The starting tight end was arrested for murder on June 26, 2013. There are many subplots to consider about the 12-4 season of the AFC East champion New England Patriots as they sit out their bye week, and prepare for whatever comes next, but the saga of Aaron Hernandez is still the doozy. The doozy of all doozies.
“What problems did the Patriots have to overcome this season?”
“Well, their two best defensive linemen went down and their middle linebacker went down and Gronk, of course, went down after he came back from being down, and the new wide receivers had to be introduced to the quarterback and, and, and . . . oh, yes, and Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder.”
Simply saying the word “murder” in this context is still unbelievable. It doesn’t roll off the sports-page tongue with the same ease as “torn medial collateral ligament” or “upper-body injury.” Murder. There are no real precedents here. Nobody misses a game in professional sports because he “has been charged with murder.” Nobody misses a whole season for that reason.
The allegations that tumbled out during the late spring and summer about the 24-year-old from Bristol, Conn., and the University of Florida were mind-numbing. They sounded like the plot to a bad TV pilot. He and two guys took 27-year-old semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd to an industrial park in North Attleborough? Shot him five times? Shot him dead? Left him there? Went back to Hernandez’s $1.2 million home (that he purchased with money from his $40 million contract) in the same neighborhood? Hung around? Did stuff?
The house was searched on the evening news. Everybody watched. Was that Gary Sinese in the background of that shot? Donnie Wahlberg? Peter Falk? Angela Lansbury? Wait a minute, there was Hernandez. He was in handcuffs being led away. Was that Tom Selleck stuffing him into the car? Every step forward was more surreal.
“Everything we don’t want is happening,” Patriots owner Bob Kraft said on July 8 when he returned from a European vacation and underlined the fact that Hernandez no longer was a part of the team. “If any member of the New England Patriots organization is close enough to a murder investigation to actually get arrested — whether it be for obstruction of justice or the crime itself — it is too close to an unthinkable act for that person to be part of this organization going forward.”
“It’s a sad day,” coach Bill Belichick said on July 24, the first day of training camp, his first public comments since the arrest. “It’s a sad day on so many levels. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and the victim. I express my sympathy with everyone that’s been impacted. A young man has lost his life, a family has suffered a tragic loss. I and other members of our organization were shocked and disappointed in what we’d learned, having someone in our organization that is involved in a murder investigation.”
A tidy construct exists in the minds of most fans about the players on their hometown team. The fan thinks he knows those players. He reads a few feature stories, perhaps watches a couple of interviews, adds those pieces of information to interpretations he has made about how the player runs, jumps, holds onto the ball in important situations. He makes his judgments. The player becomes a character in a roster full of characters, everyone handed roles this same way. Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, Bashful, Happy, Grumpy, and Doc all get together to try to win football games.
The fact that these roles have little relationship to the real people involved — if you can’t figure out your wife after 25 years of marriage, how can you be so certain what Tom Brady is really like? — does not matter. It is an innocent lie. The role is the role.
Hernandez shattered that innocent lie. As the stories accumulated about his troubled past and as the allegations multiplied about possible bad things he might have done, guns everywhere, two more murders under investigation, he moved away from any image a football hero was supposed to have. He was pretty much swept from the sports pages.
“Duped,” was the famous word Kraft used to describe his feeling about the player.
“Duped,” worked fine, too, with the Patriots’ constituency.
There has been very little talk in Foxborough of Aaron Hernandez and his time with the Patriots since that first day of training camp when Belichick spoke. There have been no comments, no anecdotes from teammates. The fact that the guy who could have helped the team most during the times Rob Gronkowski has been hurt is in a 7-foot-by-10-foot cell at the Bristol County House of Correction never has been mentioned.
National announcers have stayed away from the subject as if it were toxic. There might have been a fast comment about “the Hernandez situation,” a mumble in passing, but never the mention of “murder.” He has been a non-person. The Patriots certainly have liked it that way. The NFL certainly has liked it that way.
What happens next will be interesting. The more the Patriots succeed, the more the spotlight will grow. The more the spotlight will grow, the more eyes will turn back toward this astonishing story.
How will it be handled? No list of what this team has overcome — the injuries, the almost weekly 24-0 deficits, the fresh corps of receivers working to get their drivers licenses — is complete without Aaron Hernandez’s name at the top.
There are no precedents here. No team ever has won a Super Bowl with one of its expected stars in jail charged with murder.Leigh Montville’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.