McKinley's passing marks third death in four seasons for team

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tragedy and grief have become all too familiar visitors to the Denver Broncos.

Having dealt with the deaths of two teammates in 2007, captain Champ Bailey was no more prepared for the shocking news this week that Kenny McKinley, a gregarious 23-year-old wide receiver with seemingly everything to live for, apparently put a gun to his head and killed himself.

"It's tough. You wish you wouldn't have to go through something like this," Bailey said. "But it's happened. We've got to live with it and keep moving on."

McKinley, a second-year pro and South Carolina's all-time receiving leader, died Monday at his home near the Broncos' headquarters, the NFL Network playing on the television set in the master bedroom. It was in that room where authorities say he took his life just one day after bringing his 1-year-old son back with him from South Carolina.

Investigators suspect the second-year pro committed suicide after being depressed over his second straight season-ending knee surgery last month.

This is the third time in four years the Broncos have had to deal with the stunning death of a teammate. 

Cornerback Darrent Williams, 24, was slain in a drive-by shooting on New Year's Day 2007 after a confrontation between Broncos players and gang members at a nightclub. Three months later, running back Damien Nash, 24, collapsed and died after a charity basketball game in St. Louis.

"It doesn't have to pile up to feel something is not fair," Broncos safety Brian Dawkins said. "But whatever the hand that you're dealt, you have to just play them and have faith."

Williams died in a hail of gunfire hours after the Broncos' 2006 season ended. His death and that of Nash of a heart attack on a day he was raising funds for his heart foundation cast a pall over the team for a long, long time.

A 29-year-old gang member was convicted earlier this year of first-degree murder in Williams' death, and in April was sentenced to life in prison plus 1,152 years.

After that, Bailey said it was time to start remembering how Williams lived, not how he died.

That's what several Broncos players were trying to do Monday night when they attended a wine-tasting VIP fundraiser hosted by Bailey and former NFL star John Lynch to benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver, home of the Darrent Williams Memorial Teen Center.

It was there that many of them learned of the latest tragedy to befall the franchise starving for some good fortune.

What makes McKinley's death different than the others is that he took his own life, leaving his friends and teammates to wonder why? And how? How could a young man with so much going for him, with a young son he loved, end it all? How could his incessant smile and jovial personality hide the inner demons that haunted him? Why didn't he reach out for help? Was he despondent over his injury? His finances? His future?

"I don't have any answers," said his father, Kenneth McKinley.

The elder McKinley said he didn't have any hints his son was suicidal, and friends, family members, coaches and teammates who played with him in college and the NFL have said they didn't see any signs, either. Investigators, though, said he had spoken of suicide and wasn't taken seriously.

With McKinley's death occurring during the season, his teammates are left trying to focus on football while compartmentalizing their grief and sorrow.

The Broncos face the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at Invesco Field, where there will be a moment of silence before kickoff.

"I think Kenny, he would love for us to continue to play, play through his spirits," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We've got to play with him on our shoulders and in our hearts."

The Broncos decided to leave McKinley's locker in place for the remainder of the season as a shrine to their teammate. They also will wear decals with No. 11 on their helmets.

Bailey is one of just four players remaining on the roster from 2007, when Williams was killed and Nash died. He said the trio of tragedies in Denver confounds him.

"I hate to say it's just about here," Bailey said. "Every incident was different and you can't really compare any one of them. It's all isolated situations and it's just things we have to deal with. We're strong men. I know we can handle it."

Friends calling him aren't asking, "What's going on there?" but "What can we do?"

"A lot of guys around the league I know are praying for the team and his family and wished us the best throughout this process," Bailey said.

Many NFL fans across the country who used to see Super Bowl trophies and John Elway's toothy smile and helicopter spin when thinking of the Broncos now perceive a franchise under a dark cloud.

"You can call it what you want. I'm not going to say it's bad luck," Bailey said. "It's just one of those situations that happened to this team. It's unfortunate. But you have to keep living."

In addition to the tragic deaths of Williams, Nash and McKinley, the Broncos have been in the news for misfortune on the field. NFL sacks king Elvis Dumervil suffered a season-ending torn chest muscle two weeks after signing a $61.5 million contract this summer.

There were costly mistakes in the personnel department, mostly under former coach Mike Shanahan, who famously drafted Maurice Clarett and signed Travis Henry, two running backs who wound up in prison.

Shanahan's successor, Josh McDaniels, has rid the roster of malcontents, sending Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall packing, and putting a premium on high character in the draft and free agency.

McKinley, a fifth-round pick, was one of those good guys he drafted last year.

"I've had an opportunity to have two draft classes here in two years here. And I'm not sure that any one of those kids enjoyed the phone call as much as Kenny did," McDaniels recalled through tears. "That was him. He was excited about it. He was looking forward to the opportunity. That's what he brought every day.

"We're certainly going to miss him being around here, our players will, our coaches will. We'll get through this together."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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