When the Phone Rings at 4 a.m.
First things first: I’m excited to be a part of The MMQB, and with a background as both a player agent and team executive, I’m looking forward to pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of football—not just on the field, but in the front offices and board rooms where critical decisions are made.
And there is no more topical place to start than with the most explosive story of the offseason: the murder allegations against Aaron Hernandez.
As vice president of the Packers for nine years, I received “the call”—that unpleasant ring, often in the middle of the night, to inform me of a player’s misbehavior—many times. Most of those crises now seem benign in comparison to the news the Patriots’ staff got on Hernandez. When the call comes in, a team executive does three things: 1) curse loudly, 2) talk to the agent and if necessary or possible the player and 3) convene staffers to set an action plan in motion.
I remember getting a call about another tight end, albeit under circumstances dramatically different from Hernandez’s. At around 4 a.m. on April 9, 2000, our general manager, Ron Wolf, rang me and, as his custom, got right to the point: “Andrew, meet [security director Jerry] Parins and get to Milwaukee to see what the hell’s going on.”
“Going on with what?”
“What about Chmura?”
“A young girl. Get going.”
As a player, Mark Chmura had been a true find by Wolf, a sixth-round pick out of Boston College in 1992 who made three Pro Bowls. He was one of the most popular personalities on the team, part of “The Three Amigos”—with Brett Favre and Frank Winters—who were known for their fun-loving ways. No longer. Chmura was being charged with the sexual assault of his family’s 17-year-old former babysitter, stemming from events at a post-prom party at a neighbor’s house. The Packers’ fan base is vast and passionate, with a boundless appetite for team news even in the offseason. Chmura was the story in Wisconsin for months.
Jerry and I met Mark at the courthouse, where he was released on bail. Back at his home, we huddled with his local advisor and marketing agent, John Drana, whom I knew and liked. At times such as these, relationships with agents and advisors are valuable currency; well-managed teams foster those relationships.
Our conversations were cordial but guarded; neither side wanted to say much as things were too raw. I made sure Mark was retaining counsel (Gerald Boyle, for whom he later worked as a legal assistant) and was emotionally stable. He appreciated that we were there there but did not want to talk. I could tell he had been crying.
There’s no textbook for these situations, but Ron’s instinct and judgment—always spot on—was to have us there at this fragile time both to show concern for Mark and his family and to make clear our disappointment with the circumstances he had put himself in, no matter his eventual guilt or innocence.
Back at the office, beyond the obligatory “We are aware of the circumstances” public statement, we were not going to make a knee-jerk decision on Mark either way. Nevertheless, while his trial would not be heard for some time, the disappointment and embarrassment surrounding his actions, combined with a potentially career-ending neck injury that he suffered during the 1999 season, made it problematic to have him continue with the team.
It altered our draft plans as well: A week after the call, we took tight end Bubba Franks in the first round. Six weeks later Mark was released from the Packers after eight seasons. In February 2001, following a lengthy trial, he was acquitted of all charges. Despite the uncomfortable separation, Mark stayed in the area and maintained relations with the club, and in 2010 he was inducted into the Packers’ Hall of Fame.
That was then; this is now.
The Patriots’ Way
Unlike Chmura, Aaron Hernandez is never going into the Patriots’ Hall of Fame, and the team was not going to wait before releasing him. Well before Hernandez was being led off in handcuffs, team officials surely had decided—from the police report and from information they must have learned before the public did—that there was no way on earth he would ever play for the Patriots again.
In a situation like this, one of the first calls a team makes is to the NFL’s contract and legal arm, the Management Council, to determine the ramifications of releasing a player and the potential challenges from the NFLPA. New England had extended Hernandez’s contract in the summer of 2012 and given him a $12.5 million signing bonus. The Management Council likely informed the Patriots that recovering the bonus money would be far easier if Hernandez were on the roster and unable to report to camp because he was in jail. But financial concerns were trivial compared to their overwhelming desire to purge him from the team.
Hernandez was not a fringe player with whom the Patriots could sever ties without consequences on the field. Nor was he an import whose previous behavior was beyond their purview. He was a core player whose contract was extended halfway through a minimal rookie deal—the type of move a team makes for a franchise cornerstone. And the constant drip of disturbing reports about Hernandez’s present associates and past lifestyle has to make Patriots owner Robert Kraft cringe.
My sense is that Kraft and his son Jonathan have likely convened all parts of the football operation to determine why there was no knowledge—if in fact there was none—of this unsavory behavior that lurked within miles of their facility, and how to prevent it from happening again. They are also likely in conversation with the Management Council about lingering issues regarding the criminal case ahead, including inquiries into encounters with Hernandez and his associates by players, coaches, security or other members of the Patriots organization.
If we are to believe that the Patriots were duped by Hernandez, as Kraft has said, I sense the owner now finds it unconscionable that his team security staff (such personnel are typically former local law enforcement officers) were not tuned into Hernandez’s lifestyle and associates. Now is probably not a good time to be a member of the Patriots’ security staff.
Moving forward, the Patriots will follow the lead of coach Bill Belichick and simply not engage in discussion regarding Hernandez. Players will “fall in” as well. As for Kraft, he is being advised by counsel (there will be lawyers) to say nothing more after his “we were duped” comments. He has and will continue to scrub any connection to Hernandez, as if he never played for the team. The jersey swap—the Pats allowed fans to freely exchange their No. 81 jerseys for those of current players—was only the most obvious move.
Thus, as the team gathers for camp just miles from Hernandez’s jail cell, Kraft will maintain that Hernandez conned the entire organization; Belichick will refuse to engage; and coaches and players will change the subject as quickly as possible. The Hernandez story will linger, and players will talk about it privately, but fortunately for the Patriots the inexorable march to the next meeting, practice, film session or game begins now.