Lives more important than wins | Bob Brookover

Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez reacts during the second quarter of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans in Foxborough, Mass. Hernandez committed suicide in April 2017.

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – The New England Patriots reside alone in the 21st-century dynasty region of the NFL. That is why they are here with the Eagles at Super Bowl LII mostly answering questions about how great they are and how incredible they have been.

That’s fine and that’s fair. The applause is well deserved even if suspicions remain that their success has not always been on the up and up. In addition to being adept at winning games and championships, the Patriots are also great at avoiding the things they want swept out of sight.

Spygate and Deflategate fall into those categories, but the one subject they want to skirt more than any other is the violent and tragic career of the late Aaron Hernandez. Perhaps that’s because Hernandez’s draft selection, despite bright red flags everywhere, is a reflection of how winning means everything to the Patriots and no cost is too high.

Camera icon STEVE SENNE
The New England Patriots signed tight end Rob Gronkowski and his late teammate Aaron Hernandez to contract extensions in the summer of 2012, but that would be the last season they played together. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

This is the Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl appearance in seven years with the first coming in 2011 when they lost, 21-17, to the New York Giants in Indianapolis. Hernandez, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, was the Patriots’ leading receiver in that game with eight catches for 67 yards and a touchdown. It would be his last Super Bowl and this will be the Patriots’ first Super Bowl since Hernandez committed suicide by hanging himself with a bed sheet inside a Massachusetts prison cell in April.

The Patriots, who had won their fifth Super Bowl a couple months earlier, were headed to the White House for a visit with President Trump that day.

“I don’t anticipate we will be commenting today,” a Patriots spokesman said.

They have not commented any day since then either. At One Patriot Way in Foxborough, Mass., it is as if Aaron Hernandez never existed.

Rob Gronkowski, who is expected to play in Sunday’s game against the Eagles despite suffering a concussion in the Patriots’ AFC championship victory, had been taken two rounds ahead of Hernandez in the 2010 draft, but the Patriots made it clear there was room for two star tight ends during the summer before the 2012 season. They signed Gronkowski to a six-year extension worth $54 million and gave Hernandez a five-year deal worth $40 million.

The two would only play one season together before Hernandez’s life spiraled into the abyss amid multiple murder charges and the 2015 conviction for the killing of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd. By then, the Patriots had long since expunged Hernandez from their existence.

He had been released in June 2013 almost immediately after the Lloyd murder charge was filed. The Patriots put out this statement on their web site: “A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”

The shame of the matter is that the Patriots, and specifically coach Bill Belichick, acted as if they could not possibly know something so awful would ever happen despite the fact that Hernandez had a troubled past at the University of Florida and in his hometown of Bristol, Conn.

A recent CBS documentary – All-American Murder: The Rise and Fall of Aaron Hernandez — detailed Hernandez’s life and made it clear that little research needed to be done to understand that he was a troubled soul capable of doing awful things.

The episode ends with a doctor from Boston University revealing that Hernandez was also a victim of severe brain damage caused by his years of playing football. We know now, of course, that is the rule rather than the exception for NFL players and if you can draw a link between brain injuries and violent crime, then it’s really important to keep the tragic case of Aaron Hernandez alive.

“I don’t know about the brain findings, but there is something to be learned from his life,” former NFL coach and current NBC commentator Tony Dungy said Tuesday. “My mother used to say it all the time. It was her favorite Bible verse: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if you lose your soul? We can focus on the Super Bowl and what’s going on with the players on the field and zero in on winning this game and losing this game, but lives and character is much more important than who holds up the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the day. To me, that’s what we should learn from Aaron Hernandez.”

That’s fine, but somehow there should be even more. The Patriots or Urban Meyer, who was the coach at the University of Florida when Hernandez played there, should have done more when they saw the signs of trouble. What Hernandez did was horrible, but you get the feeling the only reason Meyer and the Patriots cared about him in the first place was because he could play football.

Once he no longer could help them, it became a sin to even speak the name Aaron Hernandez. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the NFL team that has had the most success in this century also had to deal with the league’s greatest tragedy.