for years, but appeared to have everything together in his post-playing career. He had done some broadcast work with the Predators and was preparing to appear on CBC’s Battle of the Blades figure skating reality show.

Wade Belak Toronto Maple Leafs with daughter

Wade Belak with his daughter at a Leafs game.

Over the coming days, there will be more investigation into the Belcher murder-suicide. Belcher didn’t have a history of concussions, unlike many of the aforementioned athletes. He was a starting linebacker with a firmly established role on his team, and he was not at the end of his career by any means. Early reports indicate he shot his girlfriend five times, and that the two were known to have been arguing in recent weeks.

Whatever demons Belcher had, they did not appear on a stats sheet. For an undrafted linebacker, they may well have appeared in a blood test.

Jovan Belcher was a professional athlete, but he wasn’t invulnerable. The man needed help, and he didn’t get it. Now an innocent woman is dead, and so is her killer.

  1. December 13, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Thanks for this. These are all tragic stories with important lessons. This was a really nice, respectful look at the pain these athletes took and left behind.

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