How much could Patriots have known about Hernandez?
By Ben Volin | GLOBE STAFF JULY 07, 2013
There’s a nagging question still lingering over the Aaron Hernandez murder case as the Patriots distance themselves from their former star tight end: Just how much was the team supposed to know about, and interfere with, Hernandez’s off-field activities?
They knew he wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout when they drafted Hernandez in the fourth round in 2010, as his affinity for marijuana and association with unsavory people were well-known by NFL front offices. Former Colts executive Bill Polian said last week that Hernandez, widely regarded as a first- or second-round talent, was not on his team’s draft board.
The Patriots then had Hernandez under their employ for three years, and even gave him a contract extension last August that for practical purposes was worth three years and $16 million, fully guaranteed.
Shouldn’t the Patriots have known what Hernandez was up to off the field — or at least known enough not to entrust him with a big contract and a major role on the team?
The answer, as usual, is complicated.
In hindsight, the pieces all add up; the alleged gun-related incidents that involved him in college and in South Florida; the loyalty to his friends from blue-collar Bristol, Conn., following the sudden death of his father when Hernandez was 16; reports of another double homicide and domestic incidents with his girlfriend that are now emerging; the lack of regard for the University of Florida’s drug-testing policies.
But look at Hernandez’s rap sheet before this murder charge. It’s clean.
The worst thing he did in college (officially) was fail a handful of drug tests for marijuana — which doesn’t tell the NFL he is a bad person, just that he’s undisciplined and is likely a four-game drug suspension waiting to happen.
And for three years in New England, Hernandez did everything Bill Belichick asked of him football-wise, according to a team source. He showed up to meetings and practices on time, practiced hard, stayed in shape, was very coachable, and starred on the field, scoring 18 touchdowns in three seasons. Just as importantly, he didn’t fail one NFL drug test in three seasons.
But when it came to Hernandez’s off-field activities, he would tune out and occasionally become angry when a coach or employee suggested he stop hanging out with some of his old friends from Connecticut.
It corroborates what the Wall Street Journal reported last week, that a personality test given to Hernandez before the 2010 draft gave him a perfect 10 for “Focus,” 9s in “Self-Efficacy” and “Receptivity to Coaching,” and a 7 for “Dedication.” He also scored a 1 for “Social Maturity.”
The Patriots knew he was hanging out with unsavory people, but how much can a team really dictate what a player does off the field?
The Patriots have control over their players during the season — from late July to the Super Bowl — and then from mid-April to mid-June during offseason workouts. They declined to say how many security and/or operations personnel they employ, but a former operations coordinator for multiple NFL teams said teams typically bring to road games three operations employees and 5-7 security officials, who generally are former police officers and detectives.
But from February to April, and mid-June to late-July, the players scatter across the country. Teams conduct thorough background checks on draft prospects, but monitoring their daily whereabouts once they’re in the league is impractical.
“It’s tough. You can’t baby-sit 61 players 24/7. You have to let them live their lives,” the operations executive said. “You have your guys you know are more likely to get into trouble, but sometimes even the good ones surprise you. A guy can be good 99 percent of the time, but the one mistake he makes can make the news.”
Hernandez moved to California in February to work out with Tom Brady and rehab his shoulder with a specialist. The Patriots are supposed to monitor his every move out there and know with whom he is hanging out?
“Teams don’t follow their players around or anything like that. Teams focus on giving guys the information and tools to protect themselves,” the operations executive said. “The first thing we told guys was, ‘Don’t drink and drive. And don’t be in suspicious places late at night.’ But the guys are going to do what they want. Some listen. Some don’t.”
Teams must straddle a fine line when advising their players. A good way to lose the locker room is to have coaches and football employees be a little too involved in players’ lives.
“In my experience, teams want to protect their investment in players but won’t cross the line into invasion of privacy to do so,” the operations executive said.
“Because I managed pretty much everything on the road, when we were on away trips everything kind of flowed through the operations staff. Players had my cellphone [number] and if they needed a cab, a ride, a hotel room or anything, I would facilitate it. Some agents have guys who do the same thing.
“We had a good knowledge of the areas we were in and strong relationships with hotels and their security, just to keep any low-level problems in-house — maybe a dustup between a couple of players in a meeting room or someone breaking curfew.
“I interacted a lot with the players and knew what a lot of them did on weekends or on certain nights. But I was never asked by the organization to divulge that info.”
The Patriots’ top brass probably knows it should have done more diligence on Hernandez, or built more protection into his big contract extension.
Then again, the end of Brady’s career is on the horizon, the Patriots want another Super Bowl title (or two), and Hernandez was a heck of a player. And there are plenty of NFL players who smoke marijuana and hang out with shady friends who don’t commit murder.
Ultimately, Hernandez is a 23-year-old man who made his own choices, no matter how much guidance the Patriots did or didn’t give him.