For Aaron Hernandez, America’s game may be all played out
How could a young man whose athletic gifts have made him extravagantly wealthy get caught up in something so bleak and pointless?
Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez who has been charged with murder. Photograph: Brent Smith/Reuters
The New England Patriots may like their players to be killers on the field of play but they understandably become a little sniffy about murder on the street.
News that their gifted tight end Aaron Hernandez had been arrested on Wednesday prompted the Pats’ organisation to release a statement in which they quickly washed their hands of the latest NFL player to become embroiled in a murder case. That same day, Hernandez was charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd, who was seen socialising with the NFL star in Boston three nights before his body was found in an industrial park.
Since then, Hernandez has featured routinely in the hourly news bulletins, wearing the same white T-shirt, bullet-headed haircut and impassive expression as he listens to the court arraignment or is led handcuffed from the vast mansion outside Boston which he called home.
“The involvement of an NFL player is a case of this nature is deeply troubling,” reads the statement. “The Patriots are releasing Aaron Hernandez, who will have his day in court.” The statement goes on to sympathise with the family of Odin Lloyd and ends shortly afterwards. And just like that, the high-adrenaline NFL world of wealth and fame and the game that Aaron Hernandez knew just vanished. The door was closed. More than most NFL teams, and in keeping with puritanical tradition of New England, the Patriots had a reputation for running a tight ship.
“The Patriot Way” gained currency under Bob Kraft and the swift severing of ties with such a prized attacking asset could be seen as an attempt to uphold that tradition. Of course, it completely dismisses the principle that Hernandez has the right to be presumed innocent.
Hernandez had caught 18 touchdown passes for the Patriots. The statistic does scant justice to the exuberance with which he played the game, snatching Tom Brady’s high precision darts out of the air and using his strength and speed to gain yards, often high stepping past beaten defenders as he made it to the endzone.
‘A first class guy’
The number 81 was distinctive; both arms heavily tattooed and engaging the crowd with his signature “make it rain” hand gesture whenever he scored. He was regarded, at 23, as part of the medium term future of the Patriots: a five-year contract extension worth $40 million (€30.6 million) and the acknowledgement from Kraft that he was not only a terrific football player but “a first class guy”.
And now Hernandez joins the list of first class NFL players who have to answer the charge of murder.
The 20th anniversary of the OJ Simpson case takes place next summer. The gruesome deaths of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, the waiter/actor in the wrong place at the wrong time; the infamous slow chase down the Interstate of Simpson in his Ford Bronco – which appeared in split coverage during a televised NBA finals game; the sharp suited lawyers at the trial and the gripping drama of the verdict: it became something less than real: a tawdry, summer-long TV drama played around the world with a real life cast. Thankfully for the NFL, Simpson had long left the game: if anything, he was Hollywood’s problem by that stage. But it was through gridiron that he had established himself as an anointed figure.
And in the years since, too many other NFL players have begun to appear in handcuffs charged with the most vicious of crimes. In 1999, Rae Carruth, then in his second season of a multi-million dollar contract with the Carolina Panthers was charged with conspiracy to murder of a woman who, it transpired, was eight months pregnant with his child. The baby survived; Cherica Adams did not. Carruth was sentenced to 18-24 years in prison.