The men who run football teams are forever seduced by the flying safety or a fast time in the 40-yard dash. Football brilliance always trumps a line of red flags glowing bright from the margins of a player's scouting report. No number of failed drug tests or campus bar brawls is going to deter a team that sees the missing piece between oblivion and the postseason.
"There are a lot of guys who have issues and they will keep getting drafted," said Ken Herock, a former personnel executive with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers.
If anyone should know it is Herock, who now spends two months each winter preparing players for their NFL scouting combine interviews, teaching them the proper way to speak to coaches or draw up plays. In many cases, he also helps to explain away positive drug tests or suspensions or fights or bad grades or any number of calamities that befall college football players. Often, he is a player's best hope at mending a broken past or polishing a sordid record. He helps to sell illusion and illusion can be worth millions on draft day.
And so on Tuesday, Herock chuckled when he heard that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told reporters Monday he was "duped," by Aaron Hernandez.
"Why would he say he was duped?" Herock asked when reached by Yahoo! Sports. "I don't want to say I was ever duped, but I'm sure I was duped. We tried our best with what we had [as executives] then you got rid of a guy if he was a problem."
The fact is, every NFL coach and executive allows himself to get duped if he wants a player enough. As more facts spill out about the Hernandez case, including the release of records on Tuesday in which police said one of the other suspects claimed Hernandez admitted to fatally shooting Odin Lloyd, more and more teams are letting slip the fact that off-field issues forced them to pull him off their draft boards in the spring of 2010. Kraft, on Monday, promised a change in the Patriots draft system telling three Boston media outlets: "You can be sure we'll be looking at our procedures and auditing how we do things."
But in the same interview, Kraft also said Hernandez "knew how to push my buttons," with a passionate promise to use his statue and wealth to be a role model and help kids in Hispanic areas. All of this made Kraft like most NFL executives dazzled by a player's on-field greatness. He saw what he wanted to see. And many other men like him will continue to do the same.
Herock, who never worked with Hernandez, doesn't promise a rehabilitated player only a refurbished image. He teaches players to speak with remorse about failed drug tests much the way Hernandez did in a letter to the Patriots right before the 2010 draft. He tells them how to look coaches and scouts in the eye and make those men believe youthful indiscretions on a college campus won't blow up a professional locker room. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn't.
Ultimately the team must decide if the on-field reward is worth the risk. More often than not it is.
"It's a business decision," Herock said. "It's like somebody buying a bad stock. Do they think they have this under control? Do they think they can handle this player?"
Just this winter, Herock sat in a room with former Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree and devised a plan for explaining to teams his arrest for stealing a motorcycle helmet and a four-game suspension for a reported violation of his college's substance abuse policy. Days later, Ogletree was charged with a DUI prompting another session with Herock.
"All that work we did to rehabilitate him went down the drain," Herock said. "But did he get drafted in the first round?"
Yes, he did, falling from the top 10 to No. 30 where he was taken by the St. Louis Rams. Still the first round nonetheless.
"You know people are going to make mistakes and I think that this was a maturity issue," Rams coach Jeff Fisher told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after the pick was made. "He understands. He learned very well, very quickly what kind of effect those choices have."
It didn't hurt that Ogletree was probably the best linebacker in the draft – a player with a relentless motor as the announcers like to say. Fisher, undoubtedly, believes he can handle Ogletree much the way Kraft and Patriots coach Bill Belichick felt their organization could remake Hernandez.
With every new development that says the Patriots had no idea who they had in Hernandez, more organizations will suggest they are built to be sure something similar won't happen to them. And they will be wrong, because nobody knows. Because sometimes a player is so tempting they will find ways to love him.
"Every team in the NFL is doing everything they can to help these kids and they still screw it up and nobody knows how to change it," Herock said.
After all, nobody understands better than Herock how dulling the brightness of those red flags in the corner can make a football executive ignore them altogether. Aaron Hernandez or not, NFL teams will change little when it comes to drafting football players. The lure of a running back with scorching speed or a pass rusher with a great first step has forever trumped an X denoting character issue beside the player's name.
And it forever will.
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