Commentary

Aaron Hernandez fooled us all

Words of being changed by Patriots ring hollow as he faces murder charge

Updated: June 27, 2013, 2:09 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

ATTLEBORO, Mass. -- Aaron Hernandez could turn on the charm. There were times he would walk through the New England Patriots' locker room, flash a wide smile and extend a sincere hello to a visitor before striking up a conversation. Friendly guy, it seemed.

He really turned it on this past August, after the Patriots had signed him to a five-year contract extension worth about $40 million, saying how it was one of the best days of his life and how being with the Patriots had changed him. Sincere guy, it seemed.

[+] EnlargeHernandez
John Tlumacki/Getty ImagesThe sight of Aaron Hernandez in handcuffs is far removed from the image he projected 10 months ago when he signed an extension with the Patriots.

"You can't come here and act reckless and do your own stuff. I might have acted the way I wanted to act, but you get changed by Bill Belichick's way. You get changed by the Patriots' way," Hernandez said at the time. "Now that I'm a Patriot, I have to start living like one, and making the right decisions for them."

Just 10 months later, Hernandez, who seemed believable that night as he also spoke about fatherhood, is now an ex-Patriot.

It's stunning on every level, a reminder that as much as we think we might know the professional athletes we cover, chances are we really don't. And sometimes, as is the case here, even the teams that employ them and deem them worthy of a megabucks contract extension don't really know them, either.

Hernandez will have his days in court against a charge of first-degree murder and five weapons counts, but he already has been determined guilty in the court of the Patriots. He didn't live up to the code he mentioned the night he signed that big contract, so he was sent packing.

To watch the seemingly emotionless Hernandez, wearing a white T-shirt with his hands cuffed in front of him, during Wednesday's arraignment at Attleboro District Court was chilling, such a contrast from the 23-year-old who seemed to love his job as a professional football player. To some, the demands of the NFL can be overwhelming. It never seemed that way with Hernandez; his work appeared to be his play.

"I've loved it since the day I got here," he said in his rookie season in 2010. "I wasn't the biggest fan of school. Coming here, all you do is football. That's all I like to do -- I like to play football. I just do it all day."

So about two weeks ago, had someone asked about Hernandez as he entered his fourth season in the NFL, the answer might have been something like this: A pure football guy, dependable teammate on the field, perhaps a bit immature away from it.

Hernandez as a murder suspect wouldn't have been on the radar, but fast-forward to Wednesday afternoon at Attleboro District Court and listening to prosecutors provide such detail of Hernandez's alleged actions, the calculated nature of them. It was hard to process that Hernandez could be involved at some level. "Unreal," one former teammate said in a text.

Ten months after signing what he said was a life-changing contract, Hernandez allegedly threw it all away.

In the process, he put a black mark on the Patriots' franchise. It all happened so fast, the Patriots quickly distancing themselves from Hernandez by releasing him about 90 minutes after he was taken into custody (about four hours before he had been arraigned) and quickly clearing all No. 81 Hernandez merchandise off the shelves at their pro shop.

In a statement, the club began by expressing sympathy to the family and friends of slain Odin Lloyd before saying, "Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation."

In one respect, the decisive action reflected well on the Patriots. But still, this will leave a mark on the franchise, as it's a low point in Robert Kraft's 20 years of ownership. The Patriots' brand and what it represents, in the community and beyond, means a lot to Kraft, and although releasing Hernandez ends the team's involvement with him, the slate doesn't just get wiped clean.

The Patriots have been one of the NFL's dominant teams over the past decade in part because of their brainpower. When it comes to personnel decisions, they've been correct more often than not, even when they've made unpopular choices. It's where the "In Bill We Trust" motto was born.

Not so when it comes to Aaron Hernandez.

The Patriots saw how he could turn on the charm, as others did, and thought he was a changed man when they signed him to an extension two years before his modest contract was set to expire. It seemed like a feel-good story at the time.

Yet it's another reminder that not only do reporters and fans not truly know the athletes they follow but neither do the teams that employ them.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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