A Tale of Two Athletes
“How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year.” John Milton
When Aaron Hernandez was twenty three, he had realized his youthful dreams: a lucrative National Football League contract, making him a multimillionaire; new found fame and the adulation the public reserves for its talented sports heroes; a pretty fiancé, Shayanna Jenkins, with whom he had a young daughter; a big house, and a history of success and awards at Bristol Central High School in Connecticut, a national championship at the University of Florida and an American Conference Championship with the New England Patriots. He received the 2013 Pop Warner Youth Football League Inspiration for Youth Award. With Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady had the most lethal big and fast tight end duo in the league, almost unstoppable. Aaron Hernandez making the cut and up to speed on an end around run was daunting for any defense.
His signature touchdown celebration was to mime counting the money; he took pleasure in displaying his heavily tattooed, incredibly fit body. There were other shadows: his associations with the Bloods street gang, drugs and guns. His mother, Terri, played a minor role in organized crime, as a phone operator taking bets for a large sports gambling syndicate. Even though he was ranked as the top tight end prospect in the country, Hernandez, a consensus All American went later than expected in the fourth round of the NFL draft because of concerns about drug use and a history of violence.
“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
When he was twenty four after a couple of weeks of nonstop media coverage, he was arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd, a semi-pro football player dating the sister of his fiancé. Lloyd was driven around for a couple of hours, taken to the back of a North Attleborough industrial park and executed with five shots from a .45 caliber handgun traced back to Hernandez. Within two days, the Patriots released him; the money dried up and he became just another guy in leg irons and an orange jump suit awaiting trial in the Bristol County Jail in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
“When I’m blind, when I cannot see, when all life’s trouble sweeps over me. When I’m in darkness and all I see is me, be with me, Lord.” Tom Booth, “Be With Me, Lord”
Mr. Lloyd had offended Hernandez by talking to his enemies in Cure, a Boston nightclub, about Hernandez’s alleged involvement in a previous drive by shooting in Boston in 2012. Two Cape Verdean immigrants were shot in their car; they had a run in with Hernandez at a bar earlier that night, “disrespecting” Hernandez, apparently a capital offense. After his conviction and life sentence for the Lloyd murder, Hernandez is under indictment for the other two earlier murders. More violent incidents and bar fights turned up in the investigations, including one in Florida, when he shot in the face his once friend and “right hand man” from the Bristol gang, Ernest Wallace, costing Wallace an eye. Hernandez’s future is now as bleak as it once was luminous; he will never run free again amongst similarly gifted athletes. His past is defined now with a chalked outline of a dead former friend on a weedy, littered back lot.
“What you are is God’s gift to you, what you become is your gift to God.” Hans Urs von Balthasar
Grant Desme was named 2009 Arizona Fall League MVP. Only the best of major league prospects are sent to the fall leagues. Having been an early draft pick, he was one of the most touted minor league prospects in all of baseball. He had played baseball for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo after transferring over from San Diego State. First team All American and Triple Crown winner for the Big West Conference, he was an extraordinary athlete.[i] “I had everything figured out. I was on top of the world: successful at baseball, not having to go to school, having a big contract, but I was not where God wanted me to be.”
He had been injured by a pitch in 2007 that broke his wrist. Surgery followed, and the six week estimated healing time turned into over a year; he missed almost all of the 2008 season. During his recovery, he started to examine his dreams and plans for the future. The injury had him questioning his premises. “I couldn’t play baseball. God really started rocking my world. I was faced with a lot of silence… To have something that was completely out of my control, like an injury, strip that away left me wondering: What’s the purpose? What am I actually going after? Because if I can put all my effort into something and not have it fulfilled, why do it? It ended up making me think a lot about death, a lot about my entire existence on this earth. It made me confront the big questions about life, and it led me to God.” He contemplated becoming a priest.
But Grant Desme returned to baseball, wanting to prove to himself that if he changed his course, it was not running away from a failure. He went back into Single A ball, but was soon bumped up to Double A. Combined with both teams, his stats (for a baseball geek like me) were, as he said, like a video game. A 30-30 season (over 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases – a thing of boyhood dreams)- OPS of .933 – 31 home runs -OBP of .365 – 6 triples – 42 stolen bases. He had speed, good judgment, hit to all fields and power. After the MVP Fall League, he was reassigned to the Oakland A’s and invited to spring training — on the verge of the jump to “The Show.” He loved playing baseball; all questions about his recovery and amazing skills were answered.
Grant Desme is now Frater (Brother) Matthew Desme of the Novertine Abbey. [ii] He finished up his philosophy studies, and after four years of theology and an apostolic year in Rome he will finish his qualifying education for ordination as a priest. His life is radically simple with some baseball with the brothers from time to time – the ultimate ringer. “I realized that even if I played twenty years in the major leagues and ended up a Hall of Famer, I would still die one day. No matter what I achieved, I would be just as dead as everyone else in the cemetery… At every stage of my career, I thought happiness was just around the corner. No matter how well I played or how far I advanced, I never gained the complete, lasting happiness I was expecting. There were thrills, but none of them lasted. Everything here below is fleeting.”
Frater Matthew Desme says his previous life was a “very superficial form of masculinity … based on externals and trying to put yourself before others. I’ve since learned an authentic masculinity based on self-sacrificing love.” Grant Desme’s future is luminous with his past defined now as a grand worldly success that hadn’t lived up to his hopes for it.
Aaron Hernandez and Grant Desme were athletes gifted in a way 99.999% of us mortals will never experience, but their paths diverged in a radical way, as has their outcome. One became ensnared in the counterfeit happiness of our culture with self-fulfillment and self-gratification its goal; the other found peace and lasting happiness in humility, serving and loving others.
“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
[i] Quotes from “He gave up baseball to follow God’s call.” The Catholic Voice, September 8, 2014
[ii] “Ex-Baseball Phenom Discusses Life in a Novertine Abbey” National Catholic Register, 4/8/13. http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/ex-baseball-phenom-chose-the-better-part-in-norbertine-abbey/