What happened overnight in a jail cell in Shirley, Mass., can’t easily be characterized as a tragedy. A convicted killer taking his own life won’t elicit much sympathy from the public, and quite honestly it shouldn’t. Maybe Aaron Hernandez’s death brings some measure of peace to the families of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, who were denied that peace when Hernandez was acquitted last week on charges of double murder. Maybe Hernandez’s death brings closure to the family of Odin Lloyd.
And there are people close to Hernandez—most notably his four-year-old daughter—who did nothing to deserve to go through all this.
As for Hernandez himself, I think back to a February night in 2013 when I had dinner with him at a steakhouse in Indianapolis during the combine. I think about the truth of why he was there to talk to his then-coach, Bill Belichick, and about the way we treat athletes in this country.
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And I think of the question that as Boston native, I get most regarding Aaron Hernandez: How much did the Patriots know?
It’s a question I can’t answer with a ton of certainty.
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The Patriots’ then-star tight end was in Indy in February 2013 to tell Belichick he was going to spend the bulk of the coming months rehabbing his shoulder in California, rather than Massachusetts. Hernandez told me he was doing so to be closer to Tom Brady, who was spending the offseason in Los Angeles. It was only after Lloyd’s murder four months later that I found out that was far from the whole story.
I later discovered what Hernandez’s lawyer, Ronald Sullivan, detailed on WEEI radio in Boston earlier this week. Hernandez told Belichick that day in Indy that, at the very least, he needed to stay away from Foxboro because the heat was on back home in Connecticut. Hernandez broached the idea of a trade to get him out of the area. Belichick told Hernandez he couldn’t trade him but offered to help with security measures.
This is the way it’s always been with Hernandez.
The story goes that when he was a kid, his dad, Dennis, did all he could to shield his two sons from some of his unscrupulous friends in Bristol, Conn. When Dennis died suddenly after hernia surgery in 2006, D.J., the older brother, was already on his way to UConn on a football scholarship. But Aaron was still in high school, and those people from whom Dennis had tried to protect his kids gravitated toward the budding star athlete.
At Florida, Hernandez’s coaches knew what lurked back in his hometown and tried to keep him in Gainesville during breaks in the school calendar. They’d get nervous during weekends of home games when the element they’d feared would turn up. In 2007 Hernandez was involved in a violent altercation at a campus bar and was connected to a shooting in Gainesville, both incidents that were later part of his murder investigation.
After the 2010 draft I’d reported for the Boston Globe that one reason Hernandez fell to the fourth round was a string of failed drug tests. I included Hernandez’s side of the story, which was that only one failed test was on the books. The Patriots later put out a statement on Hernandez’s behalf reinforcing the latter assertion, though it was a known twisting of facts and the drug tests were only a fraction of the story.
As I understand it, Florida coach Urban Meyer’s advice to Belichick in 2010 went like this: You have to stay on top of him, because of the people who have been around him. Hernandez’s brother was coaching in Connecticut at the time and was hired at Brown in early 2011. That helped, so much so that Belichick later helped D.J. get a job with his old assistant Kirk Ferentz at Iowa.
Few knew that Aaron Hernandez’s life was in chaos again. I doubt Belichick did, and the Kraft family certainly didn’t, or they wouldn’t have signed off on the five-year, $40 million extension the team gave Hernandez six weeks after de Abreu and Furtado were killed and 10 months before Lloyd’s murder. Hernandez was convicted in the latter case, exonerated in the former, but was clearly on the scene for each of the slayings.
How did so many people miss everything that was happening? To be sure, it’s far too simplistic to say that the talent blinded everyone.
Both at Florida and in Foxboro, Hernandez had one of the defining qualities of a sociopath. As one coach of his whom I know well described him, “He’s the most talented liar I’ve ever been around.” As such, he could move as smoothly with guys in the financial district in Boston as he could with the people on the street in his hometown, something that facilitated the double life he was able to lead.
He was very much a chameleon.
But his remarkable gifts played a role, too. At every level of football, and in any big-money sport, athletic ability fuels second chances, and Hernandez’s unique talent—at one point he was seen as more integral to the New England offense than Rob Gronkowski—afforded him so many of those. Beyond that, it made those who coached and employed him want to believe he was finally turning his life around.
So the Florida coaches shielded him and tried to shelter him. So the Patriots coaches attempted to give him the right environment and hoped he could grow through it. So, time and again, his problems were managed, rather than truly confronted.
So a bad man ran wild living a double life.
And this is where I admit I fell for it, too.
* * *
I was there the night in Foxboro in August 2012 when Hernandez’s voice trembled as he talked about the chance the Krafts had taken on him with his contract extension. In the wake of his new deal, he’d written a $50,000 check to the Myra Kraft Giving Back Fund, and Robert Kraft responded by saying, “I just think he’s a super player and a first-class guy.”
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It wasn’t as if I was friends with Hernandez, but I felt comfortable enough with him after that season to have my fiancée (now wife) meet him at Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans and then again a month later at golf tournament. To everyone, this was a great story of redemption, and a man who’d moved past his problems.
I had no idea who de Abreu or Furtado were, though their murders had happened just a few blocks from the apartment we were living in Boston’s Back Bay. Nor had I ever heard of Alexander Bradley, shot in the eye (allegedly by Hernandez) in the weeks between that Super Bowl and the golf tournament where we met Hernandez.
Naturally, now, you retrace all of those experiences and look for signs. On Wednesday morning, after news broke of Hernandez’s suicide, I texted someone who knew Hernandez well and asked if he was surprised. He answered, “Not one bit,” saying that because of Hernandez’s personality, he “wasn’t going to sit in jail the whole time.”
But plenty of other people, myself included, were surprised. A few months after that night in Indy, I thought back to how Hernandez had his hood pulled over his head during dinner at Mo’s Steakhouse, and kept looking around. At the time I figured he was just a little distracted. Remember, I bought the story that he’d turned his life around, bought it hook, line and sinker.
Little did I, or most of us, know what was really going on.
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