Greg Cote: Aaron Hernandez is sports’ latest fallen ‘hero’

06/28/2013 12:01 AM

06/28/2013 12:54 AM

Sunday, June 16, 2013. Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, care free and on top of the world so much as anyone knew, father to an 8-month-old daughter, goes on Twitter, writes: “happy father’s day to all the great dads out there.”

Monday, June 17. Hernandez allegedly shoots to death Odin Lloyd in a North Attleboro, Mass., industrial park about a mile from his home, according to police, who charged him this week with first-degree murder.

Tuesday, June 18. Hours after allegedly killing a man, Hernandez is back on Twitter with, simply: ‘good morning.’ He has not Tweeted since.

Chilling.

Shocking.

Infuriating.

Sad beyond words.

This has been a bizarre half-year patchwork on the shake-your-head side of sports, hasn’t it? The Manti Te’o hoax. Heroic “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius charged with murder. Lance Armstrong verified as liar and fraud. Baseball’s latest steroids mess festering from a Miami clinic. Rutgers firing its basketball coach for abusing players. The NCAA’s corrupt bungling of the UM investigation. That’s not even including the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings that were only tangentially about sports at all.

Now, this.

A rising NFL star, aged 23, playing for a glamour team and newly signed to a five-year contract worth $40 million, throws his life away before our disbelieving eyes.

The Patriots immediately cut him after his arrest, but that and his football future suddenly are the least of Hernandez’s concerns. Now he also is being investigated as part of an unsolved double-murder from 2012, inviting one to wonder if a killer on the loose was catching passes for New England last season, playing the Dolphins twice.

The propensity of some athletes — a relative few, but far too many — to royally screw things up continues as dumbfounding.

Do these men bent on self-ruination not appreciate or understand how good they have it? How blessed and lucky they are? To be cheered as heroes and lavished with riches for … what, for catching a football? For playing a game!?

It’s strange, though. Sometimes what shocks you does not totally surprise you, and that may be the case with the situation Hernandez has fashioned for himself.

There were signs — albeit signs always seen more clearly in retrospect than in real time. If you can’t see those signs point toward murder, you can at least see them point toward trouble.

Hernandez’s father died unexpectedly from complications in hernia surgery before his senior year in high school and it changed Aaron.

“He was very, very angry,” his mother told USA Today in 2009. “He wasn’t the same kid.”

Behavior and maturity issues, including marijuana use, followed him to the University of Florida.

“I wasn’t the biggest fan of school,” he admitted once.

Off-field concerns, including some of the old homies from Connecticut he hung out with, sent up red flags in the NFL. It was why he wasn’t drafted until the fourth round.

Mrs. Hernandez’s “very, very angry” child was implicated in a shooting just this past February at Tootsie’s strip club in Miami, an episode that currently has him the subject of a civil suit.

How many NFL teams that researched Hernandez carefully before the 2010 draft were surprised by that? (Rhetorical question. Answer: Not many.)

It also should have surprised no one that the Patriots and Bill Belichick were the team to roll the dice.

The Teflon coating on Belichick’s reputation has largely proved to be bulletproof. He gets to be the champion genius hardly associated with controversy, despite the fact he was fined a record $500,000 by the NFL in the Spygate scandal. And despite the fact he has consistently ignored off-field questions by signing controversial players such as Randy Moss, Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco, Corey Dillon … and Aaron Hernandez.

By extension, Patriots owner Robert Kraft somehow gets to be seen as the model NFL owner even though the club also was held liable for Spygate, and he also signed off on signing those troubled players whom other teams avoided.

Apparently, if you can help Bob and Bill’s Patriots win, they will conveniently forget the shadier side of your past or perhaps arrogantly assume your proximity to their greatness or Patriots culture will magically change who you are.

It seldom works like that. If you are a problem athlete in high school, chances are good you’ll be one in college. If you are an off-field concern in college, chances are you will be that in the NFL — the likelihood only magnified by sudden fame and wealth compounding most star athletes’ long-nurtured feeling of entitlement.

Hernandez is the 27th NFL player arrested since the Super Bowl.

Really, guys? Seriously!? Few arrests are as scandalous as Hernandez’s, but is even a “minor” arrest excusable when one is being paid millions to not only perform on the field but also to stay out of embarrassing trouble?

All of the examples of sports stars gone wrong and giving athletes a bad name do not make them anywhere near the majority, but the negative attention created so often is out of proportion with the relatively small number.

Good guy Kevin Durant donates $1 million to Oklahoma tornado victims and it’s a sweet little story for a day.

This one will last as long as Aaron Hernandez’s trial does, stinking all the while, pulling the NFL and sports down into the mud with it as it slogs along toward its inevitably losing conclusion.

The same day the Patriots quickly erased their accused murderer from their roster, Boston area stores expunged their shelves of all souvenirs bearing his name or number.

A hero one day, disappeared the next. Except Hernandez won’t be gone at all. He’ll be in a courtroom, on a TV near you.

Take care who you allow up onto that pedestal of yours, sports fans. Be vigilant. Demand more than stats and a smile.

The player might seem worthy. Make sure the man is, too.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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