Jenni Van Winkle plays with her son, Will, at Smith’s Fork Park in Smithville, Mo. Van Winkle's husband was killed after being attacked outside a Kansas City Chiefs football game. (Christopher Smith/For The Washington Post)

She stops in the hallway and points at the photograph, hoping the boy at her side will remember.

“Who’s that?” Jenni Van Winkle asks Will, her 3-year-old son.

The gears turn in his little mind, same as they did the previous night and the one before that. Jenni waits, nervous he won’t recognize a face she wants him to know.

“Daddy!” Will says, and the tension inside Jenni releases. Now it’s a game. She moves her finger to another picture, this one of “Uncle B.,” then to one of “Nana,” then back to the photo of Will’s dad. She asks him again. He recognizes him again.

Every night they do this, an important part of the bedtime routine: Will being taught to love a father he barely knew. Seven weeks after Will was born in October 2013, Kyle Van Winkle went with his own father to a Kansas City Chiefs game; following a mysterious confrontation with other fans, he was beaten to death in a parking lot outside Arrowhead Stadium.

In the three years since, Kyle has become another symbol of an alarming problem for the NFL: how to rein in drunken behavior, rising arrest figures and occasional fan-on-fan violence at its stadiums.

While incidents of extreme violence don’t happen often, they do happen: This season, a man suffered a brain injury after being attacked at a Baltimore Ravens game. Last year, a Dallas man was shot outside of a Cowboys game and later died. The year before that, a California man was severely beaten in a restroom at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

The year before that, Kyle Van Winkle — a 30-year-old man with a newborn son — went to Arrowhead Stadium and never came home.

Now, in this household in suburban Kansas City, a 32-year-old mother stands in the hallway and points at the photo of Kyle. She asks her son whether he can see himself in the picture: the blue eyes and reddish hair Will inherited from his dad.

He says he can, and with the ritual complete, Jenni leads the boy toward bed. But Jenni, a middle school teacher and counselor, fears the day the reverberations reach him — when he’ll recognize the man in the photograph and ask a question with a painful and complicated answer: What happened?

“I think about it a lot, but honestly. . .” she will say on another day, shaking her head. “I hate to think about it. I don’t know. It’s terrifying to me.”

She pauses.

“I feel like I have one shot to convey how good he was,” Jenni says. “But even if you convey that, will Will think: Well, why is he gone?”

The rhythm of Sundays

The police sergeant sits in the corner, ignoring the bread and waving away the waitress. He is in no mood to eat.

This might be the worst part of this: He is the answer man, the longtime detective who found fulfillment in the pursuit of justice and purpose in bringing closure to those families, he says, “who could be mad at God.”

But Dean Van Winkle has told himself closure is not in his future. His son is dead, having been beaten and left unresponsive in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot, and Dean was a few hundred yards away when it happened.

He is not mad at God, but if this is part of some plan, Dean wonders what his role is meant to be. Guilt-ridden father wondering whether he could have prevented Kyle’s death? Stoic ex-Navy reservist standing for the family at a stream of court appearances? Or restless detective determined to fill in the blanks?

Instinct and muscle memory pushed him toward the latter. But rather than start at the end and work backward, as he has done for three decades, Dean’s mind went to the beginning.

It was in the early 1990s that Grandview Police Sgts. Engert, McKinstry and Van Winkle agreed to go in together on four Chiefs season tickets. Win or lose, the colleagues could suspend shop talk for the day, grill brats and watch the kids chase footballs.

Kyle Van Winkle and his father, Dean, attended Chiefs games together. (Van Winkle family photo)

For years, Dean marked the passage of time by those seasons, and in a flash, the boy sitting next to him had become a college student, then a man with a job at a credit union, then, finally, a husband and father himself.

The rhythm of those Sundays had been so subtle, Dean could barely distinguish one season from the next, one game from the last. What, if anything, had been different about that December day in 2013? What, the old detective asked himself, had he missed?

“You just try to make it all fit, but sometimes it just won’t fit,” says Joe McKinstry, a former Grandview detective who shared office hours and Sundays with Dean. “And that’s the worst thing: Sometimes it never fits.”

Only going to a game

Kyle missed the exit on the way to the hospital, and the way he shook it off was so perfectly symbolic of him.

Jenni was only in labor, shouting driving directions between breaths, and he’s . . . calm? It would’ve driven her crazy if she didn’t love it.

She was organized and outgoing, the Type-A who had taught classes and coached softball the day before her water broke. He preferred to ride the breeze, come what may, smile about it anyway.

Their relationship had always been about balance: She liked to plan and make lists; he was content to endlessly wander a golf course. She approached the stage at concerts and sang along; he would sit at the table, sip beer and watch her.

They married in 2011, and in her vows Jenni called Kyle “the calm to my crazy,” and they stood together and smiled.

Kyle wanted a child immediately, but when Jenni said she preferred to wait, he agreed. After she became pregnant early in 2013, he wanted to name the boy after baseball Hall of Famer George Brett or golfing icon Arnold Palmer; when Jenni said she preferred a family name, he said that was fine.

He envisioned taking his son to Royals and Chiefs games, teaching him to swing a golf club and explaining how an offense beats the blitz. He talked about coaching youth baseball teams, as Kyle’s own dad had done, and watching his family grow. Jenni worried and prepared; Kyle assured her life was uncomplicated. Things would work out, because they always had.

Jenni and Kyle Van Winkle. Kyle died after being beaten in a parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium, where he was attending a Kansas City Chiefs game in 2013. (Van Winkle family photo)

With his wife in labor, Kyle missed the exit near the hospital. But they made it there in time anyway. It took emergency surgery to bring William Allen Van Winkle into the world. But mother and baby were healthy anyway. As Kyle sat later gazing at a newborn version of himself, the same strawberry hair and blue eyes, Jenni awoke to see her perfect husband holding their perfect son to complete their perfect life.

Those first weeks came and went quickly, blurry inside the pulse of sleepless nights, and one Sunday morning they loaded Will into the back seat of their car. Kyle and his dad had been planning this day for months, and as Jenni dropped Kyle at a friend’s house to catch a ride to Arrowhead Stadium, the Type-A in her wanted to remind him to be careful.

But she didn’t, reminding herself he was only going to a football game. What could go wrong? Kyle kissed his wife and said so long to his 7-week-old son, and before he closed the door, he told Jenni he loved her.

Nothing seemed unusual

Dean and Kyle had agreed to meet that morning in Lot A of the Truman Sports Complex, the 220-acre home of Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums.

A few years earlier, Dean had given up his season tickets. He told friends it wasn’t feasible on a sergeant’s salary to afford the tickets along with his daughter’s college tuition — though that was only part of the truth. Dean had, over the years, noticed an increase in alcohol-fueled “drama,” as he calls it, fights or the potential for them making him feel as if he were never off-duty.

Then, in 2008, a wobbly man hauling beers pushed past Dean and Kyle, who by then was in his mid-20s. The man’s feet became tangled, sending his beers flying and his body over the next row. He accused Kyle of tripping him. Dean tried to calm the man, but when he wouldn’t let it go, Dean wrangled him to the ground, holding him there until security arrived. Going to the games wasn’t as much fun after that.

A season or two after Dean surrendered his tickets, he proposed a new tradition: one game each year, a few fathers and sons spending a Sunday together.

Throughout Jenni’s pregnancy, Dean and Kyle conspired in the quiet, planning for a home game far enough past her October due date but before the cold chased away “football weather.” They settled on Dec. 1, with the Denver Broncos in town.

Kyle arrived in his friend’s SUV, and Dean greeted his son. They each had a few drinks, Dean would recall, but no one seemed drunk. When they reached their seats, nothing seemed unusual. Kyle announced shortly after kickoff that he was heading to the restroom, and Dean watched his son descend the stadium steps, nothing alarming about his gait.

When the first quarter ended, Dean texted Kyle. He called him. Nothing. Dean would barely notice quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Alex Smith trading touchdown passes, the old sergeant’s gut tightening as the second quarter advanced.

At halftime, Dean could no longer stand it. He left his seat and went looking for Kyle, and when he reached the concourse, he shifted into detective mode. He asked vendors near the restroom whether they had seen a 30-year-old redhead with short hair and stubble. He found medical officials to ask whether anyone had been taken away, security guards to learn whether anyone had been ejected. He tried calling Kyle again.

For reasons Dean would later struggle to explain, he left the stadium and wandered into the parking lot. He approached Lot A and the SUV Kyle had arrived in, and farther down the same row Dean noticed police surrounding a similar SUV.

Dean walked over, seeing yellow tape and investigators. His instincts were telling him someone was dead. “All I could do,” he says now, “was think of the worst.”

He stopped at the barrier and waved over an investigator he recognized. Dean asked what had happened.

The investigator told him he needed to sit down.

Answers and more questions

Jenni was watching with a friend when the banner spread across the television screen: ARROWHEAD DEATH A HOMICIDE.

More out of curiosity at first, she texted Kyle: What’s going on? After a few minutes, she called and then texted again: Call me. She first felt anger when he didn’t respond, then worry. She called again, texted again.

Call me.

Call me.

Call me.

Then she saw headlights turn into her driveway. It was her father’s car. She watched him climb the stairs and walk through the door, saying nothing. Then he fell to his knees and told her Dean had called. Kyle was dead. That was all they knew. Jenni doesn’t remember much after that.

The following days and weeks were a blur; the initial reports suggested that Kyle — the mild-mannered soul who, court records show, had no criminal record — had broken into an SUV and was trying to steal it. Next came a theory that made more sense: After leaving his seat, he continued into the parking lots; Kyle reached Lot A and climbed into an unlocked SUV, which he apparently thought he had arrived in.

Public records would later describe that the 10-year-old son of the SUV owner noticed Kyle asleep in the passenger seat and alerted his father. The owner roused Kyle, who stepped out.

The 10-year-old went looking for help, and a group of nearby tailgaters responded to the commotion. Several of them approached Kyle and, though exactly why it escalated remains unclear, a fight broke out. Kyle fell, and a witness would tell police one of the tailgaters vowed Kyle wouldn’t “be doing that again.”

At one point, public documents describe, a 25-year-old man named Joshua Bradley punched and kicked Kyle while he lay on the pavement; after Bradley retreated, someone in the group said something, and Bradley resumed beating Kyle until he was unconscious.

Kyle Van Winkle died in a still-unexplained confrontation in a parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium. (Van Winkle family photo)

Four men would be arrested, and nearly three years later, Bradley would plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter. In June, a judge suspended Bradley’s seven-year sentence and handed him five years’ probation; shortly afterward, Jenni filed a wrongful death civil suit against the Chiefs. In the team’s response, filed in August, it denied responsibility.

Jenni, meanwhile, attempted to make sense of what had happened. Two years after reciting her wedding vows, she was standing at his funeral and — because she believed Kyle would expect nothing less — reading her husband’s eulogy.

She retreated to the home they had once shared, flipping down photos of Kyle because it was too painful to look at his face. She bargained with herself each morning to get out of bed and speak with co-workers and friends. She felt herself becoming withdrawn, a once-effervescent personality going flat, preferring now to sit alone in the silence and the dark.

“You think of all the what-ifs and should-bes,” she would say later, “and how unfair life can be.”

Then one morning, a couple of months after Kyle died, Jenni was driving with Will in the back seat. She was thinking about the difficulty of going through life by herself. Then she glanced behind her, and seeing her son, she was reminded she wasn't alone.

Letters for Will

Dean pored over documents, asked questions, revisited the scene in his mind. It’s what he had always done.

Had Kyle felt sick after leaving his seat? Exhausted after seven weeks with a newborn? Was he drunk — autopsy toxicology results have been sealed by a Kansas City judge — when he started toward the restroom? Dean wished his son had staggered or slurred; at least then he would’ve gone with him. But there was no way for Dean to know, and the deeper into the rabbit hole he dug, the farther he drifted from closure.

“I’ve thought about it a million times: Why did it happen?” he says. “Why did he go out there? But there is no answer.”

Months passed. Then years. Dean forced himself to watch Chiefs games on television, but he would look away if the camera panned toward their old seats. He told himself he would someday return to the Truman Sports Complex, accompanying his grandchildren to the games seen as an important rite of passage, but never to Lot A.

Dean continued elsewhere in his search for peace, visiting with his pastor and a therapist. There was no anger with God to chase away, and the therapist told Dean things he already knew: that it was okay to cry, that pain was normal.

And so he settled into the fog, it seemed, for the long haul. Then one night a memory of Kyle flashed into his mind, and because these fragments of his son were disappearing, he logged into a computer to capture it. Dean began typing, and what emerged was a note to his grandson: “I figured I would leave you something,” he wrote to Will, “from my memory of your Daddy.”

Dean described the feeling of watching Kyle, on his hands and knees, interacting with his new son. How every time he left the room — no matter the reason or for how long — Kyle kissed Will on the head. “I could see and feel how much he loves you,” Dean wrote.

He saved the document to a thumb drive, and in time he started new files. He wrote about how Kyle had been small but a good athlete and smart teammate. About how he confronted bullies and befriended the unpopular. How he seemed to always be positive and calm.

A collection formed of letters for Will to read in the future, and though this wasn’t the reason he started it, Dean felt a sense of purpose for the first time since that Sunday in 2013. It was to introduce his grandson to Kyle, a father he would otherwise never know.

“He cared about people,” Dean wrote, “and how they felt and how they were treated.

“This trait I find as one of the most I’m proud of in him. It is one that I’m sure he would wish for you to find in your own self.”

‘Do you know what happened?’

Jenni took Will on a car trip to Arkansas, walked with him into a home-improvement workshop, bought him a set of starter golf clubs. She talked about flying somewhere, the two of them experiencing the wonder and discomfort of someplace new, that feeling of being lost before rediscovering the way back.

It was the life she and Kyle had planned, the days and experiences now unfolding anyway, Jenni willing herself to ride the breeze because that’s what her husband would’ve done.

“I was always thinking of things that could happen or might happen,” she says, “and Kyle was like: ‘Just relax.’ ”

And so she does, or at least she tries. The bad days come and go, often by surprise, and this is when she forces herself to confront the inevitable: the moment she tells Will how his father died. She dreads that conversation, afraid of a misstep jarring his little world, but she believes it’s necessary — better than him piecing it together himself.

Will is a little boy now, his facial features almost identical to his dad’s at the same age, and he is outgoing and curious. He is old enough to have friends who are old enough to ask questions. She wonders when someone will ask where Will’s daddy is. Wonders whether the answer will change him. Whether it’s better to go ahead and tell him, or begin telling him, to condition him for the truth.

Last month, Will and Jenni stopped in the hallway and looked at the pictures, the same as every night. “Who’s that?” she asked, and he recognized the face, same as always. She asked him about love and bravery, same as always.

Then, almost without planning it, she altered the routine. Will climbed into bed, and she asked whether he knew where Daddy was. In heaven, he said, one of the stars in the sky.

“Do you know what happened to Daddy?” she asked him.

The boy looked at her. This time he said nothing.

Jenni took a breath, a young and broken family still lost but searching for the way back, and with delicate words, she began.

Jenni Van Winkle has begun the process of explaining to her son, Will, how his father died. (Christopher Smith/For The Washington Post)

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.