|Before joining the Chiefs, Jovan Belcher was the CAA Defensive Player of the Year at the University of Maine. (AP)|
On Saturday morning, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend and then drove to the team's practice facility, where he took his own life. He was 25.
In 2009, after a stellar four-year career at the University of Maine, Jovan Belcher signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent. He grew up on Long Island and attended West Babylon High School, where he was a three-time All-American wrestler. Despite his success on the mat, Belcher's future was on the football field.
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“I love that sport,” he told the Boston Globe in 2008, “but I wanted to play a team sport.”
Coming out of high school, Belcher wasn't highly recruited in football, probably because he was raw and undersized. He ended up in Orono, Maine, where he played for coach Jack Cosgrove.
“When he got here, he was 195 pounds: His jeans were falling off him. His clothes were all too big,” then-Maine defensive coordinator Robb Smith told the Globe. “But you knew he had great growth potential. The first scrimmage his freshman year, he went in third on the depth chart. After the scrimmage, he was first."
By his senior season, Belcher had earned first-team All-American honors and was named the Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year.
Maine's remote location meant Belcher wasn't on the radar of many scouts. (Only the Lions showed up to the Black Bears' pro day in 2009; that's why Belcher worked out at Hofstra's pro day, a more accessible location that saw 16 NFL teams represented.) But talent is talent, and Belcher had plenty. He also understood the path to a roster spot was through special teams.
“My biggest thing was I wanted to play as many special teams as I could so the NFL scouts could see that I could be versatile,” Belcher said in February 2009 after competing in the Texas vs. Nation All-Star Challenge.
Belcher echoed those sentiments two months later, during a pre-draft visit with the Ravens.
“I love to rush the passer, and I love to run around on special teams,” he said. “Special teams are a piece of the game that a lot of people don't feel is that important, but it can change the course of the game.”
Draft expert Tony Pauline pegged Belcher as one of the small-school players to watch, writing in February 2009 for SI.com: "Belcher was a pass rushing terror at Maine from his defensive end position yet possesses the size which necessitates a move to outside linebacker in the NFL. He's a bit of a work in progress yet has shown the underlying skills to develop into a productive starter at the next level."
One of the reasons that Belcher wasn't drafted was that, at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, he was undersized by NFL linebacker standards. That only served to motivate him.
“I can't change it," he said shortly after he signed with the Chiefs in late April 2009. "If I could, I would. But that just makes me want to work harder. I don't like to be satisfied because once you are, you get lazy. If you're dissatisfied, you keep working harder and harder. All I know is I'm a versatile player on the field and I can play special teams, any position they want me to, and I'm a character.”
Belcher made the Chiefs roster as a rookie, appearing in all 16 regular-season games and starting three times. By his second season, he was a full-time starter at inside linebacker. From 2010-12, he started 41 of 43 games. Last March, as a restricted free agent, he signed his one-year, $1.9 million contract. For his career, Belcher recorded 257 tackles and one sack.
According to the 2008 Globe story, Belcher majored in development and family relations and wanted to work with troubled adolescents after he graduated.
“He has an infectious smile and a very good way around children,” Cosgrove told the Globe at the time. “He's a great role model. He's the captain of our team, as well as an astounding football player. He models all the right things.”
Four years later, Belcher was still active in charity events, including a visit last fall to Oak Grove Elementary School in Kansas City as part of the NFL's "Play60" initiative.
"I'll say one thing -- Oak Grove Elementary has some real passion for the Chiefs," Belcher said at the time, via USA Today. "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. … It was really a fun time. I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet them all today and congratulate them for their efforts."