Once upon a time Florida’s Aaron Hernandez and BYU’s Dennis Pitta were locked in a tight race for the John Mackey Award, an honor given annually to the best college tight end in the nation.
In 2009, Hernandez was given that honor over Pitta after both were among the three finalists.
On Wednesday, Hernandez, a convicted murderer, was found dead in his prison cell near Boston, the victim of an apparent suicide. That same day, Pitta was enjoying the offseason after his best year in the NFL.
Both were large athletes, agile, quick, strong and with big mitts for hands. Hernandez hauled in a ton of Tim Tebow passes; Pitta was a favorite target of his brother-in-law Max Hall.
Two stories. Two paths. One a tale of tragedy and talent wasted; the other an inspiring story of an AFC comeback player of the year, a heroic husband, father and son.
Why the comparison? Because choices and associations are a huge deal in a life. It's lesson.
Back in 2009, I argued Pitta deserved the award over Hernandez and, of course, it was a partisan view, having seen Pitta play in person every game of his career. During his senior season, Hernandez finished with 68 catches for 850 yards and five touchdowns. Pitta had 62 catches for 829 yards and eight TDs.
College career-wise, Pitta amassed 221 catches for 2,901 yards. Hernandez had 111 catches for 1,382 yards. Pitta's college career dwarfed Hernandez's, but the Florida star also had a BCS national championship on his rèsumè.
Hernandez grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, the son of a Puerto Rican father and Italian mother. He lost his father at 16 from complications from hernia surgery. His mother said this led to a troubled life for her son. He set a state record with 376 yards receiving in a high school game and finished his senior season as the seventh-best in the nation in receiving yards per game. He was considered the No. 1 tight end recruit nationally in 2006.
Pitta was born in Fresno, California, the son of a former University of California linebacker. A devout Mormon, he was an Eagle Scout, and at Moorpark High he excelled in football as a receiver and lettered in basketball and track. He walked on at BYU and a year later spent two years as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Dominican Republic.
In college, both players excelled. Pitta had a reputation for tough play and was a good example for kids. Hernandez failed multiple drug tests at Florida, was involved in a 2007 Gainesville bar fight and later that year was questioned in a Gainesville, Florida, shooting but was kept on the roster by Urban Meyer.
At the end of their college days, Hernandez was named a first-team All-American by the Associated Press, College Football News and Sporting News, while Pitta was named first-team by the Walter Camp Foundation, the American Football Coaches Association and Pro Football Weekly.
NFL combine measurables had Pitta two inches taller than Hernandez at 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-2 and a hair faster in the 40-yard dash (4.63 to 4.64). In the vertical jump, Pitta had a 34-inch jump; Hernandez 33. Pitta registered 9-5 in the broad jump; Hernandez 9-4. Pitta had 29 reps on the bench; Hernandez 30.
On 2010 NFL draft day, these two most honored tight ends were not the first drafted. There were 20 tight ends selected that year, the first taken was Oklahoma’s Jermaine Gresham, the 21st overall pick. Then came Arizona’s Rob Gronkowski, who was the 10th pick in the second round. In the third round, Oregon’s Ed Dickson and Iowa’s Tony Moeaki were taken as the 93rd and 95th picks.
In the fourth round, both Hernandez and Pitta became second tight end choices of the teams that took them. Hernandez was picked sixth in the fourth round by New England, who’d already taken Gronkowski, and Pitta was taken one pick later by Baltimore after it had taken Dickson.
The Boston Globe reported shortly after the draft that Hernandez admitted to marijuana use and his signing bonus and incentives were chiseled down to reflect personal performance riders on his behavior.
NBC Sports reported after the 2012 season that Hernandez and Gronkowski were the first tight-end tandem in NFL history to catch at least five touchdowns each in consecutive seasons for the same team.
In June 2013, Hernandez was arrested and charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd. He was convicted of that homicide on April 15, 2015, and sentenced to life in prison without parole. This past week he was acquitted of other murder charges.
Pitta was a journeyman for the Ravens in 2010, made a push in 2011, but became a budding star in 2012 with the help of quarterback Joe Flacco. By October, Pitta started ahead of Dickson and produced every week. He finished the playoffs that year with 14 catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns. For the season he had 61 catches for 660 yards and seven touchdowns.
In 2013 while Hernandez faced murder charges, Pitta signed a restricted free agent contract with the Ravens for $2 million, then dislocated his hip at a July training camp. Thought to be gone for the season after surgery, he came back in Week 14 and caught six passes for 48 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Vikings.
In February 2014, Baltimore signed Pitta to a five-year $32 million contract. On Sept. 21 against Cleveland, he left the game with a dislocated hip on the same side previously injured. It required surgery and he was done for the season.
In 2015, Pitta was advised it was not safe to return to football and although his status with Baltimore was that his career was over, he maintained he would come back and play.
In 2016, Pitta did make that comeback. He earned his money. With an NFL tight-end-high 86 catches for 729 yards, he and Flacco resumed the chemistry Ravens fans had long anticipated would be part of the arsenal.
Today, Pitta is preparing for the 2017 season.
Today, Hernandez is dead with funeral plans pending.
I wonder if Hernandez's life would have been different if his father had been there for him in the stands and by his side.