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In March, Wes Welker, the leading pass-catcher in Patriots history, left for the Broncos as a free agent, touching off a he-said, she-said argument between Athletes First (Welker's and Hernandez's agency) and New England owner Robert Kraft over what transpired during the negotiating process. In April, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard received a delayed 30-day prison sentence after being found guilty of assaulting a police officer. Gronkowski, who like Hernandez received a multimillion-dollar contract extension last summer, had four medical procedures related to his broken left forearm and underwent back surgery in June to fix a herniated disk, for the second time in less than four years. Kraft caused a comic international stir when he said publicly that Russian president Vladimir Putin had stolen one of Kraft's Super Bowl rings in 2005. And a week before the Hernandez story broke, the Patriots signed his old Gators teammate Tebow, inviting the media circus that comes with him.
But if there's any team that can handle distractions in all shapes and sizes, it's Bill Belichick's Patriots. They turned the Spygate scandal into a 16--0 regular season in 2007, and several players with checkered pasts—Bryan Cox, Rodney Harrison, Corey Dillon, Brandon Meriweather and Randy Moss—contributed to its Super Bowl teams. Even the recent gambles that didn't work out, or are still playing out, such as Chad Johnson, Albert Haynesworth, Brandon Lloyd, Dennard and Aqib Talib, have not distracted from the whole. The Patriots have finished worse than 11--5 just once since 2005 and haven't had a losing season since Belichick's first, in 2000.
On the field Hernandez fit perfectly into Bill Belichick's innovative schemes calling for multiple tight ends. Over the past three seasons, the tight end duo of Hernandez and Gronkowski (who was drafted in the second round in 2010, 71 spots ahead of Hernandez) combined for 362 receptions totaling 4,619 yards and 56 touchdowns—extraordinary production for a pair at the position. Gronkowski is the prototypical "Y" tight end, a good blocker with receiving ability, while Hernandez plays the "F" flex or move tight end, more of a pass-catcher. But his versatility has allowed the Patriots to line him up at every skill position except quarterback: in-line and off-line tight end, slot receiver, flanker and split end, even at fullback and tailback. As Hernandez's career blossomed, the paradigm of the NFL tight end evolved with it.
That success led to Hernandez's hefty contract extension last year. Of the $12.5 million signing bonus, New England paid $9.5 million within the first seven months of the deal. Hernandez had entered the league as the NFL's youngest player, and teammates say that while he had incidents of immaturity as a rookie, he had grown into a player who consistently practiced hard. However, two teammates say that after signing the extension, Hernandez's attitude became "more brazen."
The same concerns that surfaced in Gainesville were now resurfacing in New England. Both a current and a former Patriots teammate told SI that Hernandez was having trouble with past associates and seeking to distance himself from some of his old crowd from Bristol.
A week that for Hernandez began with a Father's Day text to DeSantis ended with him embroiled in a murder investigation, and the country transfixed on the fate of one of the NFL's most dynamic players on one of its winningest teams. Hernandez's yearbook quote may no longer be true for him. Despite his dazzling talent, his NFL millions and his juggernaut career, Aaron Hernandez may not have his future in his own hands.