Aaron Hernandez could have been an NFL great.
Aaron Hernandez could have been an NFL great.

Perfect storm transformed NFL star into a killer

WHAT can turn an NFL star into a convicted murderer?

From the outside, former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez was living the all-American dream - an NFL star who went close to a Super Bowl ring in one of the best sporting franchises in the world, a showy house, a devoted fiancee and a young daughter.

He even signed a seven-year $40 million contract ($A58 million) contract to be one of the stars of one this generation's greatest sporting dynasties on the back of quarterback Tom Brady.

But the darkness that followed the troubled star's life quickly brought the idyllic facade crashing down around him.

Since Hernandez's suicide in prison in 2017 after his conviction for the murder of Odin Lloyd and acquittal for the double murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, the story has become an oddity that has captured the world's attention.

In Netflix's new three-part documentary Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, the star's troubled life and death is laid bare.

While his motives remain unknown, the documentary paints a picture of a tragic man struggling with violent impulses, exacerbated by his compromised mental state through brain trauma, and battling with confusion over his sexuality.

 

'THE KING' IS DEAD

Hernandez grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, with his mother Terri, father Dennis and brother DJ but he lived far from the perfect suburban life. His parents were remembered to be constantly fighting and at times it could turn violent. Hernandez said there was constant fighting in his family home.

While the Netflix documentary doesn't play up the violence, DJ admitted in an interview that Dennis could drink too much and could be abusive. In his book, DJ remembers a day where Terri hit Dennis with a phone and he responded by smashing her head against the sink until she fell unconscious.

The Boston Globe reported the boys were also beaten by their father, but also looked up to him. Dennis, who was known as "the King" from his football days, pushed both Aaron and DJ into sport, following in his footsteps, having played for the University of Connecticut in the 1970s.

But arguably the biggest moment in Aaron's relationship with his father came in January 2006, when Dennis suddenly died after complications from a hernia operation.

Family friend Stephen Ziogas, who grew up playing football with Aaron, said the death hit the then 16-year-old hard.

"Aaron really aspired to be like Dennis," he said in the documentary. "He was strict on his sons but he was good about letting them know when they were slipping up and letting them know they were doing something great."

Similarly, Hernandez's high school quarterback Dennis Sansoucie saw a big change in his friend after his father's death. In the documentary, Sansoucie admits to being more than friends with Hernandez, admitting the pair "experimented", saying "I was a small act of Aaron's sexual activity". But as someone who knew Hernandez well, he knew things had changed.

"When I saw him at the wake, it was like looking in a new person's eyes," he said. "I just couldn't believe it; it was someone who had no emotion at his own father's wake."

The tattoos came after his arrival in Florida.
The tattoos came after his arrival in Florida.

Tim Sansoucie, Dennis's father and Hernandez's childhood coach, said the youngster's life unravelled further soon after. Hernandez's mother began an affair with his favourite cousin, Tanya Singleton's husband.

"Nothing dishonourable about your father dying right? Nothing shameful? Nothing to be embarrassed about. Sad, mourn, yes - all of that. Would have been nice if he had a mother to mourn with him," Sansoucie said. "Instead, she chose to engage in a relationship with Tanya's husband. To deal with the death of your father is one thing but to deal with the fact that then your mother goes out within a matter of months and has a relationship with a family member's husband and he goes then to live in Aaron's house.

"A young man Aaron's age, you don't want to wake up on Sunday morning and see some other dude making bacon in his underwear in your house, sleeping in your father's bed. This must have thrown him into such a tizzy, I can't even imagine."

In a telling phone call with his mother, Hernandez exploded.

"You made decisions that … You don't, like … They're the worst," he said. "I don't put you down and you f***ed my whole life up. It is, but I forgave you and it's over with. Yes you did. I was the happiest f***ing little kid in the world and you f***ed me up. And I had just lost my father. And now I had to go to college. And I had nobody. What the f*** did you think I was gonna do? Become a perfect angel? Oh my god, if I was with you right now, I would've probably punched the s*** out of you, like I don't even know why you bring me to this level."

COVER-UPS, COLLEGE AND PLAYING HURT

While his young life was forever altered by his father's death, the change was just starting for Hernandez. A high school superstar and all-American, Hernandez was one of the most coveted tight ends in the nation when his attention turned to the college level. Despite having already verbally committed to UConn early in his high school career, Hernandez eventually couldn't turn down a chance to play for the University of Florida Gators, one of the best programs in college football. Hernandez was just 17.

Led by Tim Tebow, the openly Christian quarterback, now minor league baseball player, and Urban Meyer, the legendary coach who is also a devout Christian, the program in Florida had a clean-cut veneer. Meyer would host Hernandez for Bible studies at his house.

But Hernandez was a fish out of water. Far from home, Hernandez put himself to work establishing himself as one of the best college tight ends available, despite landing in Florida at just 17.

But underneath was darkness. Reports of cover-ups after a night out gone wrong have been heavily reported after he sucker punched a bar manager who wanted him to pay a $12 bill. The manager didn't file charges but a report from The Boston Globe found that it was under pressure from the Gators' unofficial defence lawyer with the manager admitting he had been "contacted by legal staff and coaches with UF and that they are working on an agreement".

There was also a double shooting in September 2007 with Hernandez reportedly a person of interest after he was picked out of a police line-up.

On the field, Hernandez had plenty of pressure on his shoulders as one of college football's premier targets. But it also meant he had to put his body on the line, often playing injured.

Dr Jeffrey Montez de Oca from the UCCS Centre For Critical Sports Studies told the Netflix documentary college athletes were often pressured into playing with injuries.

"If the success of your team, if winning is predicated on having this kid out on the field and if you don't win your school is literally going lose millions of dollars, that's a tremendous amount of pressure," he said.

Aaron Hernandez made his name in Florida.
Aaron Hernandez made his name in Florida.

It meant painkillers became a mainstay to being on the field. Former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who stunned the NFL world when he retired after his rookie season due to fears about brain damage, remembered back to his college days.

"I saw a load of our upper classmen with their pants at their knees waiting for their Toradol injection," he said. "I didn't know this at 18, I thought 'oh my god these 15 upper classmen starters are taking steroids before the game', just completely naive. I later found it was Toradol, this painkiller so that our team docs could play with whatever's going on."

Borland said it showed him it was a big industry with a revolving door of people who wanted to play, and they would do whatever they needed to get people on the field.

Aaron, in a phone call with former college teammate Mike Pouncey, said: "For real, weed and Toradol. That's all you need, baby."

After being told the injections were being banned, Hernandez said: "If players want it, man, they're getting that."

THE BEGINNING AND THE END

Hernandez was drafted by the New England Patriots in the fourth round of the 2010 Draft with the 113th pick. Despite his incredible skills, teams were unimpressed with his maturity level given the lowest possible ranking and rumours of multiple failed drug tests. He was such a chronic smoker, he even once told his lawyer "every time I was on the field I was high on weed" and it didn't stop when he got to the NFL.

Over three seasons in the NFL, Hernandez and fellow 2010 draftee Rob Gronkowski developed a strong duo and would form one of the deadliest tight end partnerships in the game.

But off the field, he appeared to be disappearing into the weeds. In 2013, Hernandez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder for his role in the death of Odin Lloyd, who was the boyfriend of his fiancee Shayanna Perkins' sister Shaneah. He was found guilty with overwhelming evidence found at the scene and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Afterwards, Hernandez was charged with the double murder of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado after the victims reportedly spilt a drink on the NFL star in a 2012 incident. While he was eventually cleared, The Boston Globe reported there was "powerful evidence that (Hernandez) was at the scene and played a role in their deaths".

Five days after he was acquitted, Hernandez was found dead in his prison cell.

Hernandez’s brain had major damage.
Hernandez’s brain had major damage.

Hernandez's brain was subsequently donated to Boston University, which has a specialist chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) centre dedicated to researching the condition. CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head injuries with several former NFL stars having had the disease discovered posthumously.

CTE has been found in boxers since the 1920s, but more recent research has discovered cases in ice hockey and NFL players.

Common CTE symptoms include impulse control problems, impaired judgment, memory loss, confusion, depression, movement abnormalities such as hand tremors and - in Hernandez's case - aggression.

According to neuropathologist Ann McKee, an expert in neurodegenerative disease at Boston University's CTE centre, Hernandez's case was "the first case of that amount of damage in so young an individual".

"He had a very advanced disease," she said in Killer Inside. "And not only was it advanced microscopically, especially in the frontal lobes, which are very important for decision making, judgment, and cognition."

But former New England Patriots tight end Jermaine Wiggins believes blaming Hernandez's behaviour on the degenerative disease isn't telling the whole story.

"I think it's a cop-out," he said. "There are thousands of former football players out there that might have dealt with concussions. I've dealt with them, so to use that as a cop-out? No, we're smarter than that, people."

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