Aaron Hernandez (Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY)
Brad Childress had his message for players during this down time of year: “Don’t be the guy.” He meant the guy that gets in legal trouble, and Aaron Hernandez’s murder charge was ironic timing for rookies getting that same message this week.
Last week, we made a passing mention at the end of a Vikings-related story about minicamp that there could well be some uneasiness in New England because the Aaron Hernandez story was still in its infancy. Once word got out that home security cameras had been tampered with (later upgraded to “destroyed”), this was going to be bad. A broken cell phone doesn’t do it for me – I’ve seen them break with marginal contact – but when it comes to sabotaging one’s own personal security system, the milk in the refrigerator has turned. Something’s not right.
It seemed bitterly ironic that this all unfolded Wednesday, from Hernandez being taken into custody to the denial of bail after he was charged with first-degree murder to the realization that he woke up in a million-dollar house and went to sleep in a multi-million-dollar correctional facility. It all happened on the same day that the NFL was going out its way to warn rookies of the dangers and pitfalls of money and celebrity at the annual Rookie Symposium. If rookies needed a wake-up call, Hernandez provided it.
Situations as horrific as Hernandez’s legal trouble always make local and national news when it involved an NFL play. In Hernandez’s case, it’s an NFL star. It also digs up the ghosts of transgressions past – and, for some reason, pulls organizational skeletons out of the closet and puts them in perspective.
Tommy Kramer’s automotive antics between his Hwy. 494-centric watering holes and home made headlines at the time – because NFL teams couldn’t keep discretions quiet in the post-Watergate era, where reporters were no longer “yes men” wearing “Press” hats. Fortunately, Kramer’s only victims were road signs and insurance rates. But he is far from alone in having his dirty laundry aired publicly. The key in the offense is what took place and what could be proved.
Warren Moon raised eyebrows. Chris Cook was compared to Chris Brown. Darrion Scott drew scorn when he attempted to “play” with his crying son by muffling his screams with a dry-cleaning bag. Just about everyone was sickened when the details of Michael Vick’s dog-fighting exploits were made public. Many people haven’t forgiven Ray Lewis for being in the middle of an outside-the-bar fight that resulted in death by stabbing. Rae Carruth? Death is too easy for someone like him. Live long and suffer.
There are levels of wrongdoing. It should be noted that Hernandez is being given the benefit of the doubt as to the charges levied against him. He is innocent until proven guilty. But when prosecutors have to get search warrants from elected judges on cases without the dots formally connected, the smell test reaches skunkish proportions. It doesn’t look good for Hernandez.
As this story unfolded, one of the first things that came to mind was an admonition from Brad Childress to his players at the end of his first minicamp – “Don’t be the guy.” What Chilly meant by “the guy” – and it wasn’t lost on players – was don’t be the guy that makes the local or national news. Run silent, run deep. Don’t do something that gets you unwanted attention. It was more easily said than done. After all, Chilly wasn’t in his early 20s and making more money than he had ever dreamed prior to that. But the words ring true.
The problem with Chilly’s sentiment was the same inherent problem with the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. In many cases, it’s the company you keep that escalates problems when they hit critical mass. NFL players have always been the football studs in their respective hometown. Whether it’s their high school buddies or the hangers-on that glom on to young stars, when most college players hit the NFL, they do so with an inner circle of people they know from before they were famous. In many cases, they are the only people that NFL stars feel they can “trust.” They were friends when they couldn’t buy their jerseys.
In some of the more reputable draft scouting services, the word on Hernandez was that he was a first- or second-round talent, but he had some background red flags. His father had died during what was thought to be routine hernia surgery when Hernandez was a high school senior. Some view that as a turning point in his life. He had outside influences after that point that put up red flags. He had a posse. Hernandez wasn’t selected until the fourth round of the 2010 draft by the New England Patriots – the same team that had already selected Rob Gronkowski in the same draft. It was shocking, because many thought Hernandez might have the better NFL potential based purely on receiving talent. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen claimed Wednesday that Hernandez falling into the fourth round wasn’t a coincidence. He claimed several teams didn’t even have him on their draft board.
In the aftermath of Hernandez’s arrest, it was pointed out that 28 players on NFL rosters have been arrested since the end of the 2012 season. Considering that there are 32 teams with 90 players each, that represents less than 1 percent of the sample size as a whole. I went to high school with guys (those who haven’t died in the commission of a felony) with laundry lists of criminal offenses. In the course of any six-month period, 1 percent of any sampling likely will be arrested for something. It happens. But, in the NFL, it’s put in the spotlight and Hernandez has brought down the worst kind of spotlight – rivaling Simpson, Carruth and Vick.
Of the 28 players that have been arrested since the Super Bowl, none of them are Vikings. Whether that’s coincidence or not, the Hernandez saga is perhaps the harshest reminder that the NFL is going to put a microscope on any player – and any organization. The Vikings have done their best to keep all player news positive. When that doesn’t happen, bad things follow. Was it a surprise that, before charges were “officially” explained, the Patriots cut Hernandez? Not really. Within an hour, all officially licensed Hernandez jerseys arrived in the Bermuda Triangle – never to be seen again.
It may be fitting that the Hernandez arrest coincided with the Rookie Symposium in which veterans try to explain the pitfalls of being young and wealthy for the first time. Normalcy gets thrown out the window.
The bottom line in the Hernandez headlines is that a 27-year-old man is dead because he got shot multiple times. It will be up to a jury to decide the level of culpability Hernandez had – directly or indirectly – in ending that life. Had the same murder happened in downtown Boston, it would be a local news story. Because it involves a (former) employee of the NFL, it is magnified exponentially.
Hernandez likely won’t reach O.J. Simpson proportions of national obsession for his subsequent trial, but Simpson was long since removed from the game when he was charged (and later acquitted) with first-degree murder. Hernandez finished his team’s minicamp and was being counted on for the 2013 season just days before the murder of Odin Lloyd. In the NFL world, he has raised the bar as high as the spin-doctor barometer has ever seen.
Somewhere, Chilly is muttering, “Don’t be the guy” and he’s right. Hernandez didn’t wake up in the same bed today as he did yesterday. He won’t tomorrow. He won’t see his own bed for the near future. If the prosecution has the mountain of evidence it claims it has (and sounds like it has), he will never see that house again. He will be in the Big House – short-term and perhaps very long-term.
The blitz from the non-sports media is going to descend on the NFL – and they don’t have an 11-player limit on their blitz packages. One of 2,800 NFL players has been linked to an execution-style killing. The other 2,799 don’t want to be “the guy.” The next guy, whether it’s a DWI or a bar fight or a domestic dispute, will be tabloid fodder. Charlie Sheen isn’t relevant until he busts up a five-star hotel room. Lindsay Lohan doesn’t make news until she gets behind the wheel. The NFL isn’t in the business of being associated with the Kardashians. It is now.
What the NFL needs right now is to drop to its corporate knees and pray to its deities of choice that the admonition “Don’t be the guy” is adhered to. A spotlight is being shined on the NFL – but not with their permission. It’s a nasty light. Something else will knock the story down a peg … if another of the 2,800 NFL players doesn’t do something to keep the NFL as part of the bad side of the news.
Don’t be THAT guy.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.