Jovan Belcher's former coaches are in shock
"You could not see this coming. Not even close," Ron Langella said.
The Jovan Belcher he described as an inspiration to his teammates, fellow students and kids in the community, shot his girlfriend to death Saturday at their home, then killed himself in front of three team officials at Arrowhead Stadium, police said.
Former coaches and friends are finding it hard to believe that a young man who went from high school sports star to college scholar-athlete, then proved to the 32 teams who chose not to draft him that he could be a starter in the NFL, could be involved in such a thing.
"He was a good athlete, but an even better person. An unbelievable role model," said Langella, who coached the West Babylon varsity during Belcher's sophomore season of 2002. "He was everything you'd want a kid to be. He was never in trouble. People gravitated toward him."
But the Jovan Belcher everyone knew changed suddenly, with deadly consequences.
Belcher, a starter at inside linebacker, came to the Chiefs as an undrafted player out of the University of Maine, where he was the Colonial Athletic Association's 2008 player of the year after making second-team All-American in 2007 and won academic awards.
He earned a degree in child development, completing his education as the same serious student he was in high school.
"He always did his work, sat right up front," said Al Ritacco, a former coach and Belcher's 10th-grade biology teacher.
As a football player, he made Newsday's list of Players of the Decade for the 2000s.
While discussing the tragedy Saturday, Joe Piccinnini recalled a big play that Belcher had made against his team.
"Like it was yesterday," the Newfield coach said. "He made an interception that I remember so vividly. Our quarterback was trying to throw the ball out of bounds and here he comes, clear across the field. He's using his speed, closing on the ball and somehow he makes the interception, pulling the ball back across the end line. His athleticism was unbelievable. His motor was non-stop. He was a player. That's how he got to where he did."
Belcher, a second-team Newsday All-Long Island selection in 2004, was not heavily recruited, recalled Langella, now the head coach at Deer Park. "But his willingness to get better was phenomenal. He was a good athlete and a better person."
But just as he was lightly recruited out of high school, he was largely ignored coming out of college. He was not drafted by any NFL team, but wound up making the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2009.
"What are the chances that a high school kid will get to the pros," Frank Riviezzo, defensive coordinator at West Babylon when Belcher played, said with a touch of pride in his voice. "But he proved everybody wrong. He was a homegrown talent who made it to the show."
Langella was impressed with Belcher's work ethic.
"His drive to get better was phenomenal," Langella said. "He was hardly even recruited in high school but he never stopped working or trying to improve."
Belcher did not forget his roots, annually attending West Babylon home games, where he would give pregame or halftime pep talks that Riviezzo called "very moving."
On a recent visit, "he told my players what was important in life," Ritacco said. "I can't put a handle on this. I'm completely in shock."
Belcher's No. 52 jersey hangs prominently on the wall outside the West Babylon locker room. "The kids see it every day," Riviezzo said. "He's a special kid who will be missed."