Aaron Hernandez has died at 27 years old of an apparent suicide while serving a life sentence in prison. No note was found, but no note would be long enough, anyway. No note could explain the difference between the life he inexplicably chose and the one he could have lived. We may never know why Hernandez killed himself, but I believe this: In the end, he wanted to be the person he used to be, but he knew he could no longer live that person’s life.
Hernandez leaves behind his daughter, his fiancée, his brother, his mother and a question that may haunt them all: Why? This is not just the painful question of why Hernandez hung himself with a bed-sheet in his prison cell. Why was he even there?
Hernandez was convicted of one murder. Prosecutors believe he committed at least three. Some of his close friends and family wonder if he committed any. But what nobody could ever fully explain was why.
Sure, motives were floated for the murders of Odin Lloyd, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado: anger over a spilled drink, a secret that got out, a score to settle. The motives may have been real, but they were also thin: Who murders two people over a spilled drink?
Many people have tried to understand Hernandez’s life, but nobody could really make sense of it. He was a loving son and a convicted murderer. He played joyfully with children and hung out with drug dealers. He was brilliant when it came to understanding football schemes or his market value, but foolish enough to be convicted, in part, because of a home-security system that he installed. Some coaches thought he was a sweetheart and others saw him as a master manipulator. So many of Aaron Hernandez’s acquaintances couldn’t figure out who he was, and maybe that’s because, for a long time, neither could he.
The public image of Hernandez, propagated by prosecutors and certain journalists, was that he was a gangster. Look closer, and you see a guy acting like a gangster. Real gangsters are seeking something: power, territory, money, sex. Hernandez did not get any of those out of his gangster life. He didn’t even seem to be looking for them.
Keep going down the usual list of motivations: Loyalty to the people above him? No. Nobody in Hernandez’s group of friends was above him. A path out of poverty? No again. Hernandez was incredibly wealthy man when Lloyd was murdered.
Rough childhood? That doesn’t fit either. The truth is that dozens of very successful NFL players had tougher childhoods than Hernandez. Other kids in Bristol, Conn. would hang out in gyms even when they weren’t playing a game because they didn’t want to go home. Aaron would happily go home to a family that loved him.
Hernandez was searching for something after his father Dennis died suddenly when Aaron was in high school. Dennis went into the hospital for what was supposed to be a simple hernia operation and never walked out. At the funeral, his brother D.J. (who now goes by Jonathan) looked over. He saw a kid who was, in D.J.’s words, “holding everything in.” Teens whose parents die suddenly are at high risk for both depression and post-tramautic stress disorder. As far as I know, Aaron Hernandez was never diagnosed with either, but he wasn’t seeking a diagnosis, either. All we know is that something inside him changed.
He had been a giddy younger brother who laughed at Tim Allen in The Santa Clause or Martin Lawrence in Blue Streak; the one who would try to bring a smile to the saddest person in class. He started gravitating toward the neediest people, as though pleasing them would fill his own void. One of them, Carlos Ortiz, was once like Hernandez: athletic, ebullient, easy to love. One of Aaron’s friends, Stephen Ziogas, told me that when Ortiz was in his early teens, his mother left. Ortiz spent days bouncing around Connecticut towns, hoping to find her.
Ortiz, known as Charlie Boy, would be a witness to the murder of Odin Lloyd.
Hernandez had a way out—he went to the University of Florida first, and then to the NFL. But it was never enough for him. He could not turn away from the wrong crowd, and if you hang out with the wrong crowd for long enough, you become the wrong crowd. Put drugs in his system, add the unresolved anger and devastation from his father’s death, and put a gun in his hands … maybe you get closer to why. Maybe.
Last summer, I sent Hernandez a letter. He knew I had been spending time with his brother, and he had expressed some hope that I would get his story right (though what “right” meant to him, I can’t say.) He had responded to other letters, from fans or strangers. There seemed to be a reasonable chance that he would respond to mine.
I understood I could only take the questions so far if I wanted a response; asking what happened the night of the murders would be fruitless. I realized, shortly after I mailed it, that I had doomed my chances. Along with a few straightforward questions about his life in prison, I asked why his brother’s recent visit had been designated as non-contact. There were reports of a prison fight and a punishment, but I wanted to hear his side.
Hernandez was not going to answer that. There was no way to finesse it with a wink and a smile. Hernandez had finally found himself in situations he couldn’t manipulate. He did not testify at his trials. He told his family he was not guilty, but seemed to prefer to avoid any details that would make him look innocent.
In prison, he read the Harry Potter books and learned to play chess and (one presumes) had to give up marijuana after smoking it daily. But he was still incarcerated for life. It’s hard to be a father to a little girl who can only visit you in prison at designated times. Hernandez was surrounded by men he had pretended to be. He did not want to pretend any more.
Hernandez died at 27, the same age as Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. He will not be remembered as they are, of course, for obvious reasons. Some will remember him as a cold-blooded murderer, a wasted talent, or a monster. To them, the “why?” doesn’t matter.
But there was a time, before you ever heard of Aaron Hernandez, when he was just a boy in elementary school, pulling his Drew Bledsoe or Emmitt Smith jersey out of his backpack at lunchtime so he and his brother could take all comers on the playground and impress girls. Aaron always excelled at sports, except for that time in sixth grade when he tried running cross-country. His big, strong frame was not suited for it, and he didn’t enjoy it. He was not built for long-distance running.