Philadelphia, PA – NFL players face a tough, ultra- competitive environment on the field, but that often pales in comparison to the possible pitfalls they can face off it.
This week has proven to be a stark reminder of that. Aaron Hernandez was taken into custody by police early Wednesday morning, rookie linebacker Ausar Walcott has been charged with attempted murder, and promising Baltimore running back Bernard Pierce was carjacked.
Hernandez's arrest came nine days after the bullet-ridden body of Odin Lloyd was found in an industrial park about a mile from his home in affluent North Attleborough, Mass. Less than an hour after he was taken into custody, the New England Patriots cut ties with the supremely talented tight end.
"A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss," the Patriots said in a statement. "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."
Hernandez deserves to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but he's certainly not going to be playing football in 2013 and his career is hanging in the balance, just one year after the University of Florida product was rewarded with a five-year contract extension worth up to $40 million, seemingly vindication for a player who fell to the fourth round in the draft due to whispers about his personal problems and a series of failed drug tests for marijuana with the Gators.
"The involvement of an NFL player in a case of this nature is deeply troubling," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "The Patriots have released Aaron Hernandez, who will have his day in court. At the same time, we should not forget the young man who was the victim in this case and take this opportunity to extend our deepest sympathy to Odin Lloyd's family and friends."
While Hernandez's story continued to dominate the headlines, it's not the only murder investigation going on in the NFL right now. Walcott, who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cleveland Browns, was charged with attempted murder for allegedly punching a man outside a northern New Jersey strip club.
A University of Virginia product, Walcott turned himself in to Passaic police Tuesday after he allegedly clobbered 24-year-old Derrick Jones in the head just after The Palace Gentlemen's Club closed. Police say Jones is currently in critical condition and Walcott was released about 2 1/2 hours after the Patriots sent Hernandez packing.
It's hard to feel sorry for Hernandez or Walcott, but even players who are going about their business are targets. After all, in this sluggish economy, a young man who has money and is famous can look like an easy mark. That kind of thought process cost Sean Taylor his life back in 2007.
Luckily, Pierce, the Ravens' running back, didn't suffer a similar fate to Taylor when he was carjacked in Philadelphia on Sunday. He and a friend were reportedly "shaken" but not injured when thieves went after the former Temple star's BMW.
The NFL is currently warning its incoming rookies about all the potential off- the-field threats at the annual rookie symposium.
"Obviously, everybody here, you're on a pedestal," San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o, the former Notre Dame stalwart who was the target of a high-profile "catfishing" hoax in college, told the NFL Network. "You're a role model and somebody that people look up to, so for us, you always have to keep that in mind, to always remain who you are, keep your circle small and take care of the people who took care of you."
On Monday, players attended a seminar featuring Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones and former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett titled: "Are You Bigger Than The Game?"
Jones, of course, has had a litany of off-the-field problems and suspensions before settling down in recent years, although he did plead not guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge this offseason. Clarett, meanwhile, has his potential NFL career ruined by arrests for armed robbery and a troubling police chase and gun incident.
"Adam, he's a West Virginia guy, so I've had many conversations with him," Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith said. "He's always been a guy who preached (to) don't make the same mistakes he's done. He's made a lot of mistakes in his career, but he's still standing strong and working hard. He's using his past trials and tribulations to help us as rookies."
Clarett, who spent 3 1/2 years in prison, has turned his life around, blogging about his new outlook in 2009 while he was still behind bars.
"Understand my struggle so you can respect my hustle," the former Buckeye wrote. "I am never coming back here (to prison), believe that. I WILL NEVER SETTLE FOR LESS, EVER AGAIN. That goes for communication, personal relationships, housing, education, friendships, and travel arrangements. Everything. I have the fire in my eyes"
"His story was really deep," Tennessee guard Chance Warmack said when speaking about Clarett. "He reminded us there are obstacles you have to deal with as a professionals. We're not like everybody else."
Perhaps. the most captivating speaker at the symposium, though, wasn't a peer, it was former NBA player Chris Herren, who lost a promising career to drugs.
"My opening line to them was 'Unfortunately, in the room right now there are more future drunks and drug addicts than there are multimillionaires,'" Herren, who has been sober for the past five years, said.
"I let them know that they have an amazing head start. It's an amazing head start in life. The reality is NFL careers are not long, NBA careers are not long. It's a great head start. And with this head start, do the best you possibly can with it."
When done speaking, Herren received a standing ovation and then was hounded by players who wanted to pick his mind further.
"He was a guy that lost a lot," Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo said. "He nearly lost his family for the choice that he made, and he was sitting in the same seat that we were, saying that it wasn't going to be him. I looked around and everybody was paying attention to what he had to say because it was real."
Some might say too real.
Fast forward 20 years and it's likely Herren's words turn out to be prophetic -- there will be more drunks and drug addicts who listened to him than multimillionaires.