The Pride of Bristol

Nearly two years after its hero, Aaron Hernandez, fell into sudden disgrace, the Connecticut city with a small-town feel remains wounded.

Former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez playing for Bristol Central High School in 2006.

Mayor Ken Cockayne willproudly list his hometown’s many attractions.

The town of about 60,000 boasts the nation’s oldest still-functioning amusement park in Lake Compounce. There’s the New England Carousel Museum, the American Clock and Watch Museum, and the Eastern Regional Little League Complex, where the best of New England compete for their spot in the Little League World Series.

And there’s Muzzy Field.

On a wall in Cockayne’s city hall office hangs a colorized picture of a 24-year-old Babe Ruth, hands at his sides, standing at the edge of the dugout at the 103-year-old ballpark.

“He hit the longest home run in the park, ever,’’ the third-generation Bristol-ite says.

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According to local legend, The Babe graced the field in September 1919 in an exhibition game pitting the Boston Red Sox against the best athletes from Bristol-based New Departure Manufacturing Company. Per the legend, the ball was never found.

It was the town’s singular athletic event for nearly 90 years, until Aaron Hernandez, a homegrown kid from a proud athletic tradition, shattered every football record there was.

On a sunny afternoon in February, 18-year-old Rafi Hamzy was finishing lunch at downtown Bristol’s Crystal Diner.

“I was probably, like, 10 years old, playing midget football and loving going to the high school games and thinking of them as professionals, and just looking at this guy breaking all the records and scoring touchdowns and everything,’’ Hamzy says. “It was awesome.’’

Hamzy graduated from Bristol Eastern High School in June, seven years after Hernandez finished at crosstown rival Bristol Central. He played four years of football and last fall helped coach the freshman team.

Like the rest of the town, Hamzy followed the tight end’s career intently. When the Patriots selected Hernandez in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, he called his mom to celebrate. When Hernandez inked a five-year, $40-million extension in August 2012, Bristol swelled with pride for its “hometown hero,’’ as Hamzy called him.

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Ten months later, Hernandez was arrested at his Massachusetts home and charged with the murder of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd.

“It was really a shock to the whole town,’’ Hamzy said. “A lot of people in this town know who he is and watched him grow up, and knew his father and know his brother…no one wanted to really believe it.’’

View From Bristol: ‘Innocent Until Proven Guilty’

View From Bristol: ‘Innocent Until Proven Guilty’

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Bristol resident Rafy Hamzy talks about Aaron Hernandez.

Before Aaron Hernandez, there were Dennis and David Hernandez. The twins were the best athletes Bristol Central had ever produced, excelling in football, basketball, and track. After high school, they attended the University of Connecticut. Dennis, Aaron’s father, lettered as a defensive back; David ultimately transferred to the University of Louisville.

Back at home after school, Dennis took a job as a janitor at Bristol Eastern and David became a corrections officer. Their playing days over, they remained Bristol royalty.

“It’s a very familiar name in Bristol, Hernandez,’’ said newspaper columnist Bob Montgomery. “You have your legends.’’

The Hernandez home in Bristol. —The Boston Globe

That same picture of Babe Ruth hangs on a wall in The Bristol Press office on North Main Street.

Montgomery is a 27-year veteran of the daily paper and the city’s self-appointed cheerleader. He also spent the last dozen years as the city historian, co-founded the Bristol Sports Hall of Fame, was president of the Bristol Historical Society, and chairs Team Bristol, which organizes low-cost social events for town residents.

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Montgomery began his career at The Press long after the twins were done wowing at Muzzy Field, but he had a front row seat for the next generation.

Dennis John “DJ’’ Hernandez—named after his father—was born in May 1986. Three years later, Aaron arrived. And as good as their father and uncle were, Aaron and DJ were better.

DJ would set the bar high. He racked up 3,116 yards and 45 touchdowns on the ground against 3,114 and 31 through the air, becoming the first quarterback in Connecticut’s history to top 3,000 career yards in both. While that alone is an impressive feat, the converted wide receiver did so in just two seasons. He was the 2003 Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year, an All-America nominee and named first team All-State by The New Haven Register and Hartford Courant. He was twice All-State in basketball, averaging .368 in his junior baseball season and graduating with honors.

Montgomery would often prowl the sidelines during Central football games, chatting with the chain gang between plays. It was at one of DJ’s games that Montgomery first heard Aaron’s name.

“They know a lot more about football than me,’’ Montgomery said. “I remember one day, we were on the sidelines, they said, ‘You think DJ is good? Wait till you see his brother…’’’

He was only in middle school, but Aaron Hernandez was already throwing 90-plus heat on the diamond. He wasn’t quite the 6-foot-2, 245-pound figure he’d be by the day of the draft, but he towered over the other kids.

View From Bristol: ‘I Can’t Brag About Aaron Anymore.’

View From Bristol: ‘I Can’t Brag About Aaron Anymore’

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Briston Press columnist and town historian Bob Montgomery on the Aaron Hernandez situation.

In high school, Hernandez set state single-season records for receiving yards (1,807) and touchdowns (24) as a senior. On defense, he tallied 72 tackles — 42 for loss — 12 sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and four blocked kicks. He was 2006-07 Gatorade Football Player of the Year for Connecticut, the Hartford Courant’s Player of the Year and was ranked as the top tight end recruit in the nation by Scout.com and Rivals.com.

Among other duties at The Press, Montgomery writes the Players of the Week feature. Each athlete can earn the honor just once a season, and the Hernandez boys never failed to qualify. Over a dozen or so visits, Montgomery got to know Aaron.

Hernandez pictured in his Central High School yearbook. —The Boston Globe

“Very nice young man,’’ he said. “Very polite, very humble. And he had his father with him, and they were just…they were a pair, a team. You could feel the closeness.’’

In January 2006, Dennis Hernandez underwent routine hernia surgery. Days later, he was dead. Aaron was 16.

By the time Dennis died, DJ was already the starting quarterback at UConn. Aaron had planned to follow him, but his prodigious talent lured the biggest suitors. Cue University of Florida head coach Urban Meyer and coordinator Steve Addazio, whom Hernandez credited with helping him after his father’s death.

At Florida, Hernandez was everything the scouts suggested he’d be, winning the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end and leading the team in receiving during its 2009 Bowl Championship Series win.

Along with fellow 2010 draftee Rob Gronkowski, Hernandez redefined the tight end tandem. Bristol became “The Home of Aaron Hernandez,’’ a title that would take on new meaning as throngs of reporters descended on the city after his arrest.

Nearly two years later, it’s a title they want to shake.

“One person doesn’t define a community,’’ Cockayne said. “That’s kind of the way I look at it, everybody looked at it. It was talked about, and then we moved on. You can’t define Bristol by one person.’’

Bristol’s first major industry was clock-making – hence the museum. Around the turn of the 20th century, locally owned New Departure Manufacturing hit on doorbells, ball bearings and bike parts, thriving until its absorption into General Motors in the mid-1960s. Twenty years later, the town lost its biggest employer with the shutdown of 134-year-old Bristol Brass Company, a victim of deindustrialization and foreign competition.

Now, Bristol is home to ESPN, far and away the city’s largest employer and taxpayer according to Cockayne, and it still has a handful of small machine shops and mom-and-pops.

In 2010 the city was 84th on Money Magazine’s “Best Places to Live,’’ its ranking in stark contrast to the unflattering picture of a beat-up Bristol painted by much of the national media — most notably Rolling Stone — in the wake of the Hernandez arrest.

The city of Bristol is nestled in a valley in rural Connecticut, about 20 miles west of Hartford. —Chris Rattey/Boston.com

Downtown Bristol was lightly trafficked on a late winter afternoon despite temperatures in the high 30s. It’s rolling, snow-covered hills and steepled churches are picturesque, but in spots Bristol bears the scars of decades-long industrial decline: boarded-up windows, faded signs.

Bristol isn’t floundering, but residents say it’s not flourishing, either.

“We’re not a run-down city; we’re a working-class city,’’ Cockayne says. “We have some great people in this city.’’

View From Bristol: ‘One Person Does Not Define Bristol’

View From Bristol: ‘We Won’t Be Defined By One Person’

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The Mayor of Bristol discusses life in the Connecticut town two years after the original arrest of Aaron Hernandez as his murder trial progresses.

Despite its population, Bristol’s residents say it feels like a small town. At Rodd’s Restaurant, everyone knows your name. Thousands pack Muzzy Field for high school games — as many as 6,000 for the Thanksgiving Day showdown pitting Eastern against Central. Classmates who have long since graduated exchange greetings at the grocery store, Cockayne said.

Like Cockayne, Montgomery feels Bristol got an undue bad rap from this ordeal.

“Like any other town, we have good and bad,’’ says Montgomery. “I see us having, probably, more good than most towns.’’

Twenty-one months after the “perp walk’’ was first shown on CNN, the name Aaron Hernandez is hardly spoken. Where once his athletic exploits were detailed in The Press daily, the shadow of a murder trial looms in boldface.

Hernandez in the back of a police cruiser the day he was arrested at his North Attleboro home. —REUTERS

No one is more disappointed than Bristol’s no. 1 fan.

Montgomery sounds like a proud grandfather as he wistfully recalls Hernandez zipping over Muzzy Field as a teen, but those feelings fade when he thinks of the 25-year-old man now living in Suffolk County Jail.

He last saw Hernandez in 2007, shortly before Hernandez left for Florida. The columnist was walking down North Main Street when he glimpsed Hernandez eating lunch with a friend at Subway. He stopped in for a quick chat, wishing him well.

“I said, ‘Make us proud. Make your dad proud — he’s watching,’’’ Montgomery said.

Related slideshow: Hernandez murder trial in pictures

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