As the New England Patriots seek another Super Bowl on Sunday, with their tight end being a big key, there is another tight end who comes to mind with the franchise. It is one who is not there with them, although once upon a time it looked like he could be a big part of some great history.

Instead, the story of Aaron Hernandez is really a teachable moment for young athletes. It is a story of what might have been, not so much for the Patriots as for him.

Hernandez’s story by now is well-known, at least the major details. A Connecticut native, he starred at Florida and then had a nice career going with the Patriots. He and Rob Gronkowski formed a scary tight end duo for opposing defenses, and they were the first pair of tight ends in NFL history to catch at least five touchdown passes in consecutive seasons for the same team. Hernandez was versatile enough that the Patriots even lined him up in the backfield and gave him the ball to run a few times, like a fullback.

While Gronkowski is still on his way to all-time great status (though he has battled a steady stream of injuries), Hernandez is no longer with us.

Hernandez had lots of off-field issues over the course of his life. His dad died when he was a teenager, which had a bad effect on him. But as an NFL star, the potential for life-changing money and experiences was there. He had signed a $40 million contract extension, much of which was lost when the Patriots released him as soon as he was arrested.

There are a couple of points to his story for young people, especially young athletes, to take note of:

  • He had a lot going for him, but he threw it all away with his actions off the field – by not managing himself.

  • Being rich and famous is not a cure-all for anything, and in fact, fame and fortune bring challenges of their own that not everyone is able to handle.

Neither point is often realized by many outside the realm of athletes and celebrities. In fact, many scoff at the latter point, not understanding the nuance to it.

The former point should be obvious by now. A lot of kids who grow up in a poor household and/or poor area don’t get chances to get a college education or make millions of dollars, but would give their right arm for anything remotely resembling either. I have long said that the biggest reason talented players don’t last long in the pro ranks or live up to their potential, regardless of the sport, is an inability to manage themselves off the playing field. We have story after story of it, from Chris Washburn to Roy Tarpley to Josh Hamilton to Hernandez, and many more in between.

The latter point is a little deeper. I understand why some scoff at it; it’s the same reason some scoff at the idea that an athlete or coach can be distraught after losing a championship game or not feel good about a bad year or a struggling team. They figure, “he’s getting paid millions anyway, so what’s the problem?”

It may be true that an athlete with a big contract is making a lot of money whether they are an MVP or a flop, but that doesn’t take away from the competitive side of these athletes or coaches. It doesn’t change how it feels from day to day if the team chemistry is volatile, and why should it? If you work in an office where that’s the case, or in a job you don’t like, would a lot more money make you magically enjoy the job?

Someone who is wealthy has different challenges than the rest of us. They have to manage that money, and they may not be prepared for that as they may not know how to save or invest. They may have lots of people clamoring for a piece of their riches in some way, shape or form, and likely have to keep many of them at arm’s length or risk blowing that money. There are countless stories of that.

In theory, this also allows access to other wealthy people, and potentially access to people of higher character. There’s a saying that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so changing your circle can change your own life. But plenty of wealthy people are also shady; wealth doesn’t magically improve one’s character. There’s a better chance that being around a higher caliber of person from that standpoint can improve one’s character than merely being around wealthy people, or getting more money.

Beyond that, we’ve all heard the stories of athletes or celebrities who struggled with depression or low self-esteem, and engaged in destructive actions as a result. Again, many would scoff and say, “Why are they depressed, they have all this money and attention?” This goes back to the previous comment that fame or fortune are not a cure-all for anything. They bring opportunities, but it’s what one does with those opportunities that determines the end result.

Aaron Hernandez had a lot going for him that could change the reality he had lived, and give his children a better life. He didn’t take advantage of it, however, and was first imprisoned and now is no longer with us. The Patriots, meanwhile, continue to win, with or without him and the opportunities he let slip away.

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