Dooley: Meyer tried to point Hernandez on right path


In this Oct. 20, 2007 file photo, then-Florida head coach Urban Meyer celebrates with Aaron Hernandez after he caught a Tim Tebow lob pass in the second quarter against Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium.

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Published: Friday, June 28, 2013 at 2:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 at 4:52 p.m.

When New England drafted Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, there was not a single person who cringed at the idea of Hernandez returning to the area of the country where he grew up.

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In this Oct. 20, 2007 file photo, then-Florida head coach Urban Meyer celebrates with Aaron Hernandez after he caught a Tim Tebow lob pass in the second quarter against Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium.

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But in hindsight, don’t we now look back at the friendship between Urban Meyer and Bill Belichick as a piece of this terrible puzzle?

Because the two powerful coaches are friends, Belichick knew more about Hernandez’s issues at Florida. He knew what Meyer had done to try to get the tight end heading on a straight path.

Meyer brought Hernandez into his home. He tried to help Hernandez get through the grief of losing his father, Dennis, who died at 49 in 2006 after complications from routine hernia surgery, and worked tirelessly to make him understand how the incidents that were popping up at UF were going to hurt him in so many ways.

For that, Meyer is being called an enabler today, a coach who sold his soul to win national championships. Kind of like Tom Osborne with Lawrence Phillips. Osborne said in 1995 that he was letting Phillips play in the Fiesta Bowl because he was trying to save him. Didn’t work.

Phillips was drafted in the first round by the St. Louis Rams and in two years there spent 23 days in jail. He is currently serving time in California and will be 57 years old when he is released.

Osborne was mildly-criticized for allowing Phillips back on the team, but Meyer is such an overwhelmingly big target for the media because of the 30 arrests during his time at UF, the circumstances of his departure and his lack of transparency when dealing with the media.

When Hernandez was suspended for marijuana use, Meyer announced to those of us in the news conference that his tight end “didn’t get himself ready to play.” That was code for “busted.”

The red flag the positive test sent up to the NFL was exaggerated by an NFL executive who said Hernandez tested positive as many as six times, which simply was a made-up story.

With the positive test and other incidents that happened around UF (many of which were not reported because no police reports were filed), the NFL was wary of Hernandez.

But Belichick knew what Meyer had been doing, how he had been having Bible study classes in his home with Hernandez. It wasn’t that the Meyer family thought they had rehabbed Hernandez, but they thought he was pointed in the right direction.

I have talked in the past to the Meyers about the situation and they felt like Hernandez was part of their family. They spent countless hours with him in their home with their children. Meyer played the role of the surrogate father.

When New England drafted Hernandez, you thought, “Belichick will keep him on the straight and narrow.” When he started putting up big numbers both on the field and with his new contract, you thought, “That was a brilliant decision to draft him.”

And now, you wonder, “What were they thinking?”

We Americans lead the league in hindsight. Now, as we look back, we realize Hernandez would have been a lot better off going to Dallas or San Francisco or Seattle. Because once he went to New England, he was back in the area where the bad element began to take over his life.

Certainly, that’s not an excuse. We all make our own choices.

Meyer made one several years ago when he tried to save Hernandez instead of just letting him go. Would he have done the same thing if Hernandez was a 5-foot-9, 140-pound walk-on? Probably not. Hernandez was a special talent and helped Florida win a national title in 2008. That certainly played into it.

It’s easy to pick on Meyer, especially for Gator fans whose egos are still bruised by his departure and never warmed up to his standoffish nature.

But let’s look at what happened — Florida recruited Hernandez, tried to help him and then sent him to the NFL, where he would make millions of dollars and hopefully take the life lessons with him.

No souls were sold, no morals compromised. Hernandez was a troubled young man who was still only 20 when he left Gainesville. He hadn’t been fully shaped as a person. So now everyone is firing darts at Meyer and UF and even at Belichick because it’s convenient.

Whoever executed Odin Lloyd is a terrible person. If it turns out to be Aaron Hernandez, it’s not because Meyer or anyone else failed him.

He failed himself. And everyone who tried to help him.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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