Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 20, 2017

A Story Without Heroes, An Ending Without Justice

So the tragic story ends the only way it could, which is tragically. Whatever opinion one might have held about Aaron Hernandez, either while he was playing for the New England Patriots for three years and heard the cheers of the faithful at Gillette Stadium, or after that stage of his life abruptly ended with his arrest and subsequent conviction for the murder of Odin Lloyd in 2013, one had no reason to cheer the grim report that Hernandez hanged himself in his cell at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Massachusetts, a small town fifty miles northwest of Boston. It was the final pathetic headline wrenched from a life of great promise and ultimately far greater pain.

Most people know Bristol, Connecticut as the home of ESPN, and the Hartford suburb made Money Magazine’s list of “Best Places to Live” a few years back. But like any city of size, it has its share of rougher elements and harder neighborhoods. Growing up in Bristol, Hernandez was shielded from his home town’s underbelly by a fiercely protective father. Dennis Hernandez had dabbled in petty crime as a young man before going straight after he married. From all accounts he was determined that his two sons would lead more virtuous lives. But in 2006 Dennis Hernandez died unexpectedly from complications of what should have been a routine hernia operation.

That familial calamity, the first tragedy in Aaron Hernandez’s story, marked a turning point for the teenager who was already setting records as a member of the Bristol Central High School football team. Soon he was hanging out with local drug dealers and thugs. But he managed to avoid getting into personal trouble until after he was recruited by the University of Florida, then coached by Urban Meyer.

Despite the best efforts of Meyer and the rest of the Gators’ coaching staff – at one point quarterback Tim Tebow was assigned to mentor Hernandez – trouble soon found the teenager who was far from home. Hernandez got into a fight at an off-campus bar, and reportedly failed multiple drug tests. While no charges were ever filed, as a junior he was at the scene of a street shooting. One of his criminal friends from Bristol showed up in Gainesville, ready to act as Hernandez’s muscle.

On the field he led the Gators in catches, was named a first team All-American and won the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end. It was a resume that should have made Hernandez a first round draft pick, but NFL scouting reports made note of his troubles off the field. When he entered the 2010 NFL Draft after his junior season club after club passed on the chance to claim a player of such obvious ability. Finally on the draft’s third and final day New England took Hernandez in the fourth round. The player honored as the best at his position in the country was the sixth tight end to be drafted, the one hundred thirteenth selection overall.

But at least Hernandez had been drafted; and though he was given a smaller than normal signing bonus for a fourth round pick, on the field he quickly made the Patriots decision to go where other clubs would not look like a wise investment. The youngest active player on an NFL roster in his rookie year, Hernandez ended the season with well over five hundred receiving yards and six touchdowns. A year later his regular season numbers were even better, and he added the longest run of that year’s playoffs in the Divisional round as well as a touchdown in New England’s losing effort in Super Bowl XLVI.

Prior to the 2012 season the Patriots rewarded Hernandez with a $40 million contract extension that included a $12.5 million signing bonus, the largest for a tight end in league history. To Patriots fans it must have seemed that the high-risk draft choice had finally left his troubled past and shady Bristol friends behind.

Less than one year later those fans would learn that happy image was an illusion. Rather than extricating himself from the clutches of his hometown gangsters he embraced them. Rather than leave his days of drug use behind he began getting high on a daily basis. On June 17, 2013, 27-year old Odin Lloyd was gunned down in an industrial area of North Attleborough, not far from Hernandez’s home. A semi-pro football player, Lloyd had been dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancée, and had been seen partying with the star receiver. The next day police searched Hernandez’s home. A week later he was taken into custody, and less than two hours later the Patriots terminated his contract.

At the time team owner Robert Kraft said that he had been “duped” by Hernandez. But in truth Kraft and the rest of New England’s management had deluded themselves by thinking they could change or control Hernandez, something that thirty-one other teams had concluded was far too risky.

It took more than a year and a half for the case to come to trial, and more than two months for the prosecution and defense to complete their offerings to the jury. After substantial evidence placing Hernandez at the murder scene was admitted, the defense in its closing conceded that he had been present, but only as an unwilling witness to Lloyd’s execution-style killing. Although much of the prosecution’s case was circumstantial and despite the murder weapon never being uncovered, Hernandez was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

At the same time Boston authorities were investigating the 2012 double murder of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, two Cape Verdean immigrants who had been seen arguing with Hernandez and his group at a club shortly before someone opened fire on their car in the streets of Dorchester. Just a month after his conviction in the Lloyd case, Hernandez was indicted for murdering de Abreu and Furtado.

The five week trial in that case started at the beginning of March. The key witness was a former Hernandez associate with a lengthy criminal record who testified under a grant of immunity. Defense attorney Jose Baez attacked the witness, Alexander Bradley, as a liar and a “parasite.”  In the end the jury acquitted Hernandez of first degree murder, but found him guilty of illegal possession of the firearm that was the murder weapon. The mixed verdict suggested to many that with premeditated murder their only option the jurors simply couldn’t get past the reasonable doubt standard that protects every criminal defendant. Less than a week after hearing the words “not guilty” in court, Hernandez took his own life as Tuesday night gave way to Wednesday morning.

From the “Rocky” franchise to “Rudy” and “The Blind Side” and even “Tin Cup,” Hollywood loves to make movies about the redemptive power of sports; tales of how our games allow athletes to overcome adversity or personal demons. But real life is more complicated, and in the real life story of Aaron Hernandez there is no redemption. Since his conviction in the Lloyd murder was still under appeal and thus technically not final, Massachusetts law allows it to be vacated. If that happens Hernandez will be no less dead, but he will have died innocent in the eyes of the law. Innocent like the three victims for whom there will now never be justice. Only death and grieving families, and the body of an athlete who threw away his promise, hanging by a bed sheet in a jail cell in the darkest hour of the night.

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