Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: When it comes to Aaron Hernandez, the ‘Patriot Way’ is the way of death and tragedy

Aaron Hernandez arrived at New England Patriots training camp in 2012 and told reporters how he had spent his mellow summer vacation “chilling.”

A Boston prosecutor gave a different account Thursday, declaring that Hernandez began practicing for the football season a week after killing two men as they idled in their car at a stoplight in the city’s theater district.

The following month, as police continued their search for the person who shot Daniel Abreu in the chest and Safiro Furtado in the head, Hernandez signed a $37 million contract extension with New England, promising that the “young and reckless Aaron” was in his past. The tight end went on to catch 51 passes that season with the Patriots, who were unaware they were sharing a locker room with a cold-blooded killer.

Hernandez had to protect his secret, which led to his alleged execution of friend Odin Lloyd in an industrial park a mile from Hernandez’s home in North Attleborough, Massachusetts, a year after the double slaying. He got caught, and has been in jail since.

Now Hernandez, 24, stands accused of being a triple murderer.

Many people are shaking their heads, chief among them the owners and coach of a franchise that prides itself on adherence to the upstanding “Patriot Way,” NFL commissioner and “Sheriff” Roger Goodell, and Hernandez’s coach at the University of Florida, Urban Meyer.

They are wondering — and being asked — how their character judgment could be so flawed. Or was the ascendance of Hernandez from high school to NFL star really a case of willful blindness? Talent, like a mink coat, has a way of hiding whatever ugliness lies underneath.

Signs were there

Hernandez could go down as the worst criminal to wear an NFL jersey, and that includes some awful company.

In hindsight, all the signs were blinking. Hernandez ran with a rough crowd in his hometown of Bristol, Connecticut, especially after his father, a former high school football star, died in 2006. His mother was involved in an illegal gambling ring, even taking bets on Patriots games. She was attacked with a knife by Hernandez’s stepfather, an ex-convict.

As a Gator in Gainesville, Hernandez was involved in a bar fight at The Swamp, where he broke a bouncer’s eardrum; threatened a teammate; tested positive for marijuana and photographed himself with a handgun. Meyer used to counsel him with Bible readings, and quarterback Tim Tebow tried to set a humble, God-fearing example, but Hernandez was beyond reform.

During his first two years as a pro, a few of his Bristol buddies wound up in jail. After the double homicide in 2012, police traced the shooter’s SUV to Hernandez and found it at a home in Bristol owned by Hernandez’s uncle where Hernandez and his friends hung out.

When Hernandez signed his new contract, he said being a Patriot had transformed him, and he intended to “live life as a Patriot.” Team owner Bob Kraft said Hernandez’s tattoos shouldn’t be misinterpreted and he had concluded, “this guy’s a good guy.” Coach Bill Belichick took chances on such players as Randy Moss, Brandon Meriweather, Brandon Spikes and Albert Haynesworth, and was willing to risk trouble with Hernandez if that meant winning games.

The warnings piled up, but not enough for anybody to halt Hernandez’s deviation from the “Patriot Way.” In January 2013, Hernandez was the passenger when friend and ex-con Alexander Bradley was clocked speeding 105 mph. Two weeks later, Hernandez allegedly shot Bradley in the eye near the Tootsie’s Cabaret strip club in Miami Gardens.

In the spring, Hernandez went to California to work out with Tom Brady. There, he got into a fight with his girlfriend and cut his wrist punching a window. Police were called again during another argument.

Rampage goes on

In May 2013, Hernandez was involved in a fight with a Jets fan at the Viva lounge in Providence, Rhode Island. Then came the five bullets pumped into Lloyd, possibly silenced because he had witnessed what Hernandez was indicted for on Thursday: First-degree murder that occurred after what Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley called a “chance encounter” with Abreu and Furtado at the Cure nightclub in Boston. The two childhood friends had no criminal or gang history and were “stalked, ambushed and senselessly murdered on the streets of the city they called home,” Conley said.

Hernandez was a ticking time bomb, veering from one violent incident to another since he was 17 years old. He even has been indicted for assaulting another inmate in jail. No one at Florida could turn him around, nor could the “Patriot Way.” He played an entire season after allegedly gunning down two innocent men, yet no one had a clue about his accelerating self-destruction. He was a great football player, and touchdowns trump platitudes about morality.

Those closest to Hernandez couldn’t stop him. At least the police did.