KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As wave after wave of reporters asked him about the parking lot, Brandon Siler couldn’t stop thinking about the chair. The empty chair.
The chair next to him in the Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker meetings every Monday, the one Jovan Belcher had sat in for the past two years. For two years, there was Jovan, win or lose, ready with a joke. Or a story. Or a grin. Or, better yet, all three.
Not this Monday. This Monday, the chair was empty. The silence was deafening.
“You keep looking at that seat, thinking, ‘He’s going to show up at some point in time,’ you know?” the Chiefs linebacker said. “That’s hard.”
Siler inherited Belcher’s starting spot at inside linebacker in Sunday’s 27-21 win over the Carolina Panthers, inheriting it in the worst way imaginable. Early last Saturday, the 25-year-old Belcher killed his girlfriend, then drove to the team’s practice facility and — despite the pleas of general manager Scott Pioli, head coach Romeo Crennel and linebackers coach Gary Gibbs — killed himself.
“I was probably close to being the closest (friend he had on the team),” said Siler, who collected two tackles as the Chiefs, despite it all, notched their first home victory of the season. “There were probably two other people that were just as close I was. DJ (inside linebacker Derrick Johnson). Maybe Justin (Houston, another linebacker).
“But I was one of the closest to him. That’s why it’s really hard for me to deal with. But I deal with it in my own way.”
Coping is a complicated, internal business, as individual as a fingerprint. For some, it’s about distraction. For others, it’s denial. Belcher took his own life in the parking lot out front. Imagine coming to work on every day and having to walk past where one of your favorite co-workers had decided to shoot himself in the head.
“I’m dealing with it. You know? I’m dealing with it,” Siler replied when a reporter asked how he was pulling through. “I know that we have to keep ticking and we have to keep going on. It’s hard. I mean, losing someone that you’re really close to, it’s very hard.”
For Siler, who started his first NFL game since the 2010 season, the cuts from the past 72 hours run deeper than most. He spent Thanksgiving with Belcher and his family, celebrating at Johnson’s home. He said there were no warning signs, no harbingers of what was to come.
“It’s Thanksgiving as you know it,” Siler recalled. “All laughs and praying and loving.”
He knew Belcher’s girlfriend, Kasandra “Kasi” Perkins, the cousin of Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles’ wife. In fact, Siler had spotted Kasi at a Trey Songz concert Friday night, a concert that preceded an early-morning argument that would turn fatal.
“We didn’t know THAT guy,” Siler said. “We didn’t know the guy that would go out and kill anybody — especially himself.”
The Belcher they knew had graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in child development and family relations. The Belcher they knew had once belonged to an organization known as the Males Athletes Against Violence initiative, signing a pledge in which he’d vowed never to commit a violent act against a woman.
Siler admitted that he and his teammates are conflicted, which is understandable when the angel and the demon turn out to be the same man. The Chiefs thought of him like a brother. But this was also a brother who allegedly murdered a woman and left a 3-month-old girl an orphan, resigned to a life in which she will never know her birth parents. We weep for the dead, but we weep harder for the living.
“It’s hard to reflect and say, ‘Hey, this is a great guy, this is a guy that all of us knew,'” Siler said. “And we didn’t know THAT guy… the guy that made those last decisions, we didn’t know. We knew the guy who came in and was a great teammate and a great friend. That’s the guy we knew.”
But the soul of a man — that, you don’t know. None of us do. The Chiefs brought in counselors to address the linebacking corps Monday, a collective hit the hardest, a group that couldn’t stop thinking about that chair where Jovan Belcher used to be.
So they talked. And talked. The conversations, as it turned out, had very little to do with football, and a lot to do with everything else.
“This isn’t going to go away today. Or tomorrow,” Siler said.
“This isn’t going to go away in a week, a week-and-a-half. So we’re trying to deal with it the best way we can.”
Empty chairs are easily filled. Empty hearts, not so much.