They would’ve seen a 23-year-old tight end named Aaron Hernandez in handcuffs, charged with murder. Three years earlier Hernandez had sat in the same room, surrounded by dozens of other rookies, filled with hope and promise.
“You know, there’s this pink elephant in the room . . . the Hernandez situation,” Vincent, the NFL’s senior vice president of player engagement, told the new crop Wednesday night. “The media has every right to ask you a question about that situation. And you have every right not to engage in that conversation. It is what it is. ”
With that, Vincent went over some of the ground rules for the next three days (curfew is 11:30 p.m., no texting or tweeting during sessions), and the three-day symposium, mandatory for all rookies, with nearly two dozen educational sessions and activities on the docket was formally underway.
The group numbered more than 125 rookies, all from the NFC. The AFC players had gone through the same program earlier in the week. In fact, they were at their final activity — touring the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio — on Wednesday morning at the same time police were knocking on Hernandez’s door in North Attleborough, Mass. The news was inescapable all day.
Among the opening night’s sessions, the NFL had assembled a small group of last year’s rookie class to discuss the transition from being a college player to suiting up as a pro.
“A lot of people are afraid of the words, ‘Oh man, you different,’ ” Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen said. “You damn right I’m different. You damn right I’m different. I got a lot more money in my pocket, and a lot more sense. That’s the way you got to go about it.
“If you just turn on your TV to ESPN, this is a brotherhood. This is a brotherhood. One of our brothers in trouble right now. It really hurts me, man. But one of our brothers is in trouble right now because he didn’t want to be different. You got to make a choice right now. . . . You’re not the same dude you was when you grew up. You different now. That doesn’t mean you can’t hang out with your boys, do things you used to do with your boys. You still do those, but you got to be smart about it, smart about your decisions, man.”
The room of rookies was silent. All eyes were directed at the stage. No one was discussing the details of the Hernandez case — no one knew all the details of the Hernandez case — but the panelists knew there were risks, temptations and predators associated with being an NFL player.