KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Romeo Crennel inherited his sense of discipline from his father, a career military man. His patience, kindness and generosity came from his mother, who often had to raise young Romeo and his four siblings like a single mother while her husband was stationed overseas.
Those values have come to define Crennel’s reputation throughout his career.
The coach of the Kansas City Chiefs can get tough when the situation warrants it, laying into players and coaches when something goes awry. But he’s also been described by his players as a teddy bear, the kind of gentle character who will stop guys in the hallway just to see how they’re doing.
“My respect has always been extremely high for him,” Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn said. “I mean, that’s why I wanted to come here and play for him.”
Those values instilled by his parents helped Crennel win five Super Bowl rings as an assistant coach, and propped him up during some of the bleakest periods of his professional life — none more so than now, as he comes to grips with the kind of tragedy for which there’s no way to prepare.
Crennel was outside the Chiefs’ training facility last Saturday morning, flanked by general manager Scott Pioli and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, trying to reason with one of his players in crisis. Jovan Belcher had already killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and driven the short distance to Arrowhead Stadium, where he was thanking the Chiefs for giving him an opportunity to live out his dreams.
That’s when Belcher pressed a black handgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
“I was trying to get him to understand that life is not over, he still has a chance, and let’s get this worked out,” Crennel said this week. “I don’t question what I said at all.”
He never would, of course — not the son of Joseph Crennel, affectionately known as Sarge.
During what has already been a trying season, one that could ultimately cost him his job in a matter of weeks, Crennel let his sense of discipline take over. He detailed what had transpired for the authorities, and then began meeting with coaches and players, calmly and stoically answering all their questions while doing his best to mask an overwhelming sense of heartache.
“My daughters and my wife, they tell me I must be crazy, that something must be wrong with me, but I can deal with stress. I can deal with grief,” Crennel said. “So I was dealing with it by trying to be the leader that those young men upstairs need.”
Lives had been shattered, Crennel knew. There would be countless questions in days to come: Did someone miss the warning signs? Could the tragedy been avoided?
But there were also other considerations, more trivial but also more immediate: Would Sunday’s game against Carolina be played as scheduled? Would the team be prepared to take the field?
Crennel left that decision up to his captains, and they unanimously agreed that it was best to play the game. Commissioner Roger Goodell approved of their decision, and for about three hours last Sunday, Crennel and his players enjoyed a sense of normalcy.
“He was a rock for a lot of guys, and he’s been the definition of a leader,” said Chiefs offensive lineman Ryan Lilja. “You know he’s hurting, but he has a job to do, and really his job the last couple days was to lead this group of men, and not necessarily win a football game.”
They did win a football game, though.
The Chiefs beat the Panthers to end an eight-game losing streak, only their second victory all season. As the team headed back to the locker room, the stress of reality finally began to set in.
That’s when Crennel’s patience, kindness and generosity were on display.
He gave more hugs to more players than would normally seem comfortable. Crennel praised his team for coming together in the wake of such sadness, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
Stepping before dozens of television cameras, Crennel spoke from the heart. The murder-suicide was a senseless act of violence, he said. It was important to remember two lives had ended that day, and that a 3-month-old girl would grow up without ever having known her parents.
“We have to deal with it in our own way, but he was there,” Chiefs linebacker Brandon Siler said. “He was the toughest out of all of us, to be there and still go out there and coach and win a game with a bunch of guys that were hurting.”
The following day, Crennel credited his father and mother and the influence they had on his life with helping him to handle the chaos swirling around him.
His father had retired as a master sergeant after 26 years in the Army, and served two tours in Vietnam. At home, it was hard to separate the military from the man: Romeo often would be woken by his father at first light to tackle daily chores, his bed always made to exacting specifications, his shoes shined to a mirror-like finish, just as if he was living in a barracks.
It was Sarge, a Renaissance man, who named his eldest son after the most famous character from Shakespeare’s most famous play, and his second daughter after its other star-crossed lover.
“The way he handled himself, the discipline he had to have as a career army guy, he brought that home,” Crennel said, “and we were part of it.”
Romeo Crennel’s mother, Mary, was a nurturing woman who taught her son empathy and compassion, and “I took some of her patience to help deal with life in general,” he said. She was a calming influence in Romeo’s life, particularly during those long periods when Sarge was deployed.
“No matter how she felt, how good it was, how bad it was, she was always making it,” Crennel said. “Every time you ask her, ‘I’m making it,’ and she went on and made it.”
Crennel actually wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps as a young man, but he was ruled out of military service because of flat feet. So he channeled his discipline and drive toward football. He became a star lineman at Western Kentucky during the late 1960s, and broke into coaching at the school not long after graduation.
He spent a decade coaching at the college level before getting a chance with the New York Giants, where he won two Super Bowl rings. He also served as an assistant with the Jets and Browns before joining the Patriots, helping Bill Belichick win three more Super Bowl rings.
His name always seemed to pop up for head coaching jobs, and he had interviews too numerous to count, always coming up just short. He finally got his chance in Cleveland, where the Chiefs will play today.
It wasn’t a good fit from the start, Crennel admits these days. He was the new coach working for a new front-office staff under new ownership. The organization was undergoing a complete overhaul at the time, and it was reflected in Crennel’s record: He managed to go 24-40 with just one winning season in four years.
After getting fired, Crennel landed in Kansas City as a defensive coordinator, and when things went sour last season for coach Todd Haley, he stepped in as the interim coach. He led the Chiefs to a surprising win over the undefeated Green Bay Packers, and won at Denver to close out the season.
His players chanted “Rac! Rac! Rac!” in the locker room after the game, a nickname built on the coach’s initials, and general manager Scott Pioli ultimately handed him the head coaching job on a permanent basis.
This season has been another struggle, though. The Chiefs were expected to challenge for the AFC West, but instead have suffered through unsteady quarterback play, numerous injuries and long periods of fan unrest during an eight-game losing streak that has once again put Crennel’s job in jeopardy.
He may be a player’s coach, universally beloved by those on his teams, but he also has a 28-51 record as a head coach in the NFL, and he’s yet to guide a team to the playoffs.
“I know Rac wants the best for everyone in the locker room, whether you’re here for a week, two weeks, whatever,” said Chiefs defensive tackle Shaun Smith, who was also with Crennel in Cleveland.
“I call him a teddy bear, because if you get to know him, you can talk to him about anything,” Smith said. “He asks me how my kids are doing, I ask him how his kids are doing, his grandkids. We can talk about anything.”
Perhaps that’s why Belcher, after shooting 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins in a home near Arrowhead Stadium, drove to the Chiefs’ complex and asked to speak with Crennel last Saturday.
Crennel was already putting final preparations on today’s game plan when he received a call to come down to the parking lot. Once he stepped outside and into the unseasonably warm morning, the soft-spoken coach tried to talk one of his starting middle linebackers out of committing more acts of violence.
Crennel has reflected on that brief conversation this week. It’s only natural to wonder if there was something else he could have done, some other way he could have reached out to a player in need. But Crennel doesn’t once regret the words he spoke.
“I feel comfortable with what I tried to do,” Crennel said. “It just wasn’t enough.”