AURORA, Ohio —Troy Vincent likens the NFL’s annual rookie symposium to a job orientation program. It’s an opportunity to teach the new crop of talented employees about the game’s history, their own responsibilities and the risks associated with making a living playing the sport.
Many of the biggest pitfalls, though, await once they leave the locker room, and to learn that this new group of rookies needed to only flip on ESPN in the hours awaiting Vincent’s introductory session Wednesday night at the Bertram Inn and Convention Center.
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.
“I drove up here from Cincinnati today. I’m reading through all these articles on my iPad. Man, I’m getting” angry, said Greg Scruggs, the Seattle Seahawks' second-year defensive end. “My man had everything. Everything. But he wanted to be about that life. It’s pointless. You got the world in your hands right now.”
“I will tell you guys this much,” said Ross Tucker, the panelist moderator who played seven years in the league, “the guy in the news, he got a $12.5 million signing bonus in August. Twelve-point-five million dollars — the most ever for a tight end. He’s 23 years old. It’s sad, man.”
While the league certainly wasn’t trying to highlight the Hernandez case, it also represented the exact type of situation that gets discussed annually at the rookie symposium. The NFL regularly schedules speakers who’ve encountered difficult situations to address its newest batch of players, in effect, to scare them straight.
On Thursday, players attended sessions that dealt with everything from discrimination to drugs to concussions. Terry “Tank” Johnson led a session Thursday afternoon called “The Risks are Real,” where he relayed his run-ins with the law and how firearms impacted his career. He told the league’s incoming rookies “you don’t need them,” and that guns bring problems to a budding NFL career.
“We don’t take guns as seriously as we need to. . . . You guys are going to realize this is a very stressful business — one of the most stressful businesses in the world,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to compound that stress by having a firearm there to help you make a bad decision. . . . [It’s] going to put you in a very tough position; it’s going to get you in trouble.
“If our man Aaron Hernandez never had that gun, this could be a different situation today. You guys understand that? This could be a fistfight; this could be an argument. Because he had that at his disposal, now he’s dealing with capital murder chargers.”
Note: A judge denied bail for Hernandez, who is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of a friend. Hernandez’s lawyer argued that Hernandez is not a risk to flee and the case against him is circumstantial.
But a prosecutor said the evidence is “overwhelming.” A search of a Hummer belonging to Hernandez turned up an ammunition clip matching the caliber of casings found at the scene of the killing of Odin Lloyd, the prosecutor said.
Lloyd’s body was discovered by a jogger in a remote area of an industrial park not far from Hernandez’s home 10 days ago. He has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors called Lloyd’s killing an execution-style shooting orchestrated by Hernandez because his friend talked to the wrong people at a nightclub.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.