A Massachusetts jury found former New England Patriot and Florida Gator Aaron Hernandez guilty of first degree murder yesterday. Hernandez faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Urban Meyer's name often comes up when the Hernandez case is discussed. Meyer recruited and coached Hernandez at Florida from 2007 to 2009. Following a 2013 Rolling Stone article, there have been questions about whether Meyer had any sense of Hernandez's capacity for violence, and whether Meyer and his Florida staff did enough to help Hernandez. Rolling Stone had some harsh criticism of Hernandez's Florida years with Meyer:
Hernandez left home in January 2007, taking early graduation to enroll at Florida and be eligible for spring football. But he was miserable and overmatched his first year there and told friends on the phone he wanted to quit. Meyer brought him in for face-to-face meetings, reading Scripture in his office each morning. He assigned Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, twin All-American linemen, to baby-sit Hernandez, and detailed Tim Tebow, the truest of believers, to be his life instructor. But even Tebow couldn’t save him from himself once Hernandez got a few beers in his system. The pair went out that April to a bar near campus, where the underage Hernandez had an argument with a waiter and punched him in the head as he walked away. Michael Taphorn suffered a ruptured eardrum, but didn’t press charges on Hernandez, telling the cops he was talking to Florida coaches, according to a police report. The matter seems to have been settled quietly out of court, which was fine with Gainesville cops and the DA. They treated the punch-out as a juvie offense, giving Hernandez a deferred prosecution on the hush.
"We didn’t hear that story till much, much later – the police didn’t file a report," says a local reporter who was covering the team. As a sophomore, Hernandez was benched for the season opener, meaning he’d likely failed drug tests over the summer. But Meyer denied it, saying he "wasn’t ready to play," again giving cover for bad behavior. "Meyer kept us at such a distance," says the reporter, "or flat-out lied, that we couldn’t verify a pot suspension."
Hernandez would fail other drug tests, according to reports, and should have faced bans for up to half a season, per school regulations. Instead, he didn’t miss a single snap, though he was seen hanging out with a crew of thugs at a local bar.
With yesterday's verdict, Twitter's darkest corners (and some legit media sources) lit up again with accusations that Meyer had some sort of contributing role in Hernandez's crimes. Although these "reports" will hopefully die on their own from a starvation of facts, here's three things you should know about Urban Meyer and Aaron Hernandez:
1. Urban Meyer and his staff knew Hernandez was a risk.
Meyer knew that Hernandez had a troubled background and was at risk. In an interview with Bryant Gumbel, Meyer said he was concerned every time Hernandez went home, and coaches acknowledged that whenever he returned to Florida, he was "different." Players evidently warned Meyer to "watch" Hernandez. From the Gumbel interview:
"I don't think anyone ever dreamed of this, myself included. He had a positive drug test and sat out a game. We knew that every time he went home -- and that was a concern of mine, whenever he would go home to Connecticut -- I'd have players on my team say 'Watch this guy. Watch when he comes back.' So I visit with him, and he was knee-deep in our family now, because he was so emotional -- when he lost his dad. It was one of those things, he lost his dad. He went in for surgery I think. His mom and I would talk. He has a great brother named D.J. Hernandez, and I'd talk to him probably every three, four days, 'How's he doing?' So we would try not to let him go back to Connecticut."
Aaron Hernandez's dangerous tendencies were a known risk to the Meyer staff at Florida, this was not a coaching staff blindly pursuing talent regardless of the baggage it came with. It may be true that Meyer and staff didn't think that Hernandez's tendencies and background would result in a murder one day, but that's hardly reason for blame them for crimes that happened years later. There's no basis for suggesting that Meyer's decision to recruit a player with a dangerous background was necessarily wrong. More on this in the next point.
2. Meyer and his staff took steps to help Hernandez shake off his bad past.
Armed with knowledge of the risks associated with Hernandez, both Meyer and his staff took extra precautions to help Hernandez stay out of trouble.
Rolling Stone, despite its critical take on Meyer, does say he paid special attention to Hernandez:
Meyer brought him in for face-to-face meetings, reading Scripture in his office each morning. He assigned Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, twin All-American linemen, to baby-sit Hernandez, and detailed Tim Tebow, the truest of believers, to be his life instructor.
Meyer's Gumbel interview tells the same story:
"Aaron Hernandez was in my home many, many times, sitting with my kids, playing with my kids -- 'Yes ma'm,' 'Miss Shelley.' I mean, just excruciatingly sad to see a kid that we know, that was part of our family, make decisions that are just horrible."
Meyer's staff, particularly position coach John Hevesy, were watchful of Hernandez too:
He [Hevesy] brought him home for meals twice a week, took him deep-sea fishing and treated him like the oldest of his three kids. "He played video games with my son, and my daughter wore his jersey to sleep.
Rolling Stone quotes Florida beat writers who claim that Meyer covered up Hernandez's failing a drug test and a bar fight, but there's no actual proof that anything improper happened, and Meyer was open about the failed drug test in his Gumbel interview. Hernandez wasn't named in the police report for the bar fight (or a later shooting outside a bar that Hernandez witnesses), and Meyer admitted that Hernandez failed a drug test and sat out a game for it.
More on Urban Meyer's experience with Aaron Hernandez is here, courtesy of our sister site Alligator Army. It's pretty clear that Meyer and staff did what they could to teach and guide Hernandez.
3. Any suggestion that Urban Meyer and Bill Belichick conspired in some sort of cover-up regarding Hernandez is just wrong.
Some critics think Urban Meyer's friendship with Bill Belichick, paired with the fact that Hernandez ended up with the Patriots, is just more evidence of top coaches covering for the bad dudes they recruit to their teams. Some go so far as to call the two coaches "enablers." But Hernandez's own words refute this:
I know they're [Meyer and Belichick] very close and very similar," Hernandez said of the two head coaches. "They're both very strict and go by the rules, tough on their players. They both love to win, and they do win, and it's an honor to play for another coach that's a great coach and a tough one. (from an NESN article.)
Belichick is known for running a tight ship (exhibit A: Jonas Gray being sent home from practice for oversleeping after a break out performance the week before). Urban Meyer has the same attitude with his players, particularly in this era of extra scrutiny at Ohio State (just ask Noah Spence).
There's simply no factual basis for claiming that Meyer and Belichick did anything less than their absolute best to keep Hernandez on the straight and narrow.
The final words on this matter are straight from Urban Meyer, and tell you everything you need to know about his relationship with Aaron Hernandez:
Our staff, myself and our families worked very hard to mentor and guide him. Prayers and thoughts are with the family and friends of the victim. Relating or blaming these serious charges to Univ. of Florida, myself or our staff is wrong and irresponsible."
Those are the facts. Can we close the book on this matter now?