On February 1, 2015, the New England Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl championship, beating the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in one of the most memorable games in NFL history. On that day, Tom Brady was a legend, Rob Gronkowski was a beast, Pete Carroll was a scapegoat and Malcolm Butler was a hero. And back in Massachusetts, Aaron Hernandez was just beginning his trial as a defendant.
On Wednesday, after three months in court, more than 130 witnesses called by the prosecution and 35 hours of deliberation by the jury, Hernandez became a felon, found guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Odin Lloyd.
The news of his guilt comes as less of a shock today than the news of his arrest on June 26, 2013, when Hernandez was led out of his home by police, hands cuffed behind his back. At the time, it seemed impossible to believe that one of “our stars,” a guy we drafted in our fantasy leagues, talked about at our barbecues and called everything from “bum” to “stud,” could possibly be wrapped up in a murder – mostly because he had too much to lose.
But as the Lloyd trial began, and more of Hernandez’s past started to unravel, his impenetrable NFL shield quickly faded away.
In addition to being charged in a 2012 double murder (that case has yet to go to trial), he is still a person of interest in a 2007 shooting in Gainesville, which occurred when he was a freshman at the University of Florida, and is being sued by a former friend who alleges Hernandez shot him in the face over a bar tab in 2013. With all of these stories coming to light, in addition to the probability of incidents we have not yet heard about or never will, we also began to strip Hernandez of all those titles we once bestowed upon him.
The stud SEC tight end. The $41 million star of the Patriots. The unstoppable, untameable, unbelievable Hernandez now looks more like another face on an episode of Dateline. But we shouldn’t do that. We shouldn’t strip him of everything we once saw him as simply because it turns out he’s not a good person.
We should never forget: Aaron Hernandez will always be a former NFL player, and barring an unlikely win of an appeal case, will always be a convicted murderer. Pro athletes might have more wealth and fame than us, but at their core, they are capable of making the same terrible decisions we are.
Take Lawrence Phillips, for example. Remember him? A star running back out of Nebraska, he was taken sixth overall in the 1996 NFL Draft, despite myriad concerns over his maturity. Phillips potential for stardom was constantly derailed by his penchant for breaking the law and disobeying anyone who tried to tell him to do anything, including coaches. Within three years, he was out of the NFL, and, after several assault convictions, he was sentenced to 31 years in prison in 2006.
We don’t remember him mostly because he wasn’t on our fantasy teams, and only played parts of three seasons in the pros. But ironically, he also changed the landscape of the NFL; without Phillips being drafted, Jerome Bettis may never have gone to Pittsburgh and Marshall Faulk, brought in to fill the void left once Phillips flamed out in St. Louis, might have never landed with the Rams. Maybe if we thought of him this way, then the following would have been a bigger story:
Just two days before Hernandez’s guilty verdict, news broke that Phillips was suspected of killing his cellmate in prison. Two players separated by more than a decade, two deaths, two people. They are extreme exceptions to what the average NFL player, or athlete, is like – in the same way that guy you’re watching on Dateline is a pretty poor representative for the human race.
Behind the veil of being a hero, a scapegoat, or a legend, at their base, all of these players are just people – and every one of us has to make choices. Some of us, even star athletes, still make the wrong ones.