BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- Just try to process this dumbfounding trilogy.
First, here are men who love football right down to their corpuscles, men who play it for therapy and for camaraderie and for free, men who play it in places spare enough that the P.A. blares in pre-game: "We need volunteers for the chain gang. We cannot get this game going without volunteers. Best seats in the house, guys."
Next, here are the same men mourning, telling of their slain teammate with such effusiveness that you cannot question their genuineness, men who make a midfield blob for a postgame prayer from linebacker Jason Milton, who says, "Father, we thank you, everyone who got to know Odin, what a blessing it was."
And then, in a matter that might never cease to astound, here are men who would give all expendable organs, plus a few in-between ones, to play in the NFL, yet who know that somehow, the man the police and prosecutors insist murdered their teammate Odin Lloyd -- this man sitting in jail, awaiting his next hearing -- had an NFL contract and an NFL house and NFL fame and NFL endorsements and an NFL life all set at 23, yet might wind up with a different meaning of "life."
"There's no way that ---- happens," Christopher Brady says.
He's a 36-year-old who works with children at a Cambridge community center and plays linebacker for the Boston Bandits.
That's the semipro team trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Part one is love, and love of football must exist when it's almost kickoff and the visiting crowd stands at seven women and four children, with one woman eating a salad from a plastic bowl and two more on folding chairs on the running track that surrounds the field. Love shows in big duffels the players have hauled in, strewn across the sideline next to big Poland Springs water bottles, jeans shorts and T-shirts, and Red Sox caps poking from the bags. Love is where there's just one folding table on the sideline, holding bananas and an orange bottle of Ben's Tick and Insect Repellent.
You can see the love in an Eastern Football League preseason game south of Boston, between the Bay State Bucs and the visiting Bandits at Bridgewater State College, where a Bandits assistant coach implores in pre-game, "This ain't tiddlywinks. This ain't social media. We're not playing just for ourselves here! You know what I'm talking about! We're not plaaaaaying just for ourselves. Play to the whistle! To the whistle!" It's where you know the refs have arrived because you just saw one emerging from his car, where they've located some volunteers for the chains but one starts to say it's tiring, where at one point a referee points a first down one way and then the other and says, "My bad," and where later on, during the fourth quarter, a referee correctly answers a rules question from league players spectating on the sideline and then cracks, "Hey, I did basketball Wednesday, softball Thursday, and I don't even know what ball this is now."
You know there's some love of football when there's talk of playing pasts -- of high school, of some colleges, of this guy or that guy having had "a tryout with the Patriots" -- but the love screams out in men playing into their 30s and 40s and taking the hits, or in four teammates carrying off an injured lineman and propping him up by a cooler.
"I put on my helmet and my shoulder pads, and I feel like a superhero, like nothing else matters ..." says defensive back Leighton "Swizz" Lormeus, 29, a bookkeeper at a collection agency and a Bandits defensive back. "It's where I get to be free, man."
"Do you ever do something that while you're doing it, you don't worry about whatever, even if you've had a stressful day?" Brady says. "It's a way for me to relieve stress. If I'm not able to play, I'll coach."
"Some of them come from some of the roughest parts of Boston, and for some guys this is therapy," Paul Yang says. "When something like this happens, this is their support group. This is their community, an organizing principle in their lives."
Yang, 24, has the view of the erstwhile outsider; he joined the Bandits six years ago while at Boston College. He works at a biotech firm, and for now, he spectates from the sideline. His family emigrated from China during his childhood. "In so many ways I didn't belong here," he says, but he joined, and he played safety, and he extols how much the older men taught him.
He does say the number of helmet dots, signifying fallen teammates, has gone from two to six in his six years. The two men who brought him out here, he said, died in their 30s from complications from diabetes. The "nasty linebacker" in Yang's compliment, who became the sixth fallen Bandit, died at 27 in the wee hours of June 17, in an industrial park about a mile from the mansion of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
In part two, then, the love shouts from the mourning, as during a pre-game in which the P.A. begins: "Odin Lloyd will forever be remembered as the fun-loving son, brother and player who donned number 53." And Lloyd's devastated sister Olivia says in a recorded message that those who did not meet Lloyd "missed out on meeting a great guy ... a protector ... a provider ... a way in his eyes ... always smiling ..."
It's a pre-game in which the smallish red scoreboard behind one end zone bears a "53" all through warm-ups, until just before kickoff comes a 53-second moment of silence, when those digits drain away.
That followed the morning of the packed funeral, where the teammates chanted Odin's name, the family wore Kangol hats (a Lloyd staple) according to Lormeus, and players such as Brady and Lormeus struggled to square the man lying still in the casket with the one who was so relentless on the field.
Says Craig Kanyangarara, an ambitious 20-year-old linebacker/defensive end Lloyd both calmed and mentored across the last two years, "If there was one word I would use to describe Odin, it's 'humble.' Just humble, you know what I mean? And showed a lot of love to everybody, just humble." In July, he will head to Arizona to start with juco football and big dreams and, he hopes, maybe jersey No. 53.
Says Brady, "It's just funny, it's always the ones who have no attitude, or if you want to call it ghetto prowess. It was nothing like that. Odin was just an average kid. Just an average kid. You celebrate how you knew him. You talk about how he is, talk about how he lived. That's what makes me happy, to think about how he is. I'd think about how he looked in the casket if I didn't."
"A cool guy," Lormeus says.
Some have buttons with Lloyd's face and the passage, "Justice Should Be Key To Life." Some have funeral cards that describe Lloyd as "loving son, brother, grandson, nephew, cousin, uncle, friend, Bandit." Some wear black wristbands reading "Odin Lloyd, 1985-2013," and "Rest In Paradise."
Lormeus tells of Lloyd's "little side jokes," of his continuing bewilderment that the smaller Lormeus once decked him with a crackback block in a high school game. He tells of the scrimmage the day before Lloyd's death, when the two made a switch, Lormeus got a sack, and they agreed they would repeat that maneuver all season long. Kanyangarara says, "I remember the last thing he said to me, man. He just said, 'K, these guys can't stop you now. Just do what you do best. It's sort of like you're invincible.'"
As the Bandits clamber from a 13-0 deficit to a 13-13 tie with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, many feel Lloyd among them. After all, they score on a 20-yard fumble return when cornerback Cliff Anderson rips the ball from a running back's arms, and on a 70-yard interception return by Alvin "Shutdown" Edwards. As Edwards plops down on one of two small benches and the sideline exults, the linebacker Milton hollers, "Odin!"
And as the game ends, the teams make one team at midfield. Anthony Comer, the Bucs' quarterback and a Boston College running back 20 years ago, begins. "One of our brothers goes down," he says. And: "Some of us have been playing together, Lord have mercy, I'm not going to say how many years. Like, 60." And: "Thank you fellas, for coming to play the game. I wish it had been better circumstances." He implores all the players to find family members and "give them that extra squeeze."
When they finish Milton's prayer, they shout a "1-2-3-Odin!" Bandits coach Olivier Bustin says, "There was a lot of emotion for the players during the course of the service." Brady says that after a funeral on "a really long, really emotional day," he just had to go to the Y to fight the stress with a ferocious swim.
Part three, where the bafflement mixes with the love and the mourning, figures to join those as everlasting, as the small crowd disperses, the parking lot empties, and a cluster of Bandits sit on a car trunk and chat and pull on their socks.
For as Brady detours from his comments to say, this case involves not only a departed friend but also a life that might defy explanation. "You're in that position, just to throw your life away," Brady says of Hernandez. "You just throw it all away 'cause you feel a certain way."
"There's other people who are dreaming for what you have, who are looking for 40 million, and he had it all, 23 years old," Kanyangarara says, voice trailing off. "I don't even pay attention to the guy [Hernandez]. I just feel bad that it had to happen to the nicest guy. I'm not really angry, I'm just hurt. Aaron Hernandez threw away his life and threw away somebody else's life."
"I think it's crazy to me, to think you would be a person that's in the NFL," Lormeus says. "You pretty much have your life set. You get to play a game I love to play, and that I play for free, you get paid to play it, and that's all you have to do, you don't have to get up and go to work, you just have to get up, stay in shape ..."
What, he wonders, could his friend possibly have said or done that would have been that bad?
Even the mystery around Hernandez can ladle more pain upon the Bandits. "It's just crazy because like, sometimes, you get mad because everything is like, 'Hernandez, Hernandez,' but we lost a brother," Lormeus says. "I see jokes on social media and I just have to hold myself back from commenting. It's like everything is a joke. People don't understand, and if it's not them, they don't care."
He had known Lloyd for 10 years but had not known that Lloyd knew Hernandez through their relationships with two sisters, because Lloyd hadn't mentioned it. "Maybe some people knew," he says. "I didn't know till I saw it on 'Sports Center' when I was getting ready for practice after he passed away. I was in shock. I didn't even know Odin knew him."
Kanyangarara did know, because Lloyd had mentioned it, and his words carry the chill of this inconceivable June for the Bandits.
"He used to tell me Hernandez was a cool guy," he said. "They hung out ..."