Did a brain injury spur ex-Umaine, NFL linebacker to murder, suicide? Family exhumes body for answers
The family of former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who shot and killed his girlfriend before taking his own life, had his body exhumed in hopes that having Belcher’s brain examined will reveal answers as to why the former University of Maine football star shot Kasandra Perkins nine times before turning the gun on himself.
It is believed to be the first exhumation of a former NFL player.
Belcher killed Perkins the morning of Dec. 1, 2012, then drove to the team’s facility and killed himself.
“If his brain had been examined [when he died], we’d have a better understanding of why he did what he did,” said Dr. Bennet Omalu, who is credited with discovering the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. “We would have a better understanding about concussions and playing football, and we would advance the understanding of the science of all of this.”
An infamous legacy
Last weekend, Belcher’s former college team drew almost 8,000 football fans to Alfond Stadium for UMaine’s first-ever NCAA home playoff game. Many passed under a mural depicting 20 of the program’s greats who went to play in the NFL.
Until last December, that mural had 21 names. Belcher’s name and photo were removed shortly after the murder-suicide.
These acts, not his football prowess, are now his only legacy.
One year later, many questions linger about Belcher’s decision to commit such a heinous act, including new evidence raised in national media that his concussion history could have played a role in his actions.
However, Belcher’s alcohol use, relationship problems, injuries, immaturity and the inherent pressure of the NFL were also likely factors that led to the tragic day.
One unidentified friend told Deadspin.com after Belcher’s death that the linebacker was drinking daily and taking painkillers to mask injuries. Belcher’s autopsy revealed he had a blood-alcohol level of .17 — twice the legal limit in Missouri — on the day of the shootings.
There were no illegal drugs in his system at the time, however.
Several reports also indicated Belcher’s relationship with Perkins, the mother of their 3-month-old daughter Zoey, was strained. Perkins had only recently returned to their home after spending time with a relative because of their problems.
Belcher, 25, was the latest in a long line of UMaine football players to have a productive career in the NFL, but those that went before him say life at the sports pinnacle has its unique challenges.
Former UMaine standout Mike Flynn, who is on the mural, said playing in the NFL is exhilarating. Huge stadiums, jam-packed on Sundays with cheering fans, provide the stage for the world’s best players.
“Nothing ever compares to football. You just love it,” said Flynn, an offensive lineman who played 11 years in the NFL and won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.
Flynn suggested Belcher, like many NFL players, may not have been coping well with the physical strain and mental stress that comes with trying to stay in the NFL.
He said trying to remain relevant in the NFL is not all fun and games, as players must do whatever it takes to manage injuries and play through pain.
“At the end of the day, playing with injury is really expected in football,” said Flynn, who knew people who became addicted to painkillers.
“You make a conscious decision to sacrifice health at some point to make money because you know you only have a short time.”
‘How could this be?’
At UMaine, those who knew Belcher still can’t believe he was capable of the acts he committed.
“What happened to him after he left here to chase a dream? How could this be?” asked Sandy Caron, a University of Maine professor for family relations and human sexuality.
“I couldn’t accept it was the same person that we had known at Maine,” said Caron, who is one of the founders of Male Athletes Against Violence, a group of about 10 students to which Belcher belonged.
Kash Kiefer, a former UMaine teammate and close friend of Belcher, still struggles to reconcile the man and his final acts.
“He was the same caring, loving person he had always been,” said Kiefer, who spoke to Belcher days before the murder-suicide. “Everything was cool.
“It wasn’t him. It’s hard to explain,” insisted Kiefer, who said Zoey was the apple of her father’s eye.
Zoey is now in the custody of her mother’s cousin Sophie Perkins and lives in Texas.
Kiefer said he was supposed to visit Belcher on the weekend of his death, but he changed his plans when another friend wanted to visit Kiefer in Las Vegas.
“I beat myself up over that,” added Kiefer, who wonders if the scenario might not have happened if he had been in Kansas City.
The NFL grind: No guarantees
Belcher, the Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, signed with Kansas City in 2009 as an undrafted free agent. Despite his potential, that status meant he was essentially expendable.
Flynn said NFL players who do not receive substantial signing bonuses or guaranteed money are on a short leash. Perform or get replaced.
“New bodies are always coming into the league. You have a short time to make your money,” said Flynn, who now works in Boston as a TV and radio football analyst. “I’ve seen guys not be able to handle that pressure,” he added. “Some performed poorly and some guys said, ‘I’m done.’”
Flynn also said trying to be a partner and father while attempting to dedicate oneself to football is difficult.
“You sacrifice a lot with your attention, with your focus,” he said.
Former UMaine safety Daren Stone, a teammate of Belcher’s who also played in the NFL, is now on the school’s strength and conditioning staff. He said being from a Football Championship Subdivision (second-tier) school like Maine wouldn’t affect an NFL player’s prospects.
“It’s difficult to make it in general in the NFL, whether you’re from an FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision] or FCS school,” said Stone.
“But once you’ve made it, you’ve made it, and it doesn’t matter what school you came from,” he added.
Flynn said the higher-paid, top-round draft picks from bigger schools have “a longer leash.”
For the rest, “You’re balancing all these things in a profession where it could be gone in a second and you lose everything,” he said.
Belcher made an immediate impact and eventually, in March 2012, he was rewarded with a one-year contract valued at $1.927 million. Nevertheless, he still had difficulty handling the rigors of the NFL and his personal life.
A report by writer Jeff Pearlman, published on the website Bleacher Report in late November, was the first to make connections between Belcher’s concussion history and his actions on Dec.1, 2012.
Concussions are now a major player safety concern in the NFL, as well as a public relations nightmare, as many former players have come forward to reveal physiological damage attributed their careers in the league.
Belcher’s behavior was reportedly similar to that of people who suffer from CTE, which is a degenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries.
It is not known if the exhumation will prove that Belcher had CTE. Omalu has found evidence of Alzheimer’s in bodies that were buried longer than a year, but Belcher shot himself in the head. Therefore, how well the body and brain were preserved is very important.
Julian Bailes, founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute, said CTE does not directly explain the murder-suicide.
Perkins’ mother told the Kansas City Star she was not aware that Belcher’s body was being exhumed.
“I’m doubtful it will solve anything,” she said.
Kiefer said Belcher suffered several concussions.
“I talked to him on a regular basis, and you could tell something was a little off due to the concussions,” Kiefer said. “You could even tell on the phone. He would lose his train of thought. It was small things that come with the repercussions from concussions.”
Chiefs Chairman Clark Hunt said after the murder-suicide that Belcher did not have a long concussion history.
According to The Associated Press, Belcher had appeared on the injury report in November 2009, two years earlier, as being limited with a head injury. He played in a game four days later.
There were no other official reports of concussions, but the Deadspin article quoted a source as saying Belcher was “dazed” after blows to the head sustained in a Nov. 25, 2012, game against Cincinnati — six days before the shootings.
Maine native Micky Collins, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized expert in sports-related concussions. He does not know the details of Belcher’s situation but cautioned such behavior can’t be attributed solely to a head injury.
“The science hasn’t matured to the point where we could say that conclusively,” said Collins, who is the Director of the University of Pittsburgh Sports Medicine Concussion Program.
He explained that a concussion, especially if not properly treated, can combine with other pre-existing factors to affect a patient’s behavior.
“There can be emotional issues triggered by this injury,” Collins said. “If you combine concussion with stress in life or with relationship problems or alcohol abuse, I can see how it could be a piece of the puzzle and lead to aberrant behavior.”
Collins said because of improved diagnosis and treatment protocols, most of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s 20,000 annual patients have their concussion problems resolved.
NFL tackles player issues
According to a story in the New York Daily News, at the time of Belcher’s death, he was the sixth former NFL player to commit suicide in two years.
The NFL has a comprehensive plan to handle concussions and other issues. In August, the NFL paid a $765 million settlement to more than 4,500 players in concussion-related lawsuits.
In July 2012, six months prior to the Belcher murder-suicide, the NFL launched a total wellness program for current and former NFL players.
“We have a stand-alone department, NFL Player Engagement, that works closely with current and former players to identify off-the-field issues,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, who explained former players are brought into work with those experiencing problems.
The NFL has also implemented the NFL LifeLine, a confidential phone consultation service and website manned 365 days a year by third-party mental health professionals.
Always a Black Bear?
A year after the Belcher murder-suicide, Kiefer and Stone are dismayed his name was taken off the Alfond Stadium mural.
“People don’t remember the positive things he did,” said Stone. “His name should still be up there.”
Kiefer and Stone also wondered why UMaine officials didn’t also remove the name of Justin Strzelczyk, a former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman.
Strzelczyk died in 2004 after leading police on a 37-mile, high-speed chase in New York before his pickup truck, traveling at approximately 90 mph, collided with a tractor-trailer and exploded into flames. An exam by Omalu of Strzelczyk’s brain three years later showed that he suffered from CTE.
Kiefer, however, still believes removing Belcher from UMaine history is unfair to his teammate. Perhaps his picture could come down, he said, while his name remained.
“Once a Black Bear always a Black Bear,” said Keifer. “The thing I loved about Maine was it was all about family. We did everything together. It was a terrible thing that happened, but it had nothing to do with his time at Maine.”
The Sports Xchange contributed to this report.