Romeo Crennel stood in the middle of the Kansas City Chiefs' locker room Sunday, the emotion threatening to overcome the good-natured head coach.
Chiefs owner Clark Hunt was at his side, offering support. Members of the team hugged each other, the mud smearing with tears on their cheeks. And along the wall stood the empty locker that once belonged to Jovan Belcher, his jersey still hanging from a hook.
Just one day after the linebacker killed his girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself, the Chiefs banded together to play their finest game of the season, a 27-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers that ended an eight-game losing streak suddenly rendered trivial.
"As far as playing the game, I thought that was the best for us to do, because that's what we do," Crennel said, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. "We're football players and football coaches and that's what we do: We play on Sunday."
According to authorities, Belcher shot his girlfriend multiple times early Saturday at a residence near Arrowhead Stadium, then sped to the team's practice facility and turned the gun on himself as Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli watched in the parking lot.
Kansas City players gathered in the tunnel leading to the field for a brief prayer before their pregame stretching. A few fans in the half-empty stadium held up signs referencing the shootings, and there was a moment of silence to remember all victims of domestic violence.
Kansas City police have not released a motive for the shootings, which claimed the life of Belcher and 22-year-old Kasandra M. Perkins, and left a 3-month-old girl, Zoey, an orphan.
"I'm just trying to get through the rest of today," said the Chiefs' Brady Quinn, who threw his first two touchdown passes in three years. "The emotions of what has taken place will probably hit home for a few guys the next few days."
Cam Newton threw for 232 yards and three touchdowns for the Panthers, who were informed the game would be played as scheduled while they were heading to Kansas City on Saturday.
DeAngelo Williams added 67 yards rushing, carrying the load with Jonathan Stewart out with an injury. Steve Smith, Greg Olsen and Louis Murphy caught Carolina's TD passes.
"You definitely feel for them. What they are going through is tragic," Olsen said. "But we have a job to do. Our job is to come here and prepare to win. They wouldn't expect less."
Peyton Hillis had a touchdown run for Kansas City. Tony Moeaki and Jon Baldwin had touchdown catches. Ryan Succop hit two field goals, including a 52-yarder with 4:54 left that forced the Panthers to try for a touchdown to win.
Instead, they went three-and-out, and the Chiefs were able to run down the clock to 31 seconds before giving back the ball. Newton completed two quick passes to reach the Carolina 38, but his final heave as time expired was caught by Smith short of the end zone.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera greeted Crennel at midfield and gave him a hug.
"They played an inspired football game," Rivera said. "They did some really good things, and we have to give them credit, because they suffered through a very difficult time."