Jovan Belcher, Josh Brent, and NFL Players’ Self-Inflicted Tragedies

Pat O’Brien, who’s made his own high-profile mistakes, writes about what he learned from them—that too many football players still need to learn.

During the 15 seconds of the deadly 1989 San Francisco earthquake, San Francisco 49er linebacker Bubba Paris, the biggest and toughest man in football, was having a nice meal with his six kids. All hell broke loose, and there he was trying to shield them from danger as the entire city rocked back and forth for what seemed like an eternity. "The scary feeling," he said, "is to see terror in your kid's face and there's nothing you can do about it." So big and tough and strong, he was helpless to protect his own family from Mother Nature. He was one of the lucky ones.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have watched some of the toughest and strongest men in the NFL unable to protect themselves from themselves. These monsters of Sunday have spread death and destruction and mayhem to their families, their teams, their fans, and themselves.

In the suburbs of Kansas City, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher loads one of his handguns, and fires nine bullets into his girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. After the Saturday morning murder, he drove his Bentley to the team compound and blew his brains out in front of his coach and general manager. The next day, they played football.

A week later, in the middle of the night, two big and tough and strong players on the Dallas Cowboys decided to stop partying long enough to drive somewhere else. They didn’t make it. Their night ended with one player, Jerry Brown, trapped in a burning SUV screaming “Help me!” Witnesses say his good buddy Josh Brent just stood and watched, before finally trying to help. Brent has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and a DUI, his second. He could get 20 years to sit alone on a steel bed to think about the consequences. They played football that Sunday, too.

In between the games, there has been a heated conversation about gun control and about driving while hopelessly drunk.

The NFL has worked hard to protect players on the field from other players who are sometimes bigger and stronger, but somehow the shield can’t figure out how to protect players from themselves.

Every player is reminded every day that if they go out, there’s a phone number for a free limo service to take them home. Every player has high-level counseling and therapy at their disposal for domestic trouble. Every player actually does know that nothing good happens after 1 a.m. But only a few listen.

And every player claims they are part of the greatest “family” ever created, yet the “family” table talk almost always defines trouble as something that happens to other people: not to the big and the strong who play the Sunday games.

God knows (and so does the Internet) that I have partied hard, drank myself into rehabs, embarrassed my family and myself: but I finally learned that there are consequences for bad behavior. I finally listened.

Recovery and common sense and taking a look at myself inside and out and in again has made me tougher and stronger. I know trouble is something that can happen to me, not just other people.

I grew up in South Dakota where deer- and pheasant-hunting seasons are treated as holidays, but I never saw anybody kill a pheasant with a handgun. I also never felt it necessary to drive so hammered that I ended up killing my friend.

It’s the grandiosity and entitlement that creates somebody who thinks they can win the battle of life. Not so.

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In the past two weeks, I’ve had players and coaches on my radio show and to the man, they say, “of course it’s awful, but nobody listens to reality.” It’s hard to do when you get paid to be tough. Hard to do when you make millions of dollars to be the man. Hard to listen when your own voices are louder than your Creator’s.

The answers could be gun control, Breathalyzer gadgets on their vehicles, harsher curfews, taking away game checks and so on, but it’s pretty damn tough to get a handle on grandiosity and entitlement, even when the horrible consequences are right there on the front pages. Tough to squeeze that in between practices and games and autograph sessions and commercials and girlfriends and thousands of people betting that you are stronger and tougher than the next guy.

Even the smartest and wisest of players usually end up saying something like “don’t forget, football is a rough sport.” So is life.