FINAL LAP: Aaron Hernandez was unable to walk life’s straight and narrow

Aaron Hernandez, Wayward NFL star whose life ended in a Massachusetts prison cell, remembered by Colm Greaves.

FINAL LAP: Aaron Hernandez was unable to walk life’s straight and narrow

There is a nice little American tradition where the champions of the sporting year visit the White House for a courtesy call with the incumbent President. Since Aaron Hernandez was first arrested for murder his ex-football club, the New England Patriots, have twice made that trip.

The first time was in 2015 following their narrow win over the Seattle Seahawks and last week they were invited to meet with Trump to celebrate their historic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in early February when they overturned a 25-point third- quarter deficit to win in overtime.

On the day the Patriots met the President, April 19, their former team-mate Hernandez, one of the finest NFL tight-ends of recent years, had a darker purpose in mind.

At 8pm the previous evening he was locked into his prison cell for the night at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts. Sometime after that he wedged cardboard into the crack at the bottom of his cell door in a premeditated effort to stall any prison officer that tried to disturb his plan.

He inked in red the citation ‘John 3:16’ onto his forehead, wrote three personal letters and placed them carefully next to his bedside Bible.

At 3.03am the following morning he was found hanging from a bed sheet attached to a window in his cell and pronounced dead an hour later. He was just 27 years of age and his death certificate states he committed suicide by asphyxiation.

Aaron Hernandez’s journey to this grim destiny began in 1989 in the city of Bristol Connecticut, born one of two brothers to a Puerto Rican father and Italian mother. His father Denis passed away during a routine hernia operation when Aaron was 16 years old and his son struggled badly to come to terms with the death of a parent that he idolised.

According to his older brother Jonathon, the loss hung heavily on his younger siblings. “I saw a kid who was devastated,” he said. “I think he was confused. He was lost. He cried, but crying is not always the answer, but for him to put up a wall during the services. . . it was shocking to me.”

This impression is endorsed by their mother Terri. “He would rebel. It was very, very hard, and he was very, very angry. He wasn’t the same kid, the way he spoke to me. The shock of losing his dad, there was so much anger.”

Without the strength and guidance of his father, he drifted into drug abuse and gravitated to the company of a street gang known as the ‘Bristol Bloods’ who were notorious and feared in the city for their acts of extreme and senseless violence.

Despite this, he was such a talented athlete his high school football career thrived. In his final year, he was Connecticut’s player of the year and considered nationally as the top tight-end recruit for the 2007 college draft.

He chose to join the University of Florida ‘Gators’ and by the end of his third year in their hometown of Gainesville he ranked as the country’s top college tight-end and was named in the ‘All-American’ squad. Rather than complete his degree he decided to run for the money and made himself eligible for the professional draft at the end of year three.

He was signed by the New England Patriots but only in the fourth round and at a lowly pick of 113th overall.

Alarm bells had already begun to ring in pro football circles. This was a remarkably low draft pick for a player who had achieved such national prominence but such were the growing concerns around his character and lifestyle many clubs, even those that craved a good tight end, chose to pass him up.

By then word had spread he was known to be a person of interest to police in a double shooting three years earlier and he had recently admitted to perforating a man’s eardrum during a fight.

In his initial contract the Patriots were cautious enough to time-phase much of his signing bonus into the future and if he was to collect he would ‘walk the straight and narrow line to do so’. It was a line that proved to be elusive throughout his short but shiny professional career.

He was the youngest player on any team roster in his rookie year (2010). In year two he became a regular starter, setting several personal and team records and helped the Patriots reach the Super Bowl (loss to Giants, 21-17).

The value of his contribution can be measured in the numbers offered to him in a contract extension at the start of the 2012 season. The $12.5 million signing bonus was the highest ever awarded to a tight end and this was in addition to a $40 million salary he would collect over the next five years.

His third season was injury hit and ended with a loss to Baltimore in the AFC Championship game in 2013. It was the last NFL game he ever played.

Outside those neat white lines of an American football pitch his life had spiraled into deeply violent criminality. The charge sheet is long and complex — some highlights: Brawling in his first weeks at university.

Arrested and questioned in relation to an incident in Gainesville where two men had been shot in their car. Sued by Alexander Bradley for shooting him in the face at a strip club. Arrested in Rhode Island for involvement in a night club fight.

Convicted for the murder of his friend Odin Lloyd who was found dead in an industrial park about a mile from Hernandez’ house. Charged with the murder of two men in a drive-by shooting outside a Boston nightclub. Guilty of possession of a handgun.

At the time of his death, Hernandez was serving life without parole for the Odin Lloyd murder. During their investigation of that case, police found evidence that linked him to the drive-by murders in 2012.

The alleged motive was that he had felt disrespected when one of the men bumped into him and spilled his drink at a Boston nightclub. He was found not guilty just a week before his death but did have five years added to his life sentence for possession of an illegal weapon related to the crime.

His family is refusing to accept the suicide verdict.

Years of litigation will follow on many aspects of the case, but one of his families first priorities is to have the Massachusetts law of “abatement ab initio” invoked. This deems an accused person innocent if they die before their criminal legal process completes.

Hernandez had appealed his conviction for the Lloyd murder and the case had not concluded.

Ironically for Aaron Hernandez he can now rest as a man innocent of murder.

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