On October 21, 2012, I went to Gillette Stadium for my first ever Patriots game, and first ever NFL game. It was awesome! The tailgating scene was impressive, the crowd was excellent, and the game was outstanding. The Pats played the Jets. They trailed their long time rivals by three late in the game before Tom Brady drove the team into field goal range, Gostowski kicked the equalizer, and the Patriots won in overtime on another Gostowski field goal and Rob Ninkovich sacking Mark Sanchez, forcing a fumble, and recovering it in the same play. I enjoyed the day. Today though, I’m not thinking of that excellent game.
Before the game, I bought my first Patriots shirt. I wanted a little different name on my shirt and I wanted to show a little Connecticut love. So I bought an Aaron Hernandez shirt. He is from Bristol, CT. Then June 26 of the following year arrived and I regretted my decision. He was arrested that day for the murder of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd. When that happened, I watched in shock as one of the best players in football was taken away in handcuffs. I didn’t think he would’ve done it. I then looked into Hernandez’s history and the case itself; I found plenty of reason to be skeptical of Hernandez’s claim of innocence. I also was saddened watching this talent get completely wasted.
He grew up in Bristol, CT, and was one of the best high school tight ends in the country. He originally committed to the University of Connecticut to play with his brother, DJ. He changed his mind and went to the University of Florida instead. Under coach Urban Meyer, Hernandez developed into one of the best collegiate tight ends of the decade. He starred on one of the best college teams ever assembled. He caught passes from Tim Tebow, blocked alongside Mike and Maurkice Pouncy, was flanked by Percy Hardin and Riley Cooper for receiving work, and was backed up by Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins on the defensive side. Yet his time in Gainesville is known more for his legal issues.
Hernandez failed multiple drug tests and gained the reputation for being a guy who’d skirt the rules for a little enjoyment. However, there were two other major episodes that color him poorly. In April of 2007, Hernandez was in Gainesville and went out to a bar. He was 17 years old, consumed two alcoholic drinks, and refused to pay the bill. He was escorted up out by an employee, and Hernandez punched him so hard he ruptured the employee’s eardrum. He was arrested and charged with a felony battery charge. The matter was settled out of court with a differed prosecution agreement. Later that year, in September, Justin Glass and Corey Smith were injured when they were shot at on a street corner after just leaving a night club. Their friend Randall Carson, who was in the car and not injured, claimed that the shooter was a Hawaiian or Hispanic man with a large build and many tattoos. Hernandez invoked his right for counsel on the issue and was never charged.
While he wasn’t hit for either of these incidents, Hernandez gained a reputation as a supremely gifted player but with a checkered past. If any organization could handle him, it probably would be a well run one like the Patriots. New England drafted him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, two rounds after the team picked Arizona’s Rob Gronkowski. The team had the best tight end tandem in the league and rode their two acquisitions to a 39-9 record over the next three seasons and a trip to Super Bowl 46. Hernandez became the most dependable receiver on the Patriots roster with Gronk’s injuries and Wes Welker’s ability to drop major passes.
Unfortunately for him, the Patriots, and many others, things took a horrible turn for the worst. In July 2012, Daniel Jorge Correia de Abreu and Safiro Teixeira Furtado were killed in the South End of Boston. Hernandez was indicted on these murders in 2014. He was acquitted of these on April 14th of this year. But even that is not the most damning story against Hernandez.
On June 17th, 2013, Boston Bandit’s semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd was out at a night club and crossed Hernandez. Lloyd was dating Shaneah Jenkins, sister of Hernandez’s fiancee at the time. Whatever he said or did, it meant the end for him. Hernandez unloaded ten bullets into Lloyd, killing him. His body was discovered the next day and an investigation began. On June 26th, Hernandez was arrested on a count of first degree murder, one count of carrying a firearm without a license, two counts of possessing a large-capacity firearm and two counts of possessing a firearm without a firearm identification card.
The Patriots released him from his contract with the team and owner Robert Kraft was stunned. He admitted that Hernandez had been a model Patriot, arriving early for work, practicing long and hard, building a strong repor with Tom Brady, and getting on Bil Belichek’s good side. Hernandez could diagram plays on a whiteboard as well as anyone and was a phenomenal football player and mind. He seemed to be exactly the perfect Patriot. But when he left the building, Hernandez refused to give up the dangerous life of the streets. He found some pleasure in the drugs, gang life, and was able to hide that under the veneer of playing for the most succesful NFL organization of the day. I went from a fan of his and owning his shirt to getting rid of it and turning the Patriots logo on the front of it into a part of a quilt I still own. I wasn’t alone in my removal of Hernandez kit. All Patriots fans did similarly to me.
After a long trial, Hernandez was found guilty of first degree murder on April 15, 2015. Massachusetts has removed the death penalty from its potential sentences, so Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. He was acquitted of the double murder charges in South Boston only five days ago. But apparently Hernandez did not believe it worthwhile to continue his life. In the early hours of this morning, April 19th, Hernandez was found in his prison cell, dead. He had hung himself using his cell’s window and his bedsheets. How depressingly appropriate that the Patriots visited the White House today in honor of their Super Bowl win this year.
Everything about the story of Aaron Hernandez is sad. He came from a rough background, showed remarkable athletic talent, stayed on the streets in his mind, and lost his position as a reliable pass catcher for the best quarterback in the history of football because he was accustomed to gangster life. Hernandez is the most tragically wasted athletic talent of my lifetime. We saw what he could do and how he could contribute to a high level football team. We also saw how far into depravity a human being can fall. Lloyd was brutally killed over a meaningless dispute that stil remains murky to passersby. The brutal murder was capped with the most depressing way for someone to die: suicide. No one can condone or protect Hernandez for his actions. But any jokes about him committing suicide are unnecessary and crude. No one deserves that fate.
It is a depressingly appropriate ending to the most tragic sports story of my lifetime. I can only pray that some good comes of it for someone who knows the story and decides that the street life is not worth it.