The last time the New England Patriots played a football game, their fans at Gillette Stadium were unwilling witnesses to the penultimate act of pro football's greatest redemption story.
As Ray Lewis celebrated the Baltimore Ravens' 28-13 AFC championship game victory over the Patriots, and the future Hall of Fame linebacker prepared to head to New Orleans for the Super Bowl triumph that would cap his legendary career, it was a stark reminder that dramatic turnarounds are possible.
Lewis, 13 years after being charged with two counts of murder following a bloody fight outside a Super Bowl party, walked away from football as an acclaimed leader, revered community figure and future first-ballot Hall of Famer. And Lewis, who ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge and received 12 months' probation in the Atlanta case, walks into a high-profile television job that will ensure his iconic personality remains enmeshed in the fabric of America's most popular spectator sport.
As Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez takes stock of a horrible set of personal circumstances, with his arrest Wednesday morning during the murder investigation of one of his associates and the Patriots releasing him, Lewis' long journey back from that tragic night in Atlanta potentially represents a shred of hope.
We don't know what role, if any, Hernandez might have played in the death of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd – hopefully, that will come to light as law-enforcement authorities gather evidence. We do know that Hernandez is suspected of behaving in a manner not normally associated with complete innocence. According to reports, police believe Hernandez "destroyed his home-security system" and allege that his attorneys handed the player's cell phone to authorities "in pieces."
Hernandez's life may soon be in pieces if, in fact, he murdered Lloyd and is convicted as such. Should things proceed down that path, the talented 23-year-old's promising career will become a footnote, and he'll fall into the same sordid fallen-star file as former Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth and former NBA standout Jayson Williams. Few will remember that Hernandez made the Pro Bowl after catching 79 passes in 2011 and became a key cog in the revamped Patriots passing attack that came within one drive of a championship two Februarys ago.
If, however, Hernandez is merely destroying evidence, as accused, to protect others in his circle – a very serious crime in its own right, as Lewis can certainly attest – he has a chance to come clean, change his life and use his platform as a high-profile athlete to set a positive example for a slew of wayward souls.
Like it or not, that's how it works in 21st century American society: The power of celebrity, especially of the gridiron-standout variety, cannot be understated when it comes to the way we perceive people's personal and professional transformations.
The stark truth is that, in Lewis' case, his football excellence is the chief reason so many of us came to view him so differently in the 13 years between his darkest hour and his celebrated last ride. However, this is not to trivialize the magnitude of his commendable metamorphosis into a man worthy of our admiration.
Through his actions on and off the field, Lewis became an inspirational figure to citizens of Baltimore and beyond. He seized his second chance at stardom and made the most of it, evolving into a contemplative, generous public figure who put a great deal of time and energy into sharing his insight with others. As time passed and Lewis continued down this richer, wiser path, fans began to regard him less as a criminally negligent and immature athlete who was fortunate to emerge from that tragic scene in Atlanta relatively unscathed and more as a legitimate role model who earned his place as an ambassador of the sport.
Sports fans – and Americans – love redemptive stories. When someone fights his way back from the abyss and seems to make a sincere and repentant effort to become a better human, that's something we can easily celebrate. When that person parlays his/her self-improvement into active attempts to make those lessons resonate with others, it's even more compelling.
For many of us, the capacity to forgive is an underrated and underappreciated virtue. This is not to suggest that we should do so cavalierly – after all, a heinous crime may have been committed, as it seemingly was outside the Cobalt Lounge in Atlanta 13 years ago – or that we should confuse gridiron glory with true, positive change.
It simply means that if Hernandez, by the grace of God or the legal system, is given another chance to be a high-profile and free member of society, he should seize it with the same unambiguous zeal that Lewis did at the start of this century, and hope that he can be at least remotely as successful in staging a genuine comeback.
In recent days, a well-placed Patriots source described Hernandez as someone who, at his core, is a "good kid" who has struggled to overcome a dubious background and has made poor choices in terms of the company he keeps. I truly hope, for Hernandez's sake, that this is the case, and that the other incidents involving guns and poor decision-making that are currently being reported are indicative more of his bad judgment and dubious associations than of something darker and more disturbing.
If so, whether he's in a jail cell or a locker room, this young man needs to look in the mirror and make some very mature decisions about who he is and where he wants to go. And if football can somehow play a role in a redemptive transformation, then that will be a good thing, and not just for Patriots fans.
Remember: The last time we saw Hernandez play, he was lining up against a man who truly made the most of a tragedy that could have cost him everything. Lewis may be an anomaly, but he also proves that such a sharp turnaround is possible.
Perhaps only Hernandez knows if he deserves a chance to try to emulate the NFL's most unlikely feel-good story. If the answer is yes, it may be time to prepare to do battle with the most important foe he'll ever face: Himself.
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