Brian Billick had been an NFL head coach for all of one season when he learned that his star player, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, was arrested following a post 2000 Super Bowl altercation in Atlanta that left two men dead.
Lewis was initially charged with two counts of murder but when no concrete evidence emerged linking him to the deaths, the linebacker pled guilty to one count of obstruction of justice in exchange for his testimony against two men – Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting – who were with him the night of the incident.
That case played out 13 years ago though it will undoubtedly get some attention in the days ahead following today's arrest of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez was hit with murder and several other charges in the shooting death of Odin Lloyd whose body was found last Monday in an industrial park less than a mile from Hernandez's home. He pleaded not guilty.
"It's difficult because let's go back to the Ray Lewis situation. It unfolded on us very rapidly," Billick said today in an interview with NFL Network after the Patriots released Hernandez. "Our support of Ray Lewis stemmed primarily from our faith in Ray Lewis as a person. We did not have access to all the facts because as you saw in the Ray Lewis situation, it took months and months for that to unfold - to find out that Ray Lewis really wasn't culpable in any of those events. We had to go on, kind of, a leap of faith."
Billick, who coached the Ravens for nine seasons and is now an analyst for Fox, said later on NFL Network that the hard part of the Lewis fallout was "there was no manual you can go to," as a guide to how to proceed with the situation.
There have been multiple reports that the Patriots were prepared to release Hernandez last week, but waited until after his arrest to make the move.
"A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss," the organization said in a statement released earlier today. "Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do."
Billick acknowledged that he was surprised with the Patriots' immediate release of Hernandez, which came less than two hours after the 23-year was taken out of his North Attleborough, Mass. home in handcuffs.
"Clearly, they are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the organization," said Billick before the charges against Hernandez were released. "I don't think anybody can question that. If nothing other than in the court of public opinion, this has got to be hugely damning … to Aaron Hernandez."
Despite an avalanche of outside criticism, the Ravens stuck by Lewis and then owner Art Modell was one of the player's staunchest defenders. Modell flew to Atlanta to testify as a character witness for Lewis.
When the Ravens made the Super Bowl the following season, largely because of the Lewis-led defense, Billick famously told reporters that "We are not going to retry this [case]. It's inappropriate. And you're not qualified."
He admitted today that the Ravens' stance with Lewis came with potential ramifications.
"The organization is a little bit at risk as that singular voice, you have to have a singular voice as an organization; our decision was that my voice as the head coach would be that voice. And yes, quite honestly, I have to believe there are any number of people, my reputation and the way people look at me took a bit of a hit in my supporting of Ray Lewis at the time," he said. "Now, going forward, subsequent events proved out favorable for Ray Lewis but there are still those that still believe the culpability of Ray Lewis in that situation. So the organization, certainly, is going to get drawn into it one way or another."