Johnie Kirton only spent a couple of weeks with the SaberCats. But you can get to know a lot about a guy in that short period of time when you're playing in the Arena Football League.
And that helps explain why the SaberCats continue to struggle with the stunning death of the running back, whose body was found in his Santa Clara hotel room May 28.
"The whole thing has been overwhelming," wide receiver Samora Goodson said. "It's unreal. It's definitely heavy on our minds. But we have to keep going. There's nothing else we can do. But it's something that you can't escape."
The SaberCats will play their first home game since the tragedy Friday when they meet the Orlando Predators. There will be a video tribute and a moment of silence at HP Pavilion. Players will wear helmet decals of Kirton's No. 37.
Kirton, 26, was a former University of Washington captain who had been acquired by the SaberCats on May 9 in a trade with Arizona.
In two games, the 6-foot-3, 290-pound fullback scored five touchdowns. Three of them came in an 84-77 victory over Chicago on May 26 -- including the winning score in overtime. Two nights later, a teammate discovered Kirton dead. The SaberCats have been told that Kirton died of natural causes, but autopsy results will not be released for several more weeks.
"I remember after the last touchdown he scored, I was right over there trying to help him up after he dove into the end zone," Goodson said.
Perhaps it's the nature of arena football that bonds players so closely. They don't earn much salary, but the team provides living expenses. So most of the players stay at the hotel where Kirton died.
"Because of the finances with this league, we spend way more time together than other athletes," quarterback Mark Grieb said. "NBA players all go home to their mansions. We do things together. We go to team dinners together. We're very close. People hear that Johnie was around for two weeks, and they don't think that's very long. But on an arena team, you're part of a family within days."
Kirton fit in quickly. Grieb said Kirton's tough exterior instantly would melt away into a huge smile when the fullback talked about his 2-year-old daughter, Jayde.
Their connection as fathers hit home that night when Grieb broke the news to his 8-year-old twins, Ava and Madeline, that one of Daddy's teammates had died.
"They both just started crying," Grieb said. "I tried to tell them that he had gone on to a better place, but it's hard for kids to understand. For a while, Ava was asking me every day: 'Why did he die?' "
Kirton's locker has been left untouched at the team's practice facility. But the players hope that having more time to process their friend's death will help them focus on football.
"I don't know if you can ever forget something like this," coach Darren Arbet said. "Johnie is always going to be part of us. You just have to try to work hard and maybe balance your thoughts the best way you can to deal with it."
Services for Kirton, who also is survived by his parents and four younger sisters, were held Thursday in Everett, Wash. A memorial website has been established at www.johniekirton.com that includes information on how to donate to a college fund for his daughter.
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.