So today, after much work and insane digging and myriad sleep-deprived nights, my Jovan Belcher story ran on Bleacher Report.
Figured I’d offer some background, in case anyone cares …
I’d never written for Bleacher Report before. To be honest, until recently I hadn’t given the site much thought. It was a place, I figured, that used low-wage and no-wage writers to fill space and sell ads. Then, a few months ago, something noteworthy happened: Bleacher Report hired Mike Freeman, my friend and one of the best NFL writers out there. It also hired Howard Beck. And Kevin Ding. And Ethan Skolnick and Jared Zwerling. These were legit writers.
The site was getting better and better. It carried a seriousness it once lacked. It seemed to want original, lengthy pieces that other places weren’t offering. In this oddball age of oddball journalism, it was refreshing. Encouraging.
Then, about 3 1/2 weeks ago, an editor reached out. “Would you consider writing a piece on Jovan Belcher?” he asked. The pay was neither great nor awful. The story, obviously, was heartbreaking and mysterious and gripping. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll give it a go.”
I immediately decided I didn’t want to write the same ol’ piece: Track down the people there at the end and write about the final moments of Jovan Belcher’s life. I also didn’t want to spend much time inside the Chiefs locker room, where programmed, robotic replies (demanded by the programmed, robotic NFL) would surely ensue. No, I wanted to dig into the lives of two people—Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend, Kasanda Perkins. I wanted to find out who they were. Who they really, really were.
The first thing I did was track down numbers of relatives. I left a message on the answering machine belonging to Jovan’s mother. I reached out to his sisters and cousins and uncles and friends via Facebook. I also tracked down a number for Kasandra’s dad, and left a voice message. He was the first one to respond, roughly two days later. I told him I was trying to learn about his daughter, and asked whether he’d grant me an audience were I to fly down to Austin. “Maybe,” he said. “Let me think about it.” I called back two days later, and his phone was out of service.
I heard back, via Facebook, from one of Jovan’s aunts, who told me she’d talk only if his mother said it was OK. During this time, I thought and thought and thought and thought about driving out to the mother’s house, knocking on the door and explaining myself. “Hi, I’m Jeff Pearlman. I’m doing a story on your son, and …” I decided against it. Why? Because this was a woman who lost a son; who—literally—was in the room as he filled up Perkins with bullets. I left her a second phone message, and decided that would be that. There are times in this business when one is required to be a stalker. This was not one of those cases.
The family route, clearly, wasn’t going so well. I started thinking teammates. I called the SID at the University of Maine, who was very kind, and hooked me up with several former teammates. They were all excellent—and for a while I thought this could be the story of Jovan Belcher’s college years, and how his life as a Black Bear was very different from his life, toward the end, as a Chief. And yet … I wasn’t feeling it. It would have been sorta … meh. OK, but bland.
So I started trying to get Chief players. I went, year-by-year, through the rosters, and made a list of guys who were no longer in the NFL. See, this was key, because (I know, sadly, through experience with these types of stories) were I to utter, “I’m doing a story on Jovan Belcher …” to league PR people, a burning red flag would shoot up. There is no league (entity?) on earth as image conscious as the National Football League. There is no way teams would make players available. Heck, I’d reached out repeatedly to the Kansas City media relations department for this piece—and heard nothing. Literally, not one word. The Chiefs wouldn’t even give Bleacher Report a credential.
So—to hell with the NFL. I made the list, placing stars by defensive players, and double stars by defensive players who arrived with Belcher in 2009. Using whitepages.com and Twitter and Nexis and Facebook, I began reaching out—one by one by one by one. Truth be told, in 2013, with technology as it is, very few people are impossible to track down.
In this case, many didn’t respond. Many did. Some will go unnamed here, for anonymity’s sake. The first big moment came when a guy named Pierre Walters, Jovan’s fellow Chief linebacker, hit me back on Twitter. I followed him and asked him to follow me, so I could send a DM. I told him what I was trying to do. He told me thought of Jovan like a brother.
I asked if he’d be willing to chat.
He said he would.
Interviews come, interviews go. I will never, ever forget Pierre—as smart and insightful an athlete as I’ve ever interviewed. The same goes for Thomas Jones, the longtime running back. And Kevin Boss, the tight end. And Reshard Langford, a defensive back. The NFL is a strange place, in that—when players are active—it treats them as well-compensated labor camp prisoners, forbidden to express themselves and asked to keep all emotions to themselves. This works well for the NFL at the time—but it also results in lingering anxiousness from retirees. When you’re told not to talk, not to talk, not to talk, not to talk over the span of several years, well, it takes a toll. And, when you’re finally free, it often feels great to spew. That’s what these guys did—they spewed. About life in the league. About pressure. About pain. They all liked (and, in some cases, loved) Jovan Belcher, and seemed to embrace the idea of this story.
Ultimately, their words guided me to the direction I wound up heading. They told the story of a profession—externally glorious—that chews people up and spits them out.
That’s what happened to Jovan Belcher.