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?
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.
Earlier this year, Ray Lewis concluded a stunning NFL career by winning a Superbowl with the Baltimore Ravens. But his accomplishments will always be blemished by the 2000 trial in which he was jointly charged with the murders of two people in a stabbing incident when a fight broke out after a Superbowl party. The charges were dismissed when Lewis agreed to plead guilty to obstructing justice and admitted giving a misleading statement the day after the killings.
Darrent Williams was 24-years-old who had proven all the recruiters wrong after an exceptional season with the Denver Broncos. On New Year’s Eve 2007, he was at a party – hosted by Denver Nuggets NBA star Kenyon Martyn – where some sort of daft row broke out between local gang members and some of the football stars over the spraying of champagne.
The account is detailed by Thomas Lake in a long, sombre essay in Sports Illustrated called “Bad Nights in The NFL”. Egos, diamonds, VIP areas, limousines and guns: it sounds like an MTV video you have seen a thousand times before. Williams had nothing to do with any of the rows: he was killed by a single bullet to the neck when the car in which he was travelling with friends was sprayed with bullets.
Williams was an exceptional football player but such is the reserve of talent that he was replaceable. If Aaron Hernandez is found guilty of murder, he too will be replaced – although it has been noted that the Pats’ have an immediate deficit in tight ends. And if he is acquitted, the NFL is hardly going to welcome him back with open arms: for Hernandez, the game is up.
But how could a young man whose athletic gifts have made him extravagantly wealthy get caught up in something so bleak and pointless? How is it that reports say police are trying to link him to two other murders in the Boston area? Why did a photo of Hernandez holding a handgun, taken in 2009 when he was a student/football player at the University of Florida, only emerge now?
The tattoos decorating Hernandez’ arms symbolise events and people central to his life. Most prominent are sayings he associates with his father, who died suddenly seven years ago. Since then, Hernandez has been defined by personal turbulence and athletic excellence.
The gladiatorial element of the draft system, which is designed to reduce the field of potential professional candidates to an elite handful every year, is a condensed version of the American dream. In American football – a game of tactics, speed and relentless violence – the auditions never stop. Make that shortlist and instant wealth, adoration and fame awaits you. Just 200 new kings are anointed ever year and Hernandez was one of those.
Whether Hernandez is another example of the troubled interior of the NFL or just another young American male with a gun is of little use now to OdinLloyd and his family. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots’ pre-season schedule starts on August 9th.