11:32 PM EDT, June 26, 2013
As he walked out of the front door of his $1.3 million McMansion on Wednesday morning, handcuffed under his white T-shirt, it struck me that Aaron Hernandez looked like he had alligator arms.
For an NFL receiver, there can be no harsher assessment.
Alligator arms is a football term that speaks to a lack of personal courage, a lack of commitment to your team. To pull in your arms, to fail to extend yourself and be willing to take a hit to make a play for the team, speaks to a certain cowardice and selfishness.
So, in a real-life sense, a real-life horrible sense, those alligator arms fit the gifted tight end from Bristol perfectly as he was escorted away from his home in North Attleborough, Mass., in red shorts and a long face at 8:47 a.m.
When the Patriots announced less than two hours later they had released Hernandez, there was considerable focus on how swiftly the team had reacted, before the system's scales of justice had tipped to guilt or innocence. In the statement, the Patriots concluded, it "is simply the right thing to do."
It was, in truth, the only thing to do. By 2:45 p.m., six and a half hours after he had been put through a front lawn perp walk in front of the nation's television cameras, he was being charged in Attleboro District Court in the murder of Odin Lloyd, a friend who was dating the sister of his fiancee.
Six years out of high school, three years in the NFL, stacked financially with a $40 million contract, including a fat $16 million guaranteed as a signing bonus, Hernandez has lacked the courage to separate himself from the bad influences in his life. He has lacked the moral commitment to put substance to all those words he spouted about making the right choices and becoming a Patriot.
Worse than allegedly destroying home surveillance cameras and obstructing justice to cover up for the murder of Lloyd by his so-called friends — something many of us thought would happen — prosecutor William McCauley charged that Hernandez "orchestrated the execution." Whether he ultimately is found guilty or innocent of murder, Hernandez — sadly — has shown himself to be a thug with alligator arms.
A jury will decide the six charges, which include five weapons charges. I already got him guilty of stupidity and cowardice. Hernandez has plenty of tattoos to explain what he has been through in life. Tattoos he once told me were about good days, bad days and at the end, heaven. What Hernandez lacked was the gravitas to walk the walk that his tattoos talked.
"[Patriots owner Robert Kraft] trusts my character, and the person I am," Hernandez said last summer after he signed the contract. "I just feel a lot of respect and I owe it back to him. I have a lot more to give back. All I can do is play my heart out for them, make the right decisions, and live life as a Patriot."
I do not claim to know Hernandez. I've talked to him a couple of times at length, once over the phone in 2007 when he dedicated a national high school all-star game to his dad, Dennis, on the first anniversary of his death. Several times, I've gathered around his locker with others at Gillette Stadium. I stood for an hour at his 2012 Super Bowl week interview. I asked him about dropping in the 2010 draft because he'd reportedly flunked marijuana tests and there had been questions about his character.
"Some of that was my fault," Hernandez said. "I also knew once I got here, I'd have an opportunity to prove myself. It was in my hands."
In January 2007 after talking to Hernandez, I wrote our little state has produced the likes of Steve Young, Floyd Little, Andy Robustelli, Bill Romanowski and Dwight Freeney. And that Hernandez may have the talent to one day stand with those names. Three of them are in the Hall of Fame. Freeney should join them. Yes, Hernandez had the talent to be enshrined in Canton. Instead, he is looking at being incarcerated in prison.
Always, in recent years, it was about how he was going to prove himself, how he was going to make the right decisions, how he was going to live life as a Patriot. Yet the news stories show little indication he had outrun the old stories. The obscure references to gang associations in Bristol seemed like hyperbole — at least in the Hollywood sense — but he clearly lacked the maturity, the good sense, the courage to get away from trouble.
There was Alexander S. Bradley, a Connecticut man who filed a civil lawsuit against Hernandez recently. He alleged a gun — in Hernandez's possession — went off and hit him in the face during a car ride after the two had gotten into an argument at Tootsie's, a Miami strip club. Bradley, who has lost use of his right eye, according to the suit, was convicted of selling narcotics in 2006, according to state records.
There was the incident last month in Providence after a Jets fans taunted Hernandez outside Viva, an east side bar. As police arrived, they saw a heavyset black man put a handgun under a vehicle, which McCauley said police recovered. McCauley said that one of the people seen the night of the murder matched the heavyset man's description. Also, McCauley said, a .22-caliber gun found this past week in a search turned up a gun sold at the same Florida gun store as the gun in the Providence incident.
If Hernandez spent as much time reading as he did at strip clubs and night clubs, the man would be in Mensa instead of jail without bail. Although Hernandez's defense team insists prosecution had a flimsy circumstantial case, it sure seems like Hernandez thought he was the only one in the world with security cameras. He must have forgotten about cellphone towers, too, because he was charted electronically all over the place in the late hours of June 16 and early June 17.
According McCauley, Hernandez texted Lloyd at 9 p.m. to set up a meeting, and then texted friends in Connecticut to "get up here." Surveillance cameras at Hernandez's own house showed him leaving with a gun, according to McCauley, and Hernandez was upset enough to say, "You can't trust anyone anymore."
After the three picked up Lloyd in Dorchester at 2:30 a.m. June 17, according to McCauley, Hernandez told Lloyd he was upset that he had been talking with people he had problems with at Rumor nightclub when they had been together a couple of nights earlier. McCauley said Lloyd texted his sister at 3:07 a.m., saying "Did you see who I'm with." Minutes later, he texted, "NFL" and "Just so you know," McCauley said.
Given that, according to prosecutors, he was killed by bullets minutes later, "just so you know," will stand as perhaps his final words.
The two men who were with Hernandez the night Lloyd died were not identified in court. We know the group stopped at a service station for what McCauley said was "blue cotton candy Bubblicious gum and Black & Mild cigars, which are used as rolling papers for marijuana." And at the risk of saying a bubble popped the shell casing and a piece of chewed blue gum, according to McCauley, was found in the rental car spotted by all the surveillance after Hernandez returned it. And we do know, according to McCauley, the three returned to Hernandez's house, and surveillance cameras showed one of the men carrying a gun.
Six years ago, I talked to Hernandez about his dad going into the hospital for a simple hernia operation and dying unexpectedly at 49 of a bacterial infection. A few years ago, I talked to his former Bristol Central basketball coach, Peter Wininger, about the emotional blow that death dealt Hernandez and how he had talked to Hernandez seconds after it happened, and how Hernandez was screaming over the phone, "He just died! He just died!"
I want to blame, at least in part, life's unfairness.
And I want to blame the Patriots for having not seen more. Bill Belichick and the team have taken a lot chances in recent years … Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Brandon Spikes, Albert Haynesworth, Chad Johnson, Alfonso Dennard, Brandon Meriweather. These NFL teams have former law enforcement people in their employ, so much intelligence, if they were going to spill all that long-term money on Hernandez, didn't the Patriot Way have 40 million reasons to make sure of its investment?
In the end, however, it falls on Aaron Hernandez. He might be cleared of murder or he might go away for a very long time, but he clearly lacked the courage to disassociate himself from the bad characters and keep the commitment to the good and prove to people he wasn't half as bad as they feared. As he sits in jail without bail, he may want to reflect on that.
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