ORONO, Maine — Mike Brusko slept in Saturday morning. He hoped to get some extra rest before covering a high school basketball game as a sports reporter for Service Electric, a cable TV provider in Bethlehem, Pa.
But his cell phone started vibrating incessantly beside the bed.
When Brusko finally picked up the phone, he saw a missed call from former University of Maine football teammate Jerron Pearson and other messages asking, “Are you OK?”
He called Pearson, who told him former UMaine teammate Jovan Belcher, an All-American defensive end who was playing for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, was dead after allegedly perpetrating a murder-suicide.
“It doesn’t seem real. I don’t want it to be real, but it is, and that’s really difficult,” said Brusko, who repeatedly choked back tears.
After talking with other friends, Brusko turned on ESPN’s SportsCenter to watch the reports.
“At first they were saying it was an unnamed Chiefs player. You hold out that little glimmer of hope that maybe it wasn’t him,” Brusko said.
“When I saw his name up there, that’s when it really hit me,” said Brusko, who played with Belcher from 2005-2008.
Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, Saturday morning before going to Arrowhead Stadium and fatally shooting himself as team personnel tried to stop him, police said.
UMaine football coach Jack Cosgrove was visibly shaken when he spoke with the local media Saturday afternoon. He had high praise for Belcher and his accomplishments and influence during his four seasons at UMaine.
“I’m hard-pressed to find or recall a young man who had more of an impact, in a positive way, on his teammates and this football family in my time here,” said the 21st-year head coach. “He’s truly one of the great stories in the program’s history.”
Belcher, an unrecruited high school player known for his wrestling skills, was named the Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year and an All-American in 2008 after helping UMaine reach the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
He was remembered as a young man who demonstrated intensity on the field and was a devoted teammate and friend.
“Jovan’s demeanor and his personality was one that anybody could be attracted to,” said Matt Mulligan of Enfield, who played with Belcher at UMaine. “You wanted to be friends with him, be around him.”
Mulligan, a member of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, received the news prior to Saturday morning’s team meeting.
“It was gut-wrenching. I was shocked, in a state of disbelief,” he said. “I was blown away. I didn’t have any words.”
Mulligan had spoken to Belcher in August when the Rams played a preseason game in Kansas City. He said they talked about the possibility of Belcher visiting Maine during the offseason.
Saturday’s events made him think he might, in some small way, have been able to do something to prevent it.
“You always wonder, what could I have done, what should I have seen? Is there anything I should have picked up on as a human being to say: I should talk to him or see if he needs somebody to talk to,” Mulligan said.
Cosgrove said he received a phone call Saturday morning from Chiefs offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., who revealed Belcher may have been involved in the deadly incidents. Cosgrove played for Jack Bicknell Sr. at UMaine.
Cosgrove explained he had last talked to Belcher during the summer but also followed him occasionally on Facebook.
Later Saturday, he was prepared to share the news with current Black Bear players during a team meeting. His message would be a positive one.
“We’re going to hang onto the great memories we have of Jovan and just try to promote the things that he was really able to do here in terms of his commitment, his dedication, his work ethic, [his] pride in performance,” Cosgrove said.
“There’s a real sense of loss today for us and especially for his teammates that were the beneficiaries of a picture of a young man from 2005 to 2008,” he added.
Brusko’s reaction of disbelief and sadness stemmed from his love and admiration for Belcher, whom he described as dedicated, hardworking and unselfish.
“He was somebody who loved everything he did,” Brusko said. “He had a huge heart and he cared about his teammates.”
Even though Becher achieved the lofty status of being an All-American player who earned his way to the NFL, he was never boastful or arrogant.
“He accomplished a lot of things over his career, but never once can I remember him talking about himself or his accomplishments,” Brusko said, his voice breaking. “He was as happy for his teammates’ success as he was for his own success.”
Brusko happily recounted playing the card game “spades” with Belcher and other friends. He said Belcher was competitive even in that situation.
“He used to make up rules that nobody had ever heard of, just so his team would win,” Brusko said with a chuckle. “He had fun with it.”
Cosgrove, Mulligan and Brusko all expressed their heartfelt condolences for the families of Perkins and Belcher.
“It hurts me, it hurts all of his teammates and all of his friends, but I grieve most for their families,” said Brusko, who can’t help but wonder what might have caused his friend to resort to such a desperate act.
Unable to come to grips with it, he alluded to the possibility of some kind of brain injury possibly having affected Belcher’s mental state.
“It’s just beyond comprehension and explanation right now,” Brusko said. “It’s a tragedy and we can’t deny that. We can’t avoid that.”
While maintaining the utmost respect for those who were hurt by Belcher’s actions, Brusko will cherish the personal memories with his friend.
“I won’t remember him for the one day that his life ended,” Brusko said. “For that to be the only thing that people know about him, that’s frustrating.
“He was our brother and I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to play with him and to know him.”
During his time at UMaine, Belcher was involved in Male Athletes Against Violence, a for-credit peer education class that Belcher enrolled in during the fall semester of 2007. The course typically draws more than 10 students per semester, usually varsity athletes, according to university spokeswoman Margaret Nagel.
Male Athletes Against Violence focuses on “issues of masculinity and violence,” often sponsoring information tables around campus to raise awareness about violence and encourage college men to sign pledge cards — committing to educate themselves about violence, serve as good role models, support women’s groups, and help victims of violence.
“MAAV is an effort to involve men so that we can begin to understand that violence is very much a ‘man’s issue.’” according to a description of the group posted on UMaine’s website.
Students who participate in MAAV also work in area schools, urging the prevention of bullying and violence among peers.
UMaine professor Sandy Caron, who founded the course in 2004 and continues to teach it, joined Belcher’s former coaches and teammates in expressing shock over Belcher’s actions on Saturday.
“This is a tragedy beyond comprehension and completely at odds with what the Male Athletes Against Violence peer education program stands for,” Caron said in a statement released by the university on Sunday. “Our deepest sympathies are with Jovan and Kasandra’s loved ones.”
BDN reporter Nick McCrea contributed to this report.