After former NFL player Aaron Hernandez was found dead in his prison cell, the sports world renewed its conversation about the life Hernandez threw away — including the $41 million contract and the success at the pinnacle of professional sports.

But reflecting on his stunning spiral that ended in his death, Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe said Hernandez’s troubles were more a product of the life he couldn’t give up.

“Once you reach a certain level, once you reach a professional athlete status, a lot of guys leave that [life] behind; Aaron Hernandez could not,” Sharpe said on “Undisputed,” the show he co-hosts with Skip Bayless on FS1. “He could not. He was not a studio gangster. He was a for-real gang member, and that was a part of him.

“That was equally as important to him as playing in the National Football League for the New England Patriots. He had it tatted on his neck, I think he had ‘Lifetime Loyalty’ tatted on his neck while he was incarcerated, serving the life sentence.”

Sharpe said Hernandez was “very talented and special,” possessing skills that were evident even as he backed up Rob Gronkowski on the Patriots.

Former NFL star Aaron Hernandez was found dead inside his prison cell in an apparent suicide on April 19, according to the Massachusetts state Department of Corrections. (Reuters)

[From the archives: Inmate No. 174954 spends his days in a 10-by-7-foot cell]

“In 2011, Rob Gronkowski set an NFL record for receiving yards and touchdowns by an NFL tight end. He had 90 catches, over 1,300 yards, he had 17 total touchdowns,” said Sharpe, a standout tight end himself. “That very year, Aaron Hernandez had 79 catches for over 900 yards and seven touchdowns. . . . He did this as a backup.”

Sharpe said he believed Hernandez “could have been really, really all-time-great special. He possessed that kind of ability.”

But even in college, Hernandez was frequently connected to crime and violence. In 2007, he punched a restaurant employee in the side of the head after drinking, underage, at a bar in Gainesville, according to the Boston Globe. He was also implicated, but never arrested or charged, in a drive-by shooting in Gainesville; The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Hernandez was recently cleared of involvement in the Florida shooting.

Although Hernandez thrived on Florida’s 2008 national championship team, his problems off the field hurt his NFL draft stock. He was a college all-American with first-round talents who wasn’t selected until the fourth round.

Two years later, he led the Patriots with eight receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI — a 21-17 victory by the New York Giants — and the team rewarded his success with a $41 million contract extension that summer.

But between July 2012 and June 2013, he was charged with three murders. He was convicted of one and sentenced to life in prison.

[Aaron Hernandez smiles, blows kisses to his daughter as jury deliberates]

Last week, he was acquitted of a drive-by shooting on the south side of Boston that left two men dead.

Bayless said the repeated connection with criminal activity was at odds with Hernandez’s reputation as a player with a high IQ and a strong work ethic.

“Even as a Patriot, by all accounts he was come early, stay late. He practiced as hard as anybody. He hit the weight room as hard as anybody. He also led this secret life harder than anybody. . . . In the end, he turned back into who most people thought he would be.”

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