A FEW HOURS after they buried Odin Lloyd, the first Boston Bandits pulled into the stadium parking lot at Bridgewater State University. They had worn their jerseys to the funeral; now they began tugging them over their pads. Three of Lloyd's teammates -- Marcus Smith (above, No. 8), Daryl Sweet and Darryl Hodge -- had served as pallbearers, struggling to carry the heavy casket. "It's been a very long day," Sweet said. Now he was a receiver, not a mourner, and he had a game to play.
The Bay State Buccaneers were already half-dressed, snapping a couple of footballs off the asphalt, reduced mostly to whispers by the presence of their bereaved opposition. The first TV trucks showed up a couple of hours before the six o'clock kickoff, a preseason semipro football game suddenly made worthy of satellites. These ordinary men, these inner-city knock-around boys, were now extraordinary because one of their teammates had been murdered, and because Aaron Hernandez had been charged with having murdered him. Now they were the ones with cameras and boom mics following them onto the field.
During pregame warmups, the clock on the scoreboard read 0:53. When Lloyd could afford a jersey -- the Bandits are the class of the 44-team New England Football League, but they still pay for their own equipment -- his number was 53. There had been times during his six seasons with the team when he couldn't find work, and he was forced to wear different numbers each week, lifted from the injured safety or the guard who'd caught an evening shift. Lately, though, the 27-year-old Lloyd had been doing better. He had work as a landscaper, and he was dating a woman whose sister was engaged to a wealthy and famous man.
What did they see when they looked at each other, the semipro and the pro? Lloyd, who had lived in Roxbury apartments less dignified than the house Hernandez had built for his dogs, must have marveled at his mansion and millions. He had texted his sister Olivia the night of his murder: "NFL," he'd thumbed, because for Odin Lloyd, those three letters were all that mattered. They could tell a man's whole story.
And how did the Patriot regard the Bandit? Did he see a near equal, a fellow tight end -- Lloyd was also a linebacker, a two-way player -- their fates made so divergent by the thin margin that separates the very good from the great? Or did he see Lloyd as someone or something lesser, one of life's scrubs trying to be bigger than he was, trying to prove that he belonged? When Lloyd and Hernandez looked at each other, was it like looking in a mirror or through a telescope?
Even after teammates had lowered Lloyd into a hole in the ground, his murder and its circumstances remained so surreal, he was still listed as active on the roster sheet. He was somehow the sixth Bandit to die since 2002, the second to be murdered. So much death was hard to accept. But a few minutes before six o'clock, the PA announcer asked the few dozen fans in attendance for their silence, and the clock started its inevitable countdown: 53, 52, 51 ...
One Bandit lifted his helmet high in the air while others dropped to their knees ... 47, 46, 45 ... Now a few began pulling the fronts of their jerseys over their faces ... 34, 33, 32 ... Olivier Bustin, the longtime Bandits coach, did his best to choke back his own tears ... 29, 28, 27 ... Ron Johnson, the team's sideline assistant, thought: Aaron Hernandez can kiss my ass ... 16, 15, 14 ... Daryl Sweet remembered his friend and swore he could hear him laughing ... 8, 7, 6 ... Darryl Hodge cast back to the last hours they had spent together, dreaming out loud how they might make their lives better ...
2 ... 1 ... Zero. A horn sounded. There was an anthem and a kickoff, and the cracking of helmets echoed across the bleachers. These so-called semipros played with their whole hearts. "This don't happen every day," one of them screamed from the sideline. "Look around. These might not be the same faces you see next year. These might not be the same faces you see next week." And so the Boston Bandits played on, deep into the night, these men made extraordinary not by a death in their family but by the life that was left in it.