A few short years ago, Aaron Hernandez was destined to be a football superstar and was already one of the NFL’s most promising tight ends.
On Wednesday morning, the man who seemed to have everything hanged himself in a jail cell where he was serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of his friend Odin Lloyd.
Hernandez’s death came just a week after he was acquitted of separate double murder charges stemming from a drive-by shooting in 2012.
Friends and fans alike have wondered for a long time now: How could a Super Bowl star for one of the league’s top franchises fall so far into a life of killing and deceit?
A hometown ‘golden boy’
Long before Hernandez made national headlines, he was a standout athlete in Bristol, Connecticut, who came from a family described as a local sports dynasty.
The young Hernandez was the “golden boy,” playing football, basketball and running track, following in the footsteps of his uncle, older brother and father — all well-known athletes in the community.
Hernandez’s father constantly pushed his son, requiring him to practice for hours before he could go out with friends.
“I saw a closeness with them that I’d never seen before,” Montgomery said of the relationship between Hernandez and his father.
A tragic loss leads to problems
But his father, the man who kept the 16-year-old anchored, died in 2006 from complications after a routine hernia surgery.
Hernandez left high school halfway through his senior year in January 2007 to join the University of Florida Gators, and trouble seemed to follow.
In just his first semester, a police report says Hernandez got into a fight at an off-campus restaurant, sucker-punching the manager and rupturing his eardrum.
The following fall, there was a shooting near a local club. Police reports link Hernandez and several other University of Florida football players to an argument in the parking lot.
Hernandez was one of more than 20 people interviewed by police, and he was the only one who did not make a statement after invoking his right to counsel.
At the time, Hernandez’s mother told the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, “I know he was at the club, but he never saw any shooting.”
The case remains open, and no one has been charged.
Hernandez was also suspended at least once for marijuana, an issue that would follow him as he entered the draft his junior year.
A chance to be an NFL star
In 2010, despite his legal problems, Hernandez decided to skip his senior year at Florida and turn pro. Trying to put the alleged drug use behind him, Hernandez wrote a letter to the Patriots director of personnel.
“If you draft me as a member of the New England Patriots, I will willfully submit to a bi-weekly drug test throughout my rookie season. … In addition, I will tie any guaranteed portion of my 2010 compensation to these drug tests and reimburse the team a pro-rata amount for any failed drug test,” he wrote, according to the Boston Globe.
Before the draft, Hernandez was expected to be a first- or second-round pick. He was passed over until the fourth round, when the Patriots selected him.
In 2013, less than a year after signing that lucrative new deal, Hernandez was arrested and charged with Lloyd’s murder. The Patriots dropped him the same day.
The murder that changed everything
On June 17th, 2013, a jogger found a body riddled with gunshot wounds at an industrial park in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. The victim was Odin Lloyd, a semi-pro football player for the Boston Bandits and a friend of Hernandez’s.
The two men had a complicated relationship.
Lloyd was dating Shaneah Jenkins, the link between the young man who dreamed of the NFL and the all-American who made it.
Jenkins is the younger sister of Shayanna, who was engaged to Hernandez at the time and is the mother of his young daughter.
Prosecutors say Lloyd was last seen the morning of his murder with Hernandez and Hernandez’s two associates, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, around 2:30 a.m. in a rented silver Nissan Altima.
At the same time, chilling text messages from Lloyd’s phone were sent to his sister telling her he was with “Nfl,” adding, “just so u know.”
Between 3:23 and 3:27 a.m., workers nearby reported hearing gunshots. At 3:29, a camera showed an Altima pulling into Hernandez’s driveway, about a half a mile from the death scene.
Three people got out of the car, and Lloyd was not one of them.
A life sentenced
Nine days after Lloyd’s death, Hernandez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and other weapon-related charges.
In April 2014, Ortiz and Wallace were also charged in Lloyd’s slaying. Wallace was eventually acquitted, and Ortiz took a plea deal that dropped the murder charge.
In April 2015, Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder, along with several other charges. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
After the trial, Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn said what so many devastated supporters and onlookers had been feeling for years: Hernandez had squandered an opportunity for greatness and turned instead to the unthinkable.
“Aaron Hernandez may have been a well-known New England Patriots football player. However, in the end, the jury found that he was just a man who committed a brutal murder,” Quinn said. “The fact that he was a professional athlete meant nothing in the end. He is a citizen who was held accountable by the jury for his depraved conduct.”
While in prison, Hernandez also went on trial for a 2012 drive-by shooting that took the lives of two men outside a Boston nightclub. This April, Hernandez was acquitted of both murders in what was seen as a victory despite his life sentence.
A troubled end to a troubled story
Since Hernandez has been behind bars, his team — the team he was supposed to build his future with — has gone on without him. The New England Patriots have won two Super Bowls since 2013. While Hernandez has been shuffled between courtrooms and jail cells, his former teammates and friends have become superstars.
On the same day the Patriots was supposed to visit the White House to celebrate their 2017 Super Bowl win, Hernandez hanged himself in his cell at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Massachusetts.
His former team has yet to comment.