By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Anguished Kansas City Chiefs responded to the murder-suicide involving linebacker Jovan Belcher with a rare victory on Sunday, defeating the Carolina Panthers 27-21.
Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend in front of his mother at their Kansas City home on Saturday, then drove to the team's practice facility, where he committed suicide in the parking lot as head coach Romeo Crennel and General Manager Scott Pioli watched.
The tragedy dampened the normally festive atmosphere at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium before the game and tempered the joy of the victory, which snapped an eight-game losing streak and improved Kansas City's record to 2-10.
"You relied on your faith to help get you through this, and we got through it," Crennel told the team in the locker room after the game. "Everybody made a contribution, everybody helped, and that's what a team is about."
Quarterback Brady Quinn said the tragedy weighed heavily on the players and the victory was meaningful because it showed "how guys clung together."
"This will stick with us the rest of the year," Quinn told FM 101.1 radio.
Tight end Tony Moeaki credited Crennel and Pioli for demonstrating leadership after witnessing the suicide and supporting the team.
"You can't put it into words what we went through as a team," Moeaki told the radio. "They really stayed strong for us and that was key."
Kansas City fans are known for their elaborate pre-game tailgating parties, but many said the mood was subdued on Sunday. A moment of silence for all victims of domestic violence was held before the game.
"It is a sad situation, but to me, ultimately, the man committed murder," Chiefs' fan Tony Alonzo said. "The big picture is that it was a murder."
Fans lamented the death of Kasandra Perkins, 22, and turned their thoughts to the couple's 3-month-old daughter.
"That is who you feel for, this 3-month-old child," fan Ira Thomas said before the game. "She has to grow up without her parents and, as she gets older, someone in the family will tell her what happened and that might set her back a few years."
By coincidence, a Cleveland Browns employee committed suicide on Saturday, the Browns said. The body of assistant groundskeeper Eric Eucker, 42, was found at the Browns' training facility, the Cuyahoga County coroner's office said. Eucker hanged himself, Cleveland's WEWS NewsChannel 5 reported.
The suicide of Belcher followed a recent string of former National Football League players who have taken their own lives, including Junior Seau in May, Ray Easterling in April and Dave Duerson last year.
Those deaths heightened growing concerns about the risk of brain injury from repeated concussions suffered by veteran NFL players in a game that some critics say has grown too aggressive, although there was no immediate evidence Belcher suffered significant head trauma.
After discussions with the league, Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt left the decision about whether to play with Crennel and the team. They decided the game should go on.
"Romeo called the team captains yesterday afternoon ... and they all wanted to play the game," Hunt told ESPN on the field before the game. "And I asked coach Crennel, 'Do you think the right thing is to go forward?' and he said, 'I do. Under the circumstances, it's going to be tough.'"
Hunt visited the team on Saturday night.
"I wanted to tell them that I love them and I understand what they are going through," Hunt said.
Kansas City Mayor Sylvester James likened the tragedy to "your worst nightmare."
"It's unfathomable," James told reporters. "It's something that you would love to wash away from your mind, but you can't do it. There is nothing like it. Think about your worst nightmare and multiply by five."
(Additional reporting by Eric Johnson and Kim Palmer; Editing by Bill Trott and Stacey Joyce)