My fantasy football league has a rule where you can “keep” a player from your current roster when the season ends. The reason you do that is because you expect that player to have a big season the following year.
In the spring of 2013, I ‘kept’ a tight-end for the New England Patriots named Aaron Hernandez. I was in awe of his ability and the way the Patriots were playcalling at the end of the season to specifically get him in space and pepper him with targets. He was a critical part of the team and I told everyone, without reservation, that he would finish the following season as the #1 Tight End in fantasy.
Most of the guys in my league grumbled. Because that lofty milestone was legitimately within his reach. He was that good.
But next season never came. Aaron Hernandez was arrested in June of 2013, immediately released by the Patriots and never caught another football as a professional.
The guys in my league were thrilled. Hernandez and I were forever joined in their minds. And as a lifelong, die hard Patriots fan, this fit their narrative. The Patriots were dirty. Of course they had a murderer on the team.
It was…not fun.
Aaron Hernandez was always a risk for New England. The stories about him during his time at Florida were checkered. But during his time with the Patriots, all reports were that he was prepared and professional and a model citizen.
Y’know, when he wasn’t murdering people.
Lady C shook me awake yesterday, gently, and broke the news.
“Hey…I’m sorry to say but Aaron Hernandez hung himself last night.”
And as I sat up, rubbing my eyes into use, I was overcome with sadness. What a strange sensation to feel for a lethal asshole who seemed utterly incapable of remorse.
I didn’t write much about football last season because the NFL is a reprehensible organization and Roger Goodell is a uniquely disgusting human being. The shine is completely off the league for me. Instead I just quietly rooted for the Patriots, like I had since I was a little kid, when they absolutely sucked.
And then Trump happened. Tom Brady, who should know better, never distanced himself from having a MAGA hat in his locker. Bill Belichick, in my opinion a football genius and the best coach in NFL history, wrote a letter supporting Trump.
Sickening. Truly incomprehensible. It turns out that Bill Belichick isn’t as smart as I thought he was. And Robert Kraft, a man who took a shitheel team and made them legends, who reportedly donated a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration, has spent all kinds of time with Trump, riding around in Air Force One and making me wish his wife was still alive to explain to him what a reprehensible and humiliating mistake he was making. These three will be judged by history as enablers, and it will forever tarnish whatever lasting glory they might have had. Especially among people like me, lifelong fans, who cannot believe that they could truly be this ignorant.
During the Super Bowl, which was astounding and something I should have been much happier about, Lady C and I busied ourselves donating to causes every time the Patriots scored. We gave to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Planned Parenthood and the ACLU and the NAACP, and we did it in the name of “Bill Belichick and Tom Brady who should know better.”
(To Brady’s small credit, he didn’t accompany the Patriots to the Trump White House. I credit Gisele for that.)
So you have the World Champion New England Patriots, who came back in heady and shocking fashion to win the last Super Bowl, posing for pictures in the White House on the exact same day that Aaron Hernandez is lying in the morgue at the age of 27.
And I struggle to make sense of it all, frankly.
Because part of me wants to spit at him and say good riddance. Karma caught up with him.
And part of me wants to never root for the Patriots again, because I feel personally betrayed.
But in both cases, there’s more to the story. In the case of the Patriots, I hate to lose a part of me that has felt…comfortable…for my whole life. I grew up in the Boston area. I’m a Patriots fan. I’m a Bruins fan. I’m a Red Sox fan. I’m a Celtics fan. Not that any of that really matters, but it’s part of who I am, and I shouldn’t have to part with that because three fools can’t sniff out a lying shithead.
And with Aaron Hernandez, I feel like we all let him down, and for the same reasons we let down Brady, Belichick and Kraft. I know that sounds crazy, but bear with me.
We, as a civilization, have not been honest about mental illness.
And because of that, because there’s as much denial around it as climate change, and in the same circles, people have no idea what it looks like.
But it is all around us, every day, and I mean everywhere.
Therapy is a dirty word, when it should be as natural and accepted as school or lunch or baseball.
Therapy is still a whispered word. “She takes her son to therapy.” Something must be wrong with him. You’re damn right something is wrong with him, and that’s why she takes him to therapy. Because she’s an evolved parent who is facing that issue head on and educating her child with the TOOLS to overcome that issue. It shouldn’t be whispered. It should be shouted.
Instead, we take boys like Aaron Hernandez and fine-tune every single muscle fiber of their bodies to make them the ultimate weapon and we do almost nothing to make them understand their own minds. We raise up the Lance Armstrongs of the world and prioritize physicality and we let mental health issues “handle themselves.”
Because it’s shameful. Because there’s a stigma around it.
But if people had even the tiniest understanding about how common and omnipresent mental health issues are, there’s no way we’d have a pathological liar in the White House.
And there’s less of a chance that three Patriots whose opinions hold great sway over millions of impressionable people would have thrown their lot in with a narcissist. (And perhaps they might have confronted narcissism in themselves).
And there’s a chance that the person or people that Aaron Hernandez wiped off the face of the earth for what…verbal slights? There’s a chance that they’d be breathing with us today.
And there’s a chance that little Aaron Hernandez, when his father suddenly passed away when he was sixteen years old, would have turned to therapy and grief counseling rather than drugs. And he would have recognized when he was posturing and the triggers that would spark his rage and he might not have found himself slowly winding a bedsheet around his twenty-seven year old neck.
I’m going to say this as long as I have a platform anywhere: mental health issues are crippling every sector of growth in our country. They are hurting families and businesses. They are helping destroy the very fabric of democracy. In my lifetime just about every foundational institution in our society has failed us, and mental health issues are part of the problem in every single instance. To know that we could be coming together to inform and support and heal and instead we’re elevating emotionally troubled people to positions of great power where their afflictions will cause more and more mentally ill people to get less understanding and care? It’s a daily tragedy.
Aaron Hernandez is gone from the earth, and he leaves behind a four year old daughter whom I hope — with all my heart — can find a way to overcome this…devastation. He leaves behind a swath of unnecessary destruction that has altered several families permanently. He will forever be vilified for his unspeakable acts, but once upon a time, he was just a kid with raw athletic talent who needed some clinical attention and probably a diagnosis.
And because he got neither, his life took him to a point where he couldn’t endure another day inside his own mind.
His actions are on him. But his suffering is on us. And that emotional disquiet and internal confusion exists in every family on the planet. People are suffering everywhere. In every country. In every city.
It’s high time we got a handle on it. Because it punishes us for our collective hubris and nearsightedness with incalculable devastation. And that despair and confusion and shame and uncertainty helps to fuel more and more strife, which leads to more people suffering and experiencing breakdowns. And more people go untreated and more people self-medicate with drugs and alcohol and more people build up resentments and more people who don’t need to be dead get dead.
There is no shame in mental illness. There is only shame in pretending it doesn’t exist.
And as long as we do, we will continue to be divided and to suffer and to watch as heroes fall before our disbelieving and complicit eyes.