Jimm Peppler/Newsday file photo
Jimm Peppler/Newsday file photo
As a football player, Jovan Allen Belcher beat the odds.
He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009 as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Maine. He was a smaller-sized defensive end from a smaller-sized school, who would have to convert to linebacker in the pros. But he drew praise from former Chiefs coach Todd Haley early that season.
“I think he’s a guy that’s impressed us all from early on, and I think we’ve got a potential player there. ... That’s a guy that needs to be on the field,” Haley told the Kansas City Star.
Belcher, 25, a native of West Babylon, N.Y., fatally shot his girlfriend Saturday in Kansas City and then fatally shot himself at the Chiefs team complex in front of general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel, according to police. Investigators said that before taking his own life, Belcher thanked Pioli and Crennel for what they had done for him.
With the Chiefs, Belcher was an inside linebacker at 6-2, 228 pounds. In the NFL, many at that spot go 240 or more. But he started three games as a rookie. He became a starter in his second NFL season. He had started 10 of 11 games this season. He didn’t start last weekend against the Denver Broncos because the Chiefs tried an extra defensive back against the passing of Peyton Manning.
After a standout career in football and wrestling at West Babylon High on Long Island, Belcher joined the Maine Black Bears as a linebacker/defensive end. He was the Colonial Athletic Association defensive player of the year as a senior in 2008, and he made first-team All-American in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. As a rookie in 2009, he was one of seven former Maine players who made an opening-day NFL roster.
During his college career, Belcher was known as soft-spoken off the field. On the field, he was relentless, aggressive and quick to the football.
“You’re in the trenches; that’s where it all starts,” Belcher told the Bangor Daily News during his senior season. “It’s basically a fist fight every play.”
Belcher told the newspaper he credited his mother, Cheryl Shepard, and three older sisters with giving him support.
“My mother is a hardworking woman,” he said. “To see her overcome some things and succeed, it makes me look at things and say, ‘This isn’t even hard.’ I didn’t really have a father figure, so they provided nice guidance for me.”
Dwayne Wilmot, who was Belcher’s position coach at Maine, recalled that the easiest way to make him smile was to tell him his mother was coming to a game.
“Family was paramount for Jovan. You could see it at every game,” said Wilmot, now a coach at Yale. “His family showed up in force. He relished the opportunity to make them proud as a student and an athlete. He did what he did for their love and their adulation.
“I’m devastated right now. Trying to hold together.”
When asked if Belcher had any off-field concerns in college, Wilmot mentioned he had some maturity issues but nothing out of the ordinary. He also offered that Belcher completed his college studies early.
“Kids ages 18-22, they all have things they’d like to do over,” the coach said. “When I was that age there were things I’d like to do over. To see him grow and evolve in that time, it is an absolute and utter shock to be talking about Jovan in the past tense.
“What you saw was the burning desire to be successful. If he had the opportunity, he’d make the most of it. ... This is a tragic end, but his life had a greater good than just this tragic end.”
Belcher graduated from Maine with a degree in child development and family relations. Then he moved on to his NFL career with the Chiefs.
During his rookie NFL season, he picked up another award from his college days. He was the New England Region winner of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports’ Scholar-Baller Program Academic Momentum Award.
In Kansas City, he was an active participant in charitable and community causes. Last spring, he visited troops at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Last fall, he went to Oak Grove Elementary in Kansas City as part of the NFL’s “Play 60” initiative.
“I’ll say one thing, Oak Grove Elementary has some real passion for the Chiefs,” Belcher said at the time. “I was very impressed with them. They all did a tremendous job of showing not only their support of our team but for living a healthy lifestyle too. You can tell that they all take things like eating right and getting exercise seriously. It was really a fun time. I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet them all today and congratulate them for their efforts.”
In March, Belcher signed a one-year contract as a restricted free agent with the Chiefs worth about $1.9 million. He started all 16 games last season and was second on the team in tackles. After this season, he was in line for his first contract under potential free agency.
He did not have a history as someone who often is injured. According to the Associated Press, he showed up on the official injury report on Nov. 11, 2009 as being limited in practice with a head injury. He did, however, play four days later. There is no other evidence of head injuries.
Belcher was on the injury report with a groin problem before this season’s opener, but he started and had five tackles in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
“People think how can a young man with the world in front of him, making good money and playing on a national stage, do something like that? But you just don’t understand the mental state of what some people are dealing with. It’s sad,” said former NFL fullback Tony Richardson, who played with Kansas City from 1995 to 2005 and now is an analyst for the New York Jets.
“I woke up this morning, and it was first thing I saw on ESPN. It was a total shock,” said Richardson, who lives in Kansas City.
“In a small-market (city), people really love their Chiefs’ players. They know everything about every player. It’s a big family and a very close-knit community. This was a young man people followed and cheered for. It’s devastating.”
Frank Eltman/Associated Press