Aaron Hernandez case reminds of pitfalls facing troubled players

On the surface, it's easy to ask: How could an athlete of Aaron Hernandez's caliber throw it all away?

Let's counter that with this: Why in the world would he change?

The first question is asked from the perspective of where an athlete is going. The second accounts for where he's been.

"If I'm an alcoholic, and I get a $12 million signing bonus, am I gonna stop drinking?" said former Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Nate Newton, who was busted twice at age 39 for drug trafficking and sentenced to 30 months in prison as a result. "Am I gonna stop? Or am I gonna find the most expensive bottle at the store?"

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Whether or not Aaron Hernandez is guilty of murder will be decided in a court of law over the coming months and maybe years. What we can seem to say for now is that, outside of the New England Patriots' facility, the 23-year-old tight end found himself hanging around the same kind of crowd, and scene, that put NFL teams on guard in 2010, allowing him to slip to the Patriots in the fourth round of the draft.

To many, the notion that an athlete who had just signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract extension would roll the dice by continuing to live part of his life on the fringes of society seems crazy.

But it doesn't to those who've been there, which is why this story might not be sending the same sense of shock through the NFL's fraternity of players and alumni as it has the general public.

They understand how it happens. And why.

"When you come up in it, it's the only life you know," said former Ohio State and Denver Broncos tailback Maurice Clarett, whose gradual fall from grace eventually landed him in prison serving three-and-a-half years for aggravated robbery and carrying a concealed weapon. "Speaking for myself, being a notable guy on the street means something where I'm from. To be the biggest, baddest guy, that means something. To have that power, that persona, means something. That's where your identity comes from.

"I held those things high in my life -- let me feed into this culture, do what I heard on the radio and what I saw on the streets. That environment controlled me. I can only imagine it's the same for others."

The story of an athlete accused of murder might be a rare one, but the idea that a guy can't separate himself from his old friends or the environment in which he's most comfortable is not.

Saying 'no' to an excess of 'yes'

Dwayne Goodrich is back at the University of Tennessee now, on schedule to finish his degree in sociology, with a focus on criminal justice, next May. He wants to help athletes get (and stay) on track, because he remembers the culture shock that came with going from a childhood on the south side of Chicago to life as a college athlete in Knoxville.

He won't blame the events of 2003 -- when a hit-and-run accident put Goodrich, then a Dallas Cowboys defensive back, behind bars for nearly eight years for criminally negligent homicide -- on where he was raised and the stark difference between that and where he wound up as a young, well-off athlete. But he knows how it happens.

"You have this mentality, 'Don't forget where you came from,' " Goodrich said. "That mentality is bad, because you make it, you make it to college, you make it to the NFL, and you still have those homeboys. It's kinda hard to separate; you don't want to turn your back, because then you go home and they all say, 'He changed.' And they'll say that, but you have to change. If you're hanging around, smoking weed all day, every day, I have to be able to say, 'I can't hang with you.' "

Assuming that doesn't happen, an athlete's growth doesn't happen, either.

And then, where so many guys might need someone to tell them to stop, competing interests intervene. Talent could prompt a high school coach to pass up on doling out the kind of harsh lesson he might teach another athlete, choosing instead to "manage" the problem. If the athlete's good enough, a college coach might do the same thing. If he's the best of the best, it can happen even at the highest level.

"When you're a great athlete, really good at what you do, people automatically start covering for you," said Newton. "So when Aaron Hernandez, Nate Newton, anyone, on whatever level, starts getting in trouble, doing things that aren't right, the cover-up starts. Should a coach cover it up? No. Should a college cover it up? No. Should an NFL team cover it up? No."

Newton continued: "Once we learn we can get away with it, some guys are mature enough to stop doing it, some aren't. If you aren't, it gets bigger and bigger until it catches up with you. Whether it's running drugs, running women, stealing things, it just gets bigger and bigger, and it's being hidden more and more. And then it catches up. We are who we are. Sports don't make us smarter. You may think $10 million or $15 million makes you stop. No. It allows you to get better and smarter at what you're doing."

And the better you are, the more mature you need to be to handle it.

Like Newton said, some can cut through the masses of people who only say "yes" to a star and listen to those with the wisdom and strength to say "no". But many can't.

"I got rid of them, because they weren't saying 'yes' to me," Clarett said. "There's always someone out there who wants to have fun and be irresponsible with you."

'A lot of behavior goes uncorrected'

Clarett grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, as a football star in a state that has been the sport's epicenter for nearly a century. Entitlement for stud players is a given in some corners. If someone wins a national player of the year award and is a consensus five-star recruit as a high schooler, like Clarett, it goes to another level.

That was all before he became the first Ohio State tailback ever to start the season opener as a true freshman, before he wound up with 1,237 yards in a season that ended with a national title.

By then, things were going off the rails so fast that even being suspended by Ohio State for filing a false police report and taking $20,000 in special benefits couldn't get Clarett to stop and think. Instead of addressing the problem, he unsuccessfully challenged the NFL's age requirement for entering the draft. In retrospect, that move made sense, since Clarett had long lived a life in which the guidelines that applied to others rarely were enforced when it came to him.

"A lot of behavior goes uncorrected," said Clarett. "It all starts with leadership. When you have talent, you have power over society that the normal person doesn't have. You don't live by the same rules. You don't have the same consequences. You're not conditioned to stop. As an athlete, you have people looking the other way; they don't say the things they should say, because they want to exist in your world."

Similar to Clarett, Newton failed to learn from one mistake to the next.

On Nov. 4, 2001, the former All-Pro guard, who had retired by then, was arrested with 213 pounds of marijuana in a van in Louisiana and charged with possession with intent to distribute. Freed after posting bail, Newton was busted again six weeks later when police found 175 pounds of marijuana in his trunk. He stood to make $75,000 per drug deal, not exactly significant to an athlete of Newton's stature.

Newton said that because he grew up around drug dealers in Florida, "it was always a thrill" to be in those situations, "which is why I kept doing it."

And why didn't he stop after getting busted?

"Because I was invincible, baby!" Newton said. "I try to tell everyone this -- I was invincible, because the people around me always allowed me to get away with it. And then it becomes, 'How do I go to the next worst thing?' It's like a kid, like an infant. If mom and dad let you get away with something, it's gonna get worse. It just is."

'People will help'

In the case of Hernandez, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. What we know is that he was always able to adapt to the environment around him and, like so many athletes, compartmentalize a part of his life he didn't think would get in the way of his football goals, likely largely because it never did before.

"I just remember I had way too much idle time," said Goodrich. "Going from the structure of high school, the structure of college, and then you suddenly you have so much time to play with from January to July, it's a lot of time for a 22-, 23-year-old kid. And these kids don't understand the role they're in, and why it's important that they choose to be around the right people. I hear them say it's not an NFL issue. If it's not an NFL issue, then why aren't most 22-, 23-year-olds carrying around pistols?"

Clarett added: "There's a thin line, and these guys need leadership. To never be around it, sometimes in that urban culture, that ignorance is glorified. You need someone to speak some sense into you."

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Next Wednesday, Hernandez will be back in court for a probable cause hearing, another step toward a trial that will shine the spotlight again on the NFL and the Patriots in what will be about as negative a light as possible.

The league will continue to work to rid itself of such incidents, perhaps again strengthening its off-field standards and the consequences that come with trouble. The Patriots will review their policies. However, the truth is that the bulk of responsibility still falls on the individual people who land in these situations.

"People can blame it on his upbringing," Newton said, "but understand this as a man, as a human, at no point did he not know right from wrong. ... I understand you may have had a horrible childhood, but you receive all this money, all these accolades, you can expose yourself, and people will have the greatest sympathy. People will help."

So if you ask yourself, again, how a guy could throw away the kind of life Hernandez had, the answer isn't exactly that difficult to come by.

For some, it simply means staying on the path they've always traveled.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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