The alleged murders were brutal, cold and calculated. A car idled at a stoplight, in Boston's South End, on July 16, 2012, at about two in the morning. The passengers had no idea what was about to happen.
An SUV pulled alongside, on the right, and fired a .38 caliber weapon into the vehicle. Two men were killed. That scene was described in an indictment of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, accused of being the shooter. If that wasn't stunning enough, and a big enough black eye for a sport that continues to be dazed by accusations of violence against some of its better-known players, what happened next was even more mind-boggling.
Those alleged murders happened on July 16. Just nine days later, on July 25, Hernandez began training camp with the Patriots.
So if prosecutors are correct—and we are far from a proven case—Hernandez put on his pads, ran his practice routes, hung with the fellas in the locker room, talked football...all just a matter of days after gunning down two men in cold blood.
Just six weeks after the double homicide, Hernandez received a $40 million contract extension from the Patriots. Obviously, New England had no idea about the alleged crime. It speaks to how no one—not even the teams that pay them—truly knows these players.
After signing the extension, Hernandez told reporters, according to ESPN: "I have a lot more to give back and all I can do is play my heart out for them, make the right decisions, and live life as a Patriot."
Hernandez may have fooled the entire NFL ecosystem. He may have fooled the brightest mind in football, Bill Belichick. He may have fooled the cynical Boston media. He may have fooled everyone within earshot of his voice.
If Hernandez did what he's accused of, he was so good at covering his tracks, at keeping those around him clueless, that during the announcement of Hernandez's contract extension, Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, via The Boston Globe, that Hernandez had provided "one of the touching moments since I’ve owned the team" by donating $50,000 to the memorial fund for Kraft's late wife.
As Hernandez began camp and made his charitable donations and caught his touchdowns during the regular season, the police continued investigating the murders. To Hernandez, time passed by a measure of games and practices and wins and losses. To investigators, time moved from clue to clue.
The car allegedly used in the murders was found. So was the gun. There are thousands of pages of transcripts of witness interviews, prosecutors say. Some 80 witnesses total. Police worked and worked and never stopped investigating. All of that lead to the stunning announcement by prosecutors on Wednesday.
What was Hernandez thinking as time passed? If he is indeed guilty, did Hernandez constantly look over his shoulder, waiting for the knock on the door? Or did he just bury himself in football, thinking he had gotten away with a horrific crime? Did Hernandez fool not just everyone around but himself as well?
This is not a good time for the NFL and its image. The popularity of the sport has made it seem omnipotent, but the latest allegations—if true—demonstrate the limitations of the mightiest of sports leagues. Not even the NFL can predict some of the extreme behavior of its players, despite its use of psychological tests, background checks and an army of cops, State Troopers, former FBI agents and ex-Homeland Security agents to put every player that enters the league under a microscope.
Still, no one really knows who they are. The Hernandez case is an extreme, but so is the Darren Sharper case. Just this week, Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy was arrested on a domestic violence charge.
One of the ultimate cases of whether we know who these guys really are is the unbelievable case of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. He faces charges that he beat his then-girlfriend unconscious. The video of Rice dragging her out of an elevator stunned almost everyone I know in the NFL. Rice is one of the last guys anyone in the sport would ever suspect of allegedly doing such a terrible crime. In 2012, it was Rice who led an anti-bullying campaign throughout the state of Maryland.
It is true that we really don't know who anyone is—not just athletes. It's why whenever a neighbor is arrested, there is always someone saying, "He was such a quiet man who raised unicorns and smiled at rainbows. I would have never expected him to have 17 bodies in his basement."
It's also true that most NFL players are good citizens, but there remains a disturbing number of serious criminal cases involving players. Many of them—like the Hernandez case, like the Rice case—come out of nowhere. They can't be predicted or forecast, and this makes the crimes all the more scary. It's also unnerving how the NFL pours massive amounts of resources into discovering exactly who these guys are and still misses the mark.
No, we don't know who these guys are, and we may never.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.