The thing that still haunts is the face from that day. It was a brooding face, a cold face. Something was strangely detached about the face. It was a face that looked menacing and distant all at once.
This was Aaron Hernandez six days before the body in the industrial park. He was more than a week away from the helicopter above his SUV, nearly two from the perp walk and the arraignment in chains in the Massachusetts court room. In light of what loomed ahead it was a simpler time, the end of another minicamp practice for the New England Patriots. And yet he was not pleased.
He stood on the side of the field, pulled by a swarm of television and news reporters because it was Tim Tebow's first day as a Patriot and Hernandez had been Tebow's tight end at Florida and everybody was desperate for anything Tebow. Hernandez was the closest connection the Patriots had to Tebow, so his words were deemed essential.
He clutched his helmet as he spoke. His jersey – as all the Patriots jerseys in offseason workouts – did not have a name or number. His words were clipped. He looked miserable. He looked impatient. His smiles were forced and nervous. He looked like he wanted to leave.
It made sense he wasn't thrilled. Nobody around the Patriots wanted to talk much about Tebow that day. Most of the questions were from media people about the media swarm they had created. It was an uncomfortable afternoon. The whole scene took on a feeling of a sideshow. Yet even in the chaos, Hernandez's awkwardness stuck out. His was the only memorable face.
I presumed his unhappiness revolved around Tebow. It was clear they were not close. Hernandez's words about his college quarterback were clipped. "Great teammate, great leader, that's all you can say," he said. This hardly seemed like an enthusiastic endorsement, especially given they had won a national title together. I figured that like many of Tebow's past teammates he wasn't completely comfortable with who Tebow was. I never considered there might be something more broiling inside.
Hernandez's face has disturbingly never changed as his life has tumbled upside down. It is as empty in court as it was on the field two weeks before. Not a hint of worry or distress or anxiety. He seemed as at peace in handcuffs as he did in shoulder pads. And it keeps striking me how little we know these athletes about whom we write.
We see them daily. We talk to them. We listen to their stories. We interview their parents, their wives, their coaches and teammates. We speak with certainty about their narratives, telling of their sadness and joy. We rave about their character in overcoming turmoil. We scorn them when they fail. We love when we find a common line that makes them seem like us. We assume they are motivated by the same principles that control us.
The charge brought down by Bristol County in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts speaks of something I never thought conceivable of an NFL star in the middle of a $40 million contract. The prosecution says he orchestrated an execution-style killing of a friend. The Boston police reportedly have reason to believe the killing is related to a double homicide lingering unsolved from last summer.
If this is all true then we really don't know these athletes we cover. It makes sense that out of the more than 3,000 players who touch an NFL roster each year there will be men capable of killing another human being. Some have. But those crimes have usually been in the moment, in fits of passion. Perhaps I am naive, yet I never considered it possible that a player so gifted and set for life would order hits like a common gangster. I never thought a man with so much to lose would be that reckless as to dispassionately settle a barroom dispute with a pistol.
If all the investigations and allegations turn out to be true, what must have been broiling inside the head of Aaron Hernandez these last few months? What must every media encounter have been like? Did he wonder if he would be asked about the bodies on the street in Boston? Did he imagine a day where the police would come and pull him from his house and throw him before a judge and be told his freedom would be gone?
All these questions race through my head as I think about the face on the side of the field in Foxborough. The fact the topic was Tebow – who might be the most polarizing athlete to appear on a field – is all but forgotten now. All I remember is the face stoic, irritated and impatient all at once.
I've thought a lot about that interview. A face that wanted to be gone from that moment. A face that never goes away.