On Wednesday afternoon, while the world waited for Aaron Hernandez to be arraigned, a caller to a national sports radio show expressed his profound regret. He said it was sad for the NFL, sad for the Patriots and, lest we overlook the colleges, sad for University of Florida fans.
Yes, it was a sad day for the grand old game of football. No mention of Odin Lloyd, whose dead body was discovered 10 days ago about a mile from Hernandez’s home in North Attleborough, Mass., or his grieving mother, Ursula Ward, who described Lloyd as a “wonderful child” who never hurt a soul.
Lloyd becomes collateral damage in the NFL’s struggle to repair its image as a violent sport, populated by overgrown adolescent males who concuss each other on fall Sundays and spend their leisure time cleaning handguns and patronizing strippers.
Sorry for the NFL? Disgust is more like it. I’m sure someone could quote me statistics that suggest football players aren’t any more prone to violence than any other group of young American males. But for today, I’ll save my compassion for the victim and the friends and family he left behind.
Hernandez, 23, was a tight end for New England until the Pats released him after he was charged with murder and five gun charges in the shooting death of Lloyd, a 27-year-old semipro football player who has been described as a friend of the former Pats star.
This makes 29 NFL players who have been arrested since the Super Bowl. At the time Hernandez was being charged, the Browns were cutting rookie linebacker Ausar Walcott, who was charged Tuesday with attempted murder after allegedly pummelling a man into a critical state outside a Pasaic, N.J., bar.
Mario Williams squabbling over an engagement ring seems tame by comparison. Remember, this is why Bills fans were happy to see Marshawn Lynch go, no matter how many yards he gains in Seattle. We don’t want one of these gun tragedies outside a bar in our town.
You know who came to mind when I heard about the Hernandez story? Priscilla Lollar. She’s the woman whose son was one of two men stabbed to death outside an Atlanta bar at 4 a.m. after the Super Bowl in 2000. Ray Lewis was with a group of friends who were involved in a fight outside the club.
Lewis was initially charged with murder. He lied to police that night and told his friends not to cooperate. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice. His friends got off, thanks partly to his weak testimony. The murders of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker remain unsolved.
Lollar went to see her son’s grave for the first time last January. Tim Graham and Derek Gee were there to chronicle the moment for The News. I was proud of the newspaper that day and disgusted with Lewis’ self-glorifying tales of redemption at the Super Bowl in his final game weeks later.
Hearing reports of Hernandez destroying evidence, it was easy to see parallels to the Lewis case. And you have to wonder, will he get off, too?
The Patriots gave Hernandez a $40 million contract extension last summer. Money can buy a lot of redemption.
Lewis settled civil suits with the two victims’ families for a reported $2 million. He quickly regained his status as a hero, with a TV analyst’s job waiting upon his retirement. So given a favorable outcome in the courts, there’s still a chance for Hernandez to return as a conquering hero, too.
Maybe Hernandez isn’t guilty. Maybe he was a bystander to the killings, as Lewis successfully argued in his case. But the prosecution is saying Hernandez orchestrated the shooting. He’s also involved in a civil suit with a man who claims Hernandez shot him in the eye outside a Miami strip club in February.
The Patriots wasted no time distancing themselves from the embattled star. They cut Hernandez shortly after he was arrested Wednesday.
The Pats’ swift actions suggest that times have changed in the NFL, that teams are less willing to stand behind a player accused of a serious crime.
It could mean that the Patriots, who are never slow to get rid of a player who no longer suits their purposes, see no advantage in the presumption of innocence. Maybe they know the evidence is compelling. They were not very welcoming to Hernandez when he stopped by team offices a few days ago.
This makes the recent signing of Tim Tebow even more intiguing. Tebow is the antithesis of the stereotypical bad boy NFL player. It’s almost as if the Pats knew they’d need a God-fearing icon to balance Hernandez’s thuggish persona. You don’t foresee murder, but you can sure smell trouble.
Or maybe they were simply desperate for help at tight end. Rob Gronkowski’s status is uncertain due to back and forearm surgeries. When healthy, Gronkowski is one of the best to ever play the position. The question is whether Gronk is physically capable of being that player again.
A month from now, most fans won’t even remember Odin Lloyd’s name.
In New England, they’ll be more concerned with how Tom Brady and the Pats replace wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. The NFL is king, and when training camps begin, all other human considerations tend to be swept aside.
From a purely football standpoint, the Hernandez arrest is good news for Buffalo fans. The Bills have been chasing the Patriots for the last dozen seasons, ever since Bill Belichick had the smart idea to make Brady the permanent replacement for Drew Bledsoe as starting quarterback.
Bills fans aren’t feeling sorry for the Pats. Assuming that Gronkowski isn’t ready, they will enter the season without players who accounted for 90 percent of their receptions last year.
Wes Welker, Lloyd and Danny Woodhead are gone. Gronkowski is a question mark. Hernandez, no longer their problem, could still be in jail.
We’ve learned never to underestimate the Pats, so long as they have Belichick and Brady. But their offense has been seriously compromised.
Oh, and the first regular-season glimpse of New England with Tebow and without Hernandez will be in Orchard Park.
On Sept. 8, there will be a full house at the Ralph, hungry for signs of a damaged Pats team and a shift of power in the AFC East. Aaron Hernandez’s victims and misdeeds will be footnotes. The cheering goes on.
In fact, as Hernandez was being led off in handcuffs Wednesday, about two dozen onlookers cheered. Some shouted, “We love you, Aaron!”
A sad day for football, indeed.