This was before the murder conviction two years ago and the double homicide acquittal on Good Friday, before Aaron Hernandez’s daughter, Avielle, grew to be a 4-year-old visiting her father in Courtroom 906 in Boston and before Hernandez allegedly hanged himself.
This was in New Orleans prior to Super Bowl XLVII in 2013. David Nelson, a former teammate of Hernandez at the University of Florida, caught up with the tight end he used to pass on crossing routes at a Super Bowl party. Hernandez had just proposed to Shayanna Jenkins, a girl from his hometown of Bristol, Conn., whom he had known since grade school. The couple had a baby daughter on the way. Nelson knew Hernandez to be a “chameleon” as a collegian, but he listened as Hernandez outlined a path ahead with a growing family. There was a five-year contract worth up to $40 million that Hernandez signed the previous summer. The old teammates spoke for over 90 minutes.
“He was getting ready to turn his life around,” Nelson said.
Nelson was a Jet when he recalled that scene. He shook his head at his locker stall in Florham Park. It was the fall of 2014. Hernandez, no longer a New England Patriot, had been in jail more than a year by then, shuffling in and out of court at the Fall River Justice Center with shackles on his legs. He was held at the Bristol County House of Corrections until his trial for an execution-style killing that included pumping six bullets into the body of Odin Lloyd, the boyfriend of his fiancée’s sister. Lloyd was left dead in the undeveloped section of an industrial park less than a mile from Hernandez’s house.
The Patriots had cut Hernandez immediately after his hands were cuffed at his manse in North Attleborough, Mass. The team then hosted a jersey exchange for fans looking to shed his Nos. 81 and 85 from their Sunday wardrobe. Hernandez’s All-American brick was ripped up in Gainesville. His name was scrubbed from coaches’ resumes across the SEC. Hernandez’s second life – a flophouse in Franklin, Mass., and friendships with righthand men who were career criminals — was revealed. Nelson worried about a teammate who went from troubled to triggerman.
“I believe there is still good in him, that there is a soul at stake,” he said. “I believe everybody deserves a chance. I want to be there for him. I just don’t know how.”
There is no life left in Hernandez now. Prison officials at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility in Shirley, Mass., announced that they discovered him dead in his single cell Wednesday at 3:05 a.m. He hanged himself by a bed sheet that he attached to a window in his cell, per the prison’s account. He was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for killing Lloyd. That conviction came on April 15, 2015. He had been locked up since being arrested by police on June 26, 2013.
Officials reported that Hernandez had jammed the door with various items. By half past nine o’clock, Hernandez’s lawyer, Jose Baez, insisted Hernandez’s death could be murder. There was a past incident involving Hernandez at the prison, and Hernandez was also charged with a brawl when locked up in Bristol County.
The fifth day since he was cleared of killing Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu in Boston’s Theatre District had not yet dawned before Hernandez was dead. Hernandez, who nodded as the jury forewoman announced that he was acquitted of all but illegal possession of a firearm Friday, did not appear to leave a note. He was 27, survived by a fiancée who added his name to hers – Jenkins-Hernandez – after he was convicted of first-degree murder in the Lloyd case – and a daughter who last saw him smiling wide a week earlier. The last words that he shared in Courtroom No. 906 were directed toward Jenkins-Hernandez. She held two friends’ hands as the victims’ families grieved. Hernandez’s eyes remained red around the rims. He wore a gray suit and blue shirt with a blue tie. Typically defiant in his gait when in court, Hernandez cried openly before craning his neck to look backward.
“I love you,” he said.
Post-mortems are coming on the disgraced Patriot. He won a national title in college with Tim Tebow as his quarterback and Urban Meyer as his head coach. He caught a touchdown from Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants in 2012, and was heralded as the speedy part of a tight-end tandem alongside Rob Gronkowski under coach Bill Belichick. Patriots owner Robert Kraft helped put Hernandez away in the Lloyd case, sharing with the jury his memories of a discussion he had with Hernandez when he was a suspect for Lloyd’s slaying. Jurors in that case pointed to Kraft’s timeline as telling when finding Hernandez guilty.
“The fact that he was a professional athlete meant nothing in the end,” Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn said.
There is a tattoo that Hernandez liked to point out when he was a free man. It was a statement that he maintained was a message his father, Dennis, gave him often as a child. Dennis Hernandez died on Jan. 6, 2006 after complications from a routine hernia surgery, and is buried back in Connecticut.
The saying remained with Aaron Hernandez, inked as a tattoo on his left arm. He insisted the words were inspirational as he propelled himself to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL as a Patriot. It will be there as an autopsy is performed and clues are collected to determine how Hernandez died.
“If it is to be it is up to me,” it reads.