Aaron Hernandez’s high school teammates from Bristol Central in Connecticut long ago grew used to the fame and attention Hernandez drew to their town and school, first as one of the best high school football players in the country and most recently as a star tight end for the New England Patriots.
The attention this week, with Hernandez in the middle of a homicide investigation in North Attleboro, Mass., has been altogether different.
“So all this that’s going on for him today, it’s overwhelming,” said Dustin Tucker, a former classmate and teammate who graduated with Hernandez in 2007. “I guess you could say it’s overwhelming for our whole city. He represents us, too, and the whole city and everything that we stand for.”
Saturday, police went into Hernandez’s home for at least the third time this week. It was not known if Hernandez were there. Officers spent more than three hours at the house, leaving around 5:30 p.m., Eastern time. They did remove several bags.
Monday, a jogger found the body of Hernandez’s acquaintance, Odin Lloyd, 27, a semi-pro football player, in a nearby industrial park. Police said Lloyd was shot in the head.
Hernandez, 23, has not been named a suspect publicly, but ABC News, citing anonymous police sources, has reported that police could try to arrest Hernandez on charges of obstruction of justice. ABC News has reported that Hernandez destroyed his cellphone and video surveillance system and had his home professionally cleaned Monday, the day Lloyd’s body was found.
A clerk in the Attleboro District Court told USA TODAY Sports no arrest warrant had been issued when the offices closed Friday.
Much of the news media focus this week has been on North Attleboro, not far from the Patriots’ Foxborough, Mass., home. But Tucker said news media also descended on Bristol, a city of about 60,000 people 20 miles from Hartford. Bristol is home to ESPN, but Tucker said it had a small-town vibe, adding, “Everyone knows everyone.”
And now, few people know what to think.
Tucker said he had been asked frequently this week by friends about Hernandez and the investigation into Lloyd’s death.
Last week another man from Connecticut filed a civil lawsuit in Florida saying Hernandez shot him in the face in February, causing him to lose an eye; he is seeking damages in excess of $100,000.
“I hope it’s not true, but I can’t make assumptions on if it’s true or not. I really don’t know, and I don’t want to guess,” Tucker said.
Tucker said he had made the two-hour drive from Bristol to Foxborough several times to watch Hernandez play with the Patriots and caught up with Hernandez each time he was there. Tucker said he didn’t want to bother Hernandez while he was in the midst of the investigation and would wait until there was resolution to contact him. But he said it was difficult to reconcile the friend and teammate he remembered with the reports he saw on television.
“I just don’t want the papers to make him seem like a crazy person, you know? I feel bad for the people it happened to, the guy who died and the guy who got shot. My condolences go out to them. But I just don’t like the fact that he’s mixed up in all of this,” Tucker said.
But there have been signs of trouble in Hernandez’s personal life dating back to high school, issues that followed him to the University of Florida and now to his life as an NFL star.
In previous interviews and multiple news reports, Hernandez and his family said Hernandez was devastated by the sudden death of his father, Dennis, in January 2006, when Hernandez was 16. Dennis’ death, the result of complications from hernia surgery, left Hernandez feeling lost and angry, his mother, Terri, and brother, D.J., told USA TODAY Sports in 2009.
Hernandez responded by lashing out at his family, smoking marijuana and spending his free time hanging around with a rough crowd of young men in Bristol.
“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,” Terri Hernandez told USA TODAY Sports in 2009.
Still, as a senior at Bristol Central High that fall, Hernandez was a star on the field, leading his team to an 8-1-1 record while scoring 17 touchdowns. The previous season, Hernandez set a Connecticut state record with 1,799 receiving yards and set another record when he had 376 receiving yards in a game. He was named to USA TODAY Sports’ All-USA squad as the first-team tight end for the 2006 season.
“It was phenomenal. It was a good thing to watch and experience, to have something like that happen in the small little city that we have,” Tucker said.
Hernandez initially wanted to play at the University of Connecticut, where his father and brother both played, but after Dennis Hernandez’s death, Hernandez picked Florida, largely to get away, he told The Hartford Courant at the time.
Hernandez enrolled at Florida in January 2007, two months after turning 17, and trouble soon followed. During his freshman year, before he turned 18, Hernandez was arrested for getting into a fight with a bouncer at an off-campus bar (he received deferred prosecution in that case after being charged as a juvenile), and the Orlando Sentinel reported Hernandez was questioned by Gainesville police about a shooting that injured two men after a Gators game later that fall. Friends from Connecticut were with Hernandez that night, the Sentinel reported.
Hernandez was suspended for the 2008 season opener and later acknowledged the suspension was punishment for testing positive for marijuana.
But by his junior year in Gainesville, Hernandez, his mother and coach Urban Meyer seemed convinced Hernandez’ off-field troubles were over. Hernandez was an important part of the Gators’ 2008 national championship team, had developed into college football’s best tight end (he won the John Mackey Award that year) and was spending time at Meyer’s home, sometimes for Bible study. Meyer, it appeared, had become the father figure Hernandez needed.
“When your guy, your idol, your soul is taken from you, how do you deal with that? I just think there’s a part of his life that was not there. He needed discipline; he needed someone to talk to,” Meyer told USA TODAY Sports in 2009.
For the first time since his father’s death, Hernandez finally seemed happy.
“He’s my Aaron again,” Terri Hernandez said in 2009. “Just now everything’s getting better, and it took him three years. I thought I lost him for good. He wasn’t the same kid. Now he’s back, the same fun-loving Aaron.”
Hernandez left Florida after his junior season, but NFL teams weren’t convinced he was clear of his past troubles. He fell to the fourth round of the draft in 2010, largely because of concerns about his marijuana use and temperament.
One NFL general manager told USA TODAY Sports recently that Hernandez’s scouting file contained multiple red flags, and an official from another team said the character concerns were significant enough for the team to remove Hernandez from its list of draftable players.
Team executives who spoke to USA TODAY Sports did not want to be identified, given the sensitivity of the ongoing homicide investigation.
After the draft, the Boston Globe reported Hernandez had failed multiple drug tests, perhaps as many as six, while at Florida, which led Hernandez to issue a statement admitting to the one failed test that led to the 2008 suspension.
In that statement, which was released through the Patriots, Hernandez said he was as candid as he could possibly be with NFL teams about football and his personal life.
“I regret what happened; I learned from it and will make better decisions going forward,” Hernandez said in that 2010 statement.
The Patriots twice decided Hernandez was worth the risk, first when Bill Belichick drafted him in the fourth round and again last year when they offered Hernandez a long-term contract extension that would pay him $40 million through 2018.
Hernandez cried at a news conference announcing the deal and called that August day one of the best of his life. He gave $50,000 of his new paycheck to the Myra Kraft Foundation.
“You get changed by the Bill Belichick way; you get changed by the Patriot way,” Hernandez said at that news conference.
But a civil complaint filed this month in a U.S. District Court in South Florida by a Connecticut man raised questions about how much Hernandez had truly changed. In the complaint filed by attorneys for 30-year-old Alexander S. Bradley, Hernandez is accused of shooting Bradley in the face while the two were in a vehicle early Feb. 13 after a night of partying at a strip club in Miami.
According to the complaint and a police report from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office obtained by USA TODAY Sports, Bradley lost his right eye and has lost much of the use of his right arm. He said he needed further surgeries and experienced pain and difficulty eating and was requesting damages in excess of $100,000.
Bradley refused to cooperate with the police investigation, giving only a vague description of “black and Hispanic” men that shot him. When he wouldn’t speak any further with investigators, the case was deemed inactive, and it will not be reopened without Bradley’s cooperation.
Hernandez’s relationship with Bradley is unclear, though both are from Connecticut, with their hometowns located about 20 miles apart. Bradley was convicted of selling drugs in 2006 and spent 18 months in jail.
Bradley’s lawsuit was initially filed four days before Lloyd’s death in Massachusetts.
The NFL, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s security staff closely are monitoring the developments in the homicide investigation. Hernandez has not previously violated any of the league’s conduct policies but could be subject to punishment from the league, even without an arrest. Goodell suspended Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for four games after Roethlisberger was the subject of a sexual assault investigation in Georgia and a lawsuit in Nevada. Roethlisberger never was arrested.
© 2013 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.