The Short, Tragic Life of Aaron Hernandez: Inside a Violent Downfall

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When the New England Patriots drafted Aaron Hernandez in 2010, the team already knew it was taking a chance.

He was a definite star at the University of Florida, having been named the top tight end in the country in 2009, the year the Gators won their last BCS Championship. But he had also caused trouble.

Hernandez had been questioned after getting into a physical fight—which Florida teammate Tim Tebow told police he witnessed and helped resolve—with a bouncer at a bar, reportedly rupturing the man’s eardrum. Right after he was drafted, the Boston Globe reported that his suspiciously low draft position (the Patriots took him 113th in the fourth round) was due to failing multiple drug tests for marijuana use in school. 

Per the Globe, Hernandez told teams at the 2010 Scouting Combine that his drug abuse dated back to the sudden death of his father in 2006 after a hernia operation, when the athlete was a junior in high school.

“He had multiple positive tests, so he either had issues or he’s dumb,” an unnamed NFL exec told the paper. One or two tests? Fine. But four, five, six? Come on, now you’ve got an addiction. He’s not a bad kid. He just has an issue.”

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Countless players have entered the NFL with a history of disciplinary and behavioral issues, from academic infractions and substance abuse to sexual assault accusations. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was never charged, but a fellow student had accused him of rape (he thoroughly denied it) and he ultimately went No. 1 in the 2015 draft to Tampa Bay.

For what it’s worth, Hernandez’s issues were chalked up to fairly ordinary youthful mistakes. Red flags were raised, and then lowered accordingly. The kid came at a good value.

“He was a player that we, quite frankly, were surprised to have the opportunity to draft him in the fourth round,” coach Bill Belichick said. “But I’m glad we did. I think he’s got a good opportunity to help us at that position.”

Yet while second chances are the name of the game in professional sports (the Patriots would later sign Donté Stallworth in 2012, three years after he pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter) Hernandez would use up all of his chances—at sports, at freedom, at life—within a few years.

Aaron Hernandez, Patriots

AP Photo/Greg Trott

The onetime star, who in his first year in the NFL was catching passes from Tom Bradyand named to the Pro Bowl in year two, died yesterday morning in an apparent suicide, seemingly having hanged himself by a bed sheet attached to the window of his cell at the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass., where he was serving a life sentence for murder. 

Last Friday, Hernandez had been acquitted in a double homicide and his previous murder conviction is currently being appealed.

His attorney, Jose Baez, told reporters yesterday morning that his client was not suicidal and called for a full investigation. No suicide note was found and a Correction Department spokesman said Hernandez had given no indication he needed to be put under suicide watch.

“We are shocked and surprised at the news of Aaron’s death,” Baez (who successfully defended Casey Anthony when she was accused of killing her daughter) said in a statement. “There were no conversations or correspondence from Aaron to his family or legal team that would have indicated this scenario was a possibility. Aaron was looking forward to an opportunity for a second chance to prove his innocence. Those who love and care about him are heartbroken and determined to find the truth surrounding his untimely death.”

The state medical examiner had taken custody of Hernandez’s body and an autopsy is planned.

“Absolutely no chance he took his own life,” his former sports agent, Brian Murphy, tweeted yesterday morning. “Chico was not a saint, but my family and I loved him and he would never take his own life.”

Meanwhile, Hernandez had been troubled and was a known trouble-maker, but the depths to which he fell during his prime amount to a life wasted. A life that ended yesterday in prison, the same day a handful of Patriots visited the White House with their Super Bowl LI rings. (Tom Brady canceled, citing personal family matters.)

Hernandez grew up in a rough neighborhood in Bristol, Conn., and his mother, Terri, would later say that he had an especially tough time after his father died, which is when, by multiple accounts, he started partying and getting tattoos, such as the “HATE ME NOW” scrawl on his left arm.

“Part of Aaron’s problem is, he never got no street sense; [his father] Dennis sheltered them from that life with all his might,” Gary Fortier, an ex-con and assistant pastor at a Bristol church who knew the Hernandez kids, told Rolling Stone in August 2013. Added Brandon Beam, a former high school teammate, “He was the perfect dad: He went to every scrimmage, and got ’em up at dawn to work out.”

After Dennis Hernandez died, Beam said, Aaron would “open up the tiniest bit, then say nothing for weeks, like it was a sign of weakness to be sad. His brother was at college, and the only other person he would really talk to was the one who was taken away.”

But Hernandez got himself to college where so many athletes, let alone young men in general, get into fights and smoke weed.

“He played video games with my son, and my daughter wore his jersey to sleep. But whenever he left campus [to hang out at bars and with suspect characters], he’d come back different,” John Hevesy, Hernandez’s positions coach at Florida, also told Rolling Stone. “That’s when the problems happened.”

After he rated a 1 out of 10 in “social maturity” on his pre-draft psychological report, his draft position plunged, but Hernandez had also sent a letter to all 32 pro teams admitting to past drug use and offering to take a number of tests, should they take a chance on him.

And so he made it to the NFL, and to the Patriots no less, where he and Rob Gronkowski formed the most dominant tight end duo in the league.

“Aaron and I will get together and come up with a name,” Gronkowski told ESPN.com in January 2012, when he and Hernandez were the toast of Boston. “But it’s pretty fun. I like the ‘Boston TE Party.’ That’s pretty cool.”

The article was about how similar the two stars—who were both drafted the same year—were, in style and often in temperament.

“We got a lot of help from our teammates on how to run routes and where we needed to be. We got a lot of discipline [in our first year],” Hernandez said. “Rob took [it] a little better than I did. They don’t discipline us that much now. We have a little experience. There used to be a lot of screaming in our ears, but we’ve matured.”

In August 2012, the Patriots signed Hernandez to a five-year contract extension worth $40 million, including a $12.5 million signing bonus, the second-largest extension the team had ever given after Gronk’s deal.

Hernandez and his teenage sweetheart, Shayanna Jenkins, whom he’d been with since 2007, welcomed daughter Avielle Janelle Jenkins-Hernandez on Nov. 6, 2012. Avielle shares her birthday with her dad.

“It’s definitely a great experience,” he told reporters at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 8 about being a first-time dad. “And a beautiful little girl, and I’m excited.”

“One thing I know, it definitely changed my life,” Hernandez continued. “I’m going to look at things differently. And I may be young and wild, but I’m not. I’m engaged now, and I have a baby. It’s just going to make me think of life differently, and doing things the right way, because I know another one’s looking up to me. I can’t just be young and reckless Aaron anymore. I’m going to try to do the right things, become a good father, and be raised like I was raised.”

The Pats’ AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 20, 2013, would be Hernandez’s last NFL game.

On June 13, 2013, TMZ reported that Hernandez had been sued in federal court for allegedly shooting a man in the face after arguing with him at a Miami strip club in February. The plaintiff, who was seeking at least $100,000 in damages, claimed he lost an eye and required multiple surgeries. The suit was dismissed four days after it was filed, supposedly due to an error in paperwork and then re-filed; Hernandez was not criminally named as a suspect in the shooting.

A week later, sports sites were mulling what Hernandez’s connection to an investigation into the death of a man whose body was found near the athlete’s home might mean for the Patriots, who had quietly barred him from Gillette Stadium at the time.

On June 20, investigators dispatched to search Hernandez’s house discovered that his cell phone was broken and there was something wrong with his home surveillance system.

Then on June 26, 2013, he was arrested by Massachusetts State Police and subsequently charged with first-degree murder in the death of 27-year-old Odin L. Lloyd, whose body was discovered by a jogger in an industrial park less than a mile from the $1.3 million home Hernandez purchased the same month his daughter was born. 

In addition to murder, he was charged with five gun-related crimes.

Aaron Hernandez

George Rizer for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Patriots released him the day he was charged.

While talking to the media for the first time since Hernandez’s arrest, about a month later, Belichick opened with this statement: “It’s a sad day. It’s really a sad day on so many level. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, with the victim. I express my sympathy with everyone that’s been impacted. A young man has lost his life, a family has suffered a tragic loss.

“I and other members of our organization were shocked and disappointed in what we’d learned, having someone in the organization that is involved in a murder investigation.”

When asked later if the Patriots were reviewing their process as far as deciding what factors should go into recruiting players, he said, “Most of those decisions have worked out. Some don’t. Overall I’m proud of the hundreds of players that have come through this program.”

A couple days beforehand, Tom Brady had broken his media silence, telling MMQB, “I’ve seen a lot of things over 13 years, and what I have learned is that mental toughness and putting aside personal agendas for what’s in the best interest of the team matters most. My job is to play quarterback, and I’m going to do that the best way I know how, because I owe that to my teammates regardless of who is out there on the field with me. I have moved on. I’m focusing on the great teammates I have who are committed to helping us win games.”

According to the prosecution’s case, Hernandez had been upset to see Lloyd, who was dating his fiancée Shayanna’s sister Shaneah Jenkins at the time, talking to some men whom he had had a falling out with. The night of the murder, Hernandez and Lloyd texted back and forth for a few hours, with the athlete saying he’d be coming to pick something up from Lloyd and Lloyd’s last text coming at 12:22 a.m. on June 17, reading, “we still on.”

Lloyd’s body was found later that morning. He had been shot five times, including in the back.

The day after Hernandez was charged, reports surfaced that he was also being investigated for a 2012 double homicide—two men were shot to death shortly after leaving a Boston bar on July 16, 2012—and authorities were speculating that Lloyd’s knowledge of events led to his murder. 

Meanwhile, by June 30, 2013, authorities had arrested the two other guys who had been with Hernandez, picking up Ernest Wallace in Florida and Carlos Ortiz in Connecticut. (Wallace was convicted last year of being an accessory to murder after the fact; Ortiz pleaded guilty to the same charge. Both had also initially faced a murder charge.)

“If this stuff is true, I’ve been duped and our whole organization has been duped,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft told the Boston Herald in early July 2013. “Here we have a guy who, man, it looks like had the world by the tail. He said to me he wanted to be a role model to the Hispanic community.”

Not as taciturn as Belichick, Kraft assured, “You can be sure we’ll be looking at all our procedures and auditing how we do things. I feel bad someone in our organization could potentially be tied to this. If it’s true I’m just shocked.”

According to various legal documents, including the search warrants, a rental company found a .45-caliber shell casing in a Nissan Altima rented to Hernandez at the time of the murder, and tire tracks consistent with the car were found near Lloyd’s body, as well as more shell casings.

Ortiz told investigators he and Wallace got to Hernandez’s house after midnight on June 17 and when the Patriots’ star tight end showed up, he had a handgun. The three of them set out to pick up Lloyd, and during the car ride Ortiz overheard what sounded like the two men squashing a beef over Lloyd “chilling with people” Hernandez had a problem with. Ortiz said he fell asleep but woke up when the car stopped. He initially told detectives that Hernandez, Wallace and Lloyd had all left the car; he heard gunshots, and then Hernandez and Wallace returned to the car, after which they all went back to Hernandez’s house. In the ensuing weeks, Ortiz would alter his story to say that only Hernandez and Lloyd left the car.

In August, TMZ obtained a handwritten letter from Hernandez in which he vowed to return to the field one day.

“I know everything happens for a reason and I know ‘GOD’ has a plan for me and something good will come out of this,” the prisoner wrote. “The world just makes things out of false accusations and it will all die down especially when they say NOT GUILTY and all the people who turned on me will feel like crap. I’ve always been a great person and known for having an amazing heart! I am a strong person and nothing will break me!”

Hernandez was formally indicted by a grand jury on Aug. 22, 2013, and he pleaded not guilty on all counts at his arraignment on Sept. 6. While awaiting trial, he was indicted on murder charges in the 2012 double homicide. The Suffolk County D.A. alleged that Hernandez, mad that one of them had spilled a drink on him at a club, pulled up next to the victims’ car and “ambushed and executed” Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado with a .38-caliber revolver. Hernandez pleaded not guilty at arraignment.

Aaron Hernandez

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On Jan. 27, 2015, Rob Gronkowski was asked at a Super Bowl XLIX media day if he had any thoughts about his former teammate, due to go on trial for murder the following day.

“Next question, please,” Gronk said.

Kraft testified at Hernandez’s trial in March 2015, telling the jury that the former Patriot had a social relationship with Lloyd, a semipro football player with the Boston Bandits, and had later told the team owner he was innocent. When the athlete saw him, “he would always hug and kiss me,” Kraft said.

Aaron Hernandez

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The gun used to murder Lloyd was never found, but photos taken from Hernandez’s home security system showed him with a handgun in the house.

Shayanna testified at trial that Hernandez asked her to throw away a box that weighed about 40 pounds, but she didn’t know what was in it; prosecutors maintained the box contained the murder weapon.

Ultimately, Hernandez’s case did not go the way of some athletes who have had their lives hang in the balance in court. On April 15, 2015, he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“It will be OK, be strong,” Hernandez said to Shayanna and the rest of his family in the court, according to reporters’ observations from the scene. He was put on suicide watch immediately after the verdict.

By May 31, 2015, Hernandez had acquired another tattoo, on his neck, reading “LIFETIME LOYALTY.”

Despite the lack of contact he had with former teammates after his arrest, Hernandez remembered them fondly, for the most part, in a letter he wrote to a female pen pal in December 2015.

Per the letter obtained by TMZ, he wrote, “I have a TV in my cell. And yes I still root for my squad and still love all the ones I love…The closest I was with was probably Brady and whom I love to death and always will and only hope for the best for them. But was cool with Julez [Julian Edelman], [Deion] Branch (I f—-d with and got mad love for) and ‘the best TE to ever walk on the football field’ Gronk!” He called Kraft a “fake ass nonloyal,” however.

During the seven-week trial in the killings of Abreu and Furtado, Hernandez was said to have been joking around with his handlers and otherwise in good spirits. When he was found not guilty of double murder last Friday, he got visibly emotional, blew kisses at his now 4-year-old daughter in the courtroom and mouthed “I love you” to his fiancée.

Five days later, he was dead.

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