By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) In the wake of Aaron Hernandez’s arrest for murder, his now well-publicized history of violent outbursts and connections to previous crimes have raised questions about what his coaches knew about him, and whether or not they cared.
Urban Meyer was defiant, lashing out at those who would blame him as an enabler. Patriots owner Robert Kraft drew groans of disbelief when he claimed that “Our whole organization has been duped.” And Bill Belichick has been unavailable for comment while vacationing in Italy.
Here is what a brutally honest, self-aware former coach could really say, if unburdened of legal ramifications, unconcerned about future job prospects, and free of the powerful omerta that rules the subculture of the game:
* * *
No, I’m not surprised. Sad and disappointed, sure, but I’m not stupid.
Of course I was worried that he was capable of this. The concern never went away, it just diffused over time like it always does.
It never was really something I thought about amid the day-to-day routine, but we knew what we were dealing with when we decided to bring him in. I knew. How could I not? We looked at everything, talked to people who know him, got all the reports.
But you should have seen this kid move. Big, fast, fluid…just seeing his workouts had x’s and o’s crackling in my head, seeing matchup wins all over the field against man or zone. You find a way to rationalize the rest of it, justify the bad stuff as correctible, or merely a thing of the past.
And he’s not the first, believe me.
At this level we are involved with some dangerous people, and that’s the plain truth. I spout all kinds of cheesy slogans about football family, codes of honor, or the proud traditional ways of our organization, but that just makes people feel like something more important or noble is going on.
I guess all the empty rhetoric helps me be less anxious about it, too. I start to believe that stuff after a while, and it makes it easier.
Whenever I need immediate shelter from negative press about a troubled player, though, I merely invoke religion. Nothing soothes the masses like talk of bible study or prayer, deflecting attention from police reports. It’s amazing how eagerly people eat that stuff up, and it never fails to buy time until things blow over. Instead of just a guy with a whistle and a clipboard, I’m a shepherd of men on a path to a divine life. Or something. But it works, here.
I’d be lying if I told you I was thinking about anybody else when the home phone would ring late at night, or too early in the morning. In the stillness of those hours, removed from the organized chaos of drills and meetings, my mind would picture bad things completely beyond my immediate control. There was nothing but relief when even a minor crisis involved another player, instead.
I have a well-practiced understanding with my assistants, too. As ironic as it is for a pathological control-freak like I am, there are things I don’t need to know. There is so much I don’t want to know. Not just for any kind of plausible deniability, but to keep me from going crazy confronting the disquieting duality of my work.
Despite all the grandiosity that surrounds my job — the ridiculous money, the inflated significance, the unhealthy place this all has in people’s lives – I’m just a football coach, and nothing more. What matters to me is winning, and I am forced to compartmentalize everything else in that pursuit. When it comes to choosing players strong and fast enough to help me succeed, I will always need to make questionable compromises, tell half-truths and sadly, potentially imperil innocent people in our community.
Our fans now – conveniently, after the fact — say they want me to care about quality of character, but that’s the last thing they want. They want me to win championships, and I am doing my damnedest to get that done, in all that may mean.
If we lose games, I get fired, and my family goes with me. I end up as a coordinator in Saskatchewan or coaching some smaller college where I fight with the AD over budgeting for a new blocking sled. If we win big, I’m paid to speak at conventions, putting my name on steakhouses and posing in a dark suit for the cover of my book that offers useless football banalities as some kind of primer on your business.
I will always need some rough customers to be good at my job. I will tell everyone otherwise, wrapping the whole endeavor in glory and God because that’s the unspoken agreement with people whose entire self-worth is connected to the fortunes of a football team.
I know what this all is, and I know what I do. I have to live with that, and it is a conscious choice I have made to do so.
It doesn’t always feel good.