In the summer of 2013, Aaron Hernandez lived in a 7,100-square-foot, four-story mansion in the Boston exurbs, a 20-minute drive away from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., where he played football for the New England Patriots with rare agility and striking versatility.
Just a year earlier, the team had rewarded him with a lucrative contract extension, $12.5 million up front. He told reporters he was a changed man, different from the 20-year-old whose off-field incidents at the University of Florida had raised concerns about his character. He had just proposed to his girlfriend, Shayanna, who was pregnant with their first child, a baby girl they would name Avielle. He was 23 years old, handsome and rich, settling down and growing up. He had everything.
Early Wednesday morning, correctional officers found Hernandez’s limp body hanging from a bedsheet affixed to a window inside a prison cell inside Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass. The state said he jammed the door shut from the inside, to buy an extra few minutes in case anyone tried to keep him from dying. Hernandez was 27, and he had lost it all.
For as long as sports have occupied a central place in American culture, athletes have experienced dizzying, public falls from grace. None has come as swiftly and stunningly as Hernandez’s. In February 2012, Hernandez caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. Five years and a couple months later, he died in a single-person cell in a maximum-security prison. In between, he signed a $40 million contract and, in April 2015, was convicted for the murder of Odin Lloyd, a friend and semi-professional football player.
A man who grew up in Bristol, Conn., became a star in Gainesville, Fla., and reached the pinnacle of his sport died alone in Massachusetts, serving a life sentence without parole, as Prisoner W106228.
Wednesday morning, hours before his former team visited the White House to celebrate another Super Bowl victory, those close to Hernandez expressed shock.
“There were no conversations or correspondence from Aaron to his family or legal team that would have indicated anything like this was possible,” said Jose Baez, Hernandez’s attorney. “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.”
His football agent, Brian Murphy, rejected the notion Hernandez killed himself. “Absolutely no chance he took his own life,” Murphy wrote on Twitter.
Hernandez, though, had grown expert at living a double life, disguising dark impulses underneath a charming veneer.
His downfall traces from the start of his rise. His father, Dennis, died from complications from a routine hernia operation when Hernandez was 16. Hernandez had become a nationally coveted recruit at Bristol Central High. Hernandez’s mother eventually remarried to an ex-con, and Hernandez fell in with a rough crowd.
“He was very, very angry,” his mother, Terri Hernandez, told USA Today in 2009. “He wasn’t the same kid, the way he spoke to me. The shock of losing his dad, there was so much anger.”
The tumult could not prevent Hernandez from graduating a semester early to start practicing at Florida. He contributed instantly on a national championship contender led by quarterback Tim Tebow. He found stardom on the field and trouble off it. A 2007 fight at an off-campus bar ended with Hernandez breaking a man’s jaw. Gators coaches worried about trips Hernandez made home and the guests who would show up on weekends of home games.
“He was really intelligent, and that’s why he was such a pain in the” butt, a former University of Florida staffer told NFL.com in 2014. “He knew how to beat the system on everything.”
Then-Florida coach Urban Meyer still recommended Hernandez to his friend Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach, with a caveat: Keep your eye on him. Multiple NFL teams removed Hernandez from consideration on their draft boards. One NFL scouting service, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2013, found Hernandez was “living on the edge of acceptable behavior” and could be “a problem.”
The concerns pushed Hernandez, widely regarded as a top talent, to the fourth round. The Patriots scooped him up, looking for a bargain. For three seasons, they had one. Hernandez formed a nearly unstoppable tandem with fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski. In the playoffs of his final season, the Patriots deployed Hernandez as a running back in a no-huddle scheme opponents were helpless to defend.
On the surface, Hernandez had overcome the concerns that followed him out of Florida. When the Patriots signed him to the $40 million contract in August 2012, he expressed gratitude toward the Patriots and donated $50,000 to a charity owner Robert Kraft had started to honor his late wife, Myra.
“You get changed by Bill Belichick’s way,” Hernandez said. “And you get changed by the Patriots way. And now that I’m a Patriot, I have to start living like one and making the right decisions for them.”
About six weeks earlier, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado were driving a BMW on a Boston overpass when an SUV occupied by Hernandez and Alexander Bradley pulled next to them. Someone in the SUV fired a volley of bullets, killing de Abreu and Furtado. Though the state later would argue Hernandez had pulled the trigger, authorities would not connect Hernandez with the murders for another year, and he played the 2012 season as if nothing had happened.
Signs of trouble surfaced that winter. At the league’s draft combine in Indianapolis, Hernandez told Belichick he believed his life was in danger, according to an interview Hernandez lawyer Ronald Sullivan Jr. gave Monday on Boston radio station WEEI. Hernandez asked Belichick to trade him, so he could distance himself from Bradley. Belichick, according to Sullivan, told Hernandez he couldn’t trade him, but the Patriots could help with security and recommend Hernandez keep a low profile.
“The Patriots did recommend apartments in other areas that were close enough for him to get back-and-forth from work,” Sullivan told WEEI. “ . . . And in the offseason, he’d be out of state some place.”
In June 2013, Lloyd’s body was found in a gravelly field about a mile away from Hernandez’s North Attleboro, Mass., mansion. Nine days later, authorities charged Hernandez with the murder.
During the 76-day trial, Hernandez displayed vestiges of his athletic swagger. He would saunter into the courtroom, wink at family members and fist-bump his attorneys.
On April 15, 2015, a jury found Hernandez guilty based on circumstantial evidence. He sat down and appeared to mouth, “unreal.” He shook his head, licked his lips and held his chin up. An officer handcuffed his tattooed hands together and led him out of the courtroom.
Hernandez disappeared from public view until this month, when the state tried him for the 2012 double murder of de Abreu and Furtado. Baez described him as a “happy-go-lucky guy” and ultimately won him acquittal, conceding that Hernandez was present during the shootings but arguing that Bradley was the killer.
His fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, continued to show up in court. She showed Hernandez immense loyalty, taking his name even though they never married. Last week, Jenkins-Hernandez brought Avielle, now 4, to court. Hernandez smiled upon seeing his daughter and blew her three kisses from across the courtroom. It would be the final time she saw her father.
A legal technicality redeemed Hernandez, at least for the record, in death. Because he had not exhausted his appeals, the murder conviction against him will be vacated under a Massachusetts legal principle that dates to pre-Revolutionary times. He died, in the eyes of the state, an innocent man.
“Juries have such tremendous power,” said Norm Pattis, a Connecticut lawyer who conferred with Hernandez after his conviction for the Lloyd murder. “He heard two words — [not guilty] — last week. If those words had been uttered in the first trial, it would have resulted in his freedom. I can imagine him thinking, ‘What if? What if? What if?’ And sitting there thinking that in a box the state of Massachusetts expects him to die in. I’m sure it was regret.”
Nobody knows exactly what Hernandez thought in his final moments. Not so long ago, he was a man who had everything and who, in the end, was reduced to nothing.