The Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team investigated the complex history of Aaron Hernandez’s life and took a deep dive into his legacy.
Hernandez, who played with the Patriots from 2010-2012, committed suicide at age 27. The Globe interviewed dozens of people who knew him to determine why that might have happened.
Here’s what we learned from the “Gladiator” series, reported by Bob Hohler, Beth Healy, Sacha Pfeiffer, Andrew Ryan, and editor Patricia Wen:
He and his brother lived in constant fear of their father’s beatings.
Aaron and Jonathan Hernandez routinely took severe lashings from their father, Dennis. The beatings were so intense that Jonathan once threatened to call the authorities.
In “Bristol: Behind the Smile,” part 1 of 6 of the series, Jonathan recalled that his father used long sticks from a Fisher Price table game in his assaults.
“I picked up the phone once to call, to seek help,” the brother said in his first interview on the subject. “And his response was, ‘Call them.’ And he handed me the phone, and he said, ‘I’m going to beat you even harder, you and your brother, and they’re going to have to pull me off of you when they knock down the door.’”
Dennis, nicknamed “The King,” wanted the best from his sons when it came to academics and sports, and he wouldn’t accept anything less than excellence. Growing up, Dennis had a troubled childhood, but he was largely considered a scrappy kid turned local success story after earning a scholarship to play football at the University of Connecticut. Aaron had a layered relationship with his father, and he went on to emulate him in many respects.
Aaron and Jonathan, according to the Globe, were raised to believe that needing psychological help was a sign of weakness.
Jeff Morgan, a former assistant football coach at Bristol Central – where Hernandez shined – called Dennis an “old-fashioned disciplinarian,” but he acknowledged that one particular act went too far. Dennis gave Aaron a black eye, Morgan told the Globe, after Aaron was caught drinking and kicked out of a senior dance as a freshman.
Dennis also reportedly got physical with one of Aaron’s youth coaches, Tim SanSoucie, once smacking him across the face and breaking his glasses.
He and Aaron’s mother, Terri, got divorced when Aaron was a toddler and remarried when he was 6. In 1999, when Aaron was 9, the couple filed for bankruptcy, with credit card and other debts clouding the future of their family.
“There were other troubles,” the Globe reported. “When Aaron was 3, his father was arrested and charged with trying to buy cocaine from an undercover officer. His mother was also once arrested for being part of an underground sports gambling bookie operation, out of the family home, when Aaron was 11.”
Dennis died abruptly at age 49, following complications from hernia surgery. The Globe noted that Dennis dearly wanted Aaron – who was a junior in high school at the time – to excel in life, but that love often manifested in intense and jarring ways.
Hernandez had a sexual relationship with quarterback Dennis SanSoucie.
As Hernandez’s high school football career took off, he started dating classmate Shayanna Jenkins, who, years later, would become his fiancee. He and Dennis SanSoucie, Tim’s son and the quarterback of the team, smoked a lot of marijuana before school, ahead of practices, and after games, SanSoucie told the Globe. Their relationship blossomed into something more.
“For the first time publicly, SanSoucie also talked about a now-and-then sexual relationship he had with Aaron, which began in middle school and continued through high school,” the Globe reported.
SanSoucie told the Globe that he and Hernandez tried desperately to keep the relationship quiet. They didn’t want their friends, teammates, or family members to know. The environment at the Hernandez household, particularly when Dennis was around, was deeply homophobic. Dennis was concerned that Aaron had a feminine way about him, notably the way he stood and used his hands, and Dennis tried to veer him away from that path.
Hernandez was inspired by his cousins who were cheerleaders, and he was interested in becoming one himself. His father quickly worked to squash that dream, scolding him and insisting that a man doesn’t become a cheerleader.
“‘Faggot’ was used all the time in our house,” Jonathan told the Globe. “All the time. Standing. Talking. Acting. Looking. It was the furthest thing my father wanted you to even look like in our household. This was not acceptable to him.”
Aaron also told multiple people he was molested as a child. He reportedly mentioned to both Jonathan and one of his lawyers, George Leontire, that he was sexually molested as a young boy. The Globe noted that neither the brother nor the lawyer was willing to identify the perpetrator.
The article mentioned that SanSoucie said he has finally come out in his late 20s to family and friends, after Hernandez’s suicide, despite the difficulty in doing so. He believes that Aaron would be proud of him – for that, and for publicly acknowledging their past relationship.
“I really truly feel in my heart I got the thumbs-up from him,” SanSoucie told the Globe.
His first brutal hit to the head may have come in high school.
During his senior year, in 2006, Hernandez took a blindside hit to the head and lay motionless on the ground.
“I saw him get hit, and I saw him go down. And he didn’t get back up,” Lorrie Belmonte, a registered nurse in Bristol who was in the stands, told the Globe. “And Aaron would always get back up. And then the coaches went out on the field and … he must have been totally out of it because they called … the ambulance [that] was standing by. And so the EMTs immediately came up on the field and got him and took him.’’
The Globe noted that was just around the time when scientists were starting to develop a connection between brutal blows to the head and what’s now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). They began to realize that crushing hits like that would go on to have long-term ramifications and affect the lives of players for years to come.
The concussion sidelined him for one game, but he quickly returned and earned Player of the Year honors in Connecticut before going on to play for Urban Meyer at the University of Florida.
He argued with his mother and felt as though he couldn’t trust her.
While Hernandez was playing football, choosing which college to go to, exploring his sexuality, and managing his health, he was also in a steady feud with his mother. He grew extremely close with his older cousin, Tanya Singleton, who “was like an older loving sister he never had,” and someone he could confide in and trust, according to the Globe.
Then things took a twist that confused an already-lost Hernandez even more.
“After Aaron’s father died, he learned what seemed unimaginable,” the Globe reported. “His mother was in a serious romantic relationship with Tanya’s husband, Jeff Cummings. It came as a shock to Aaron and Tanya — and over the years the two grew even closer through shared anguish. Tanya would divorce her husband and see him move in with Aaron’s mother.”
That’s when Hernandez added a level of swagger and bravado, and he started hanging with the wrong crowd, according to the Globe, all while loathing his mother.
In one phone call years later, when he was in prison, Hernandez suggested that his mother never helped fully treat his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as a boy. The Globe was able to access that phone call, along with several others.
“Matter of fact, you’re the reason I never could pay attention in school and shit. You were supposed to get me my medication,” he said in the fall of 2014.
“Yeah, I knocked you over the head with a frickin’ hammer. That was your medication,” she replied.
Later in that same conversation, his mother seemed to equate the effects of an ADHD medication with a dangerously addictive drug.
“That’s what Adderall is: B-L-O-W,” she spelled out over the phone.
The two went back and forth repeating those letters because Aaron couldn’t figure out what she was trying to spell, until his mother became frustrated and blurted out: “Cocaine, dip—-! That’s what Adderall’s like.”
The Globe reported that Hernandez felt like he could never fully open up to her, and their relationship was largely fractured.
His high school principal regrets helping him graduate midyear to head to Florida.
In part 2 of the series, titled: “Florida: Lost in the Swamp,” the Globe reports that Bristol Central High School principal Dennis Siegmann wishes he hadn’t let Hernandez leave school early.
“If I had it to do over again, I would have fought tooth and nail not to let that kid graduate at midyear, not to let him go to Florida at midyear,” Siegmann said, in his first extended interview about Hernandez. “Had we had a longer time with him, maybe we could have changed things.”
Meyer, well known for his aggressive recruiting tactics, reportedly attempted to pry Hernandez away from Connecticut and bring him down to Florida early to get started in training for the upcoming season. Then-assistant coach at Florida, and current Boston College head coach, Steve Addazio, was also relentless in trying to lure Hernandez, the Globe reported.
Despite Siegmann’s recollection, Meyer said he “never pushed someone” to graduate high school early, although he sees it as a positive jump-start to college for many recruits.
Siegmann, who also suspected Hernandez was lost after his father’s passing, noted that Hernandez wasn’t academically ready for college. Records obtained by the Globe show that his verbal SAT score of 420 was below the minimum required at Florida, where the majority of freshmen scored 600 or above.
A college administrator noted that he needed reading and writing remediation, and he got plenty of extra help at Florida. Following a troubled, yet largely successful college career, Hernandez decided to enter the NFL draft after his junior season, and the Patriots selected him in the fourth round.
His childhood friends were key factors in his adult demise.
In part 3, titled: “Foxborough: Running for glory, and running for his life,” the Globe noted that the Patriots took a risk when they chose Hernandez. Though they had a knack for turning characters into producers, this was an entirely different situation, particularly given Hernandez’s ties to the area.
“Him going to New England was the worst thing the NFL could have done,’’ SanSoucie told the Globe. “The one place you don’t send him back is where he tried getting away from.’’
Hernandez returned to his old ways, and he rode in the passenger seat as a friend drove 120 mph in a 55-mph zone. The friend, Brandon Beam, a former Bristol Central teammate, would have likely been arrested, but Hernandez’s presence helped him escape with a hefty fine, according to the Globe.
Another one of his Bristol friends, Alexander Bradley, became very close with Hernandez, and he helped supply him with marijuana and procure a $375 silver revolver. Wherever Hernandez went, the Globe noted, a gun often went, too.
Tom Brady asked Tim Tebow for advice on how to help Hernandez.
After a game in 2011, Tim Tebow and Tom Brady talked after a game in Denver. Brady asked Tebow, who played with Hernandez at Florida, how to make him feel at ease. Brady said he was watching over Hernandez and former fellow Gator Brandon Spikes, and Tebow said he appreciated that.
When Tebow called them good guys, Brady responded by adding that they could be a lot to handle.
An excerpt from the Globe, referencing a recorded call, provides insight into Hernandez’s thoughts. Hernandez leaned on additional support, at times. He later said he had once asked Brady, receiver Julian Edelman, and the team’s offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels how they would respond if he landed behind bars. Would they stand by him, or forget him?
“They always say they love me. I used to say, ‘If I was ever in jail, would you come visit me?’ They all said, ‘Yeah, this and that,’ but I knew those [expletive] wouldn’t.”
The Globe noted that McDaniels, trainer Alex Guerrero, and Bill Belichick did all try to help Hernandez at various junctures, but many of his teammates still considered his behavior to be extremely erratic and detrimental to team camaraderie.
He turned on an old friend and reportedly tried to kill him.
Part 4, “Murder: A killer in the huddle,” the Globe details the pivotal scene in July 2012, when Hernandez’s unpredictability and streak of being present when crimes took place reached a new level.
Hernandez and Bradley were at the Cure Lounge in Boston, at which point a stranger, Daniel de Abreu, bumped into Hernandez. Two hours later, de Abreu and his friend, Safiro Furtado, were murdered, and Hernandez and Bradley were both on the scene. It can’t be said with certainty who pulled the trigger, but regardless, the Globe reports, Hernandez was at the very least an accomplice.
A similar scenario to what took place previously – when Hernandez helped Beam avoid jail time after Beam drove recklessly – occurred, but this time the officer wasn’t as lenient. Bradley was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.
A few weeks later, in February, Hernandez’s anxiety swelled when he believed two people at a Miami strip club were Boston police officers out to get him. Bradley and Hernandez bickered, and Bradley reportedly woke up with a gun in his face. Police reportedly found Bradley lying in a parking lot, bleeding from a bullet hole between his eyes.
Bradley survived, but he refused to identify Hernandez, who at that point reportedly believed Bradley was dead. Though he didn’t turn Hernandez in then, the Globe reported that he started plotting his revenge after losing his left eye.
Hernandez reportedly asked Bill Belichick for a trade to the West Coast for safety reasons.
A texting war between Hernandez and Bradley ensued, and the Globe obtained threats of death and extortion between the two former friends.
“U left me with one eye and a lot of head trauma,’’ Bradley texted Hernandez. “U owe for what u did.”
Hernandez fired back: “If u ever got me in trouble or ruin my life for suttin I didn’t do…u will pay!!!’’
“Here u go threaten again,’’ Bradley replied. “U know that dont scare me tho if u knew how [geared] up i am u wouldnt even say that.’’
Hernandez, possibly in fear for his own life, and reportedly concerned about the safety of Jenkins and his daughter, Avielle, requested a meeting with Belichick. He may have been terrified that he would be shot on the field, or in his daily life, and he told Belichick he felt as though his family would be safer if he were playing on the West Coast. Hernandez requested a trade, but Belichick declined, perhaps for monetary reasons.
Belichick may have, however, facilitated Hernandez’s relocation into a new home in Franklin, about 12 miles away from the property he had purchased in North Attleborough. It’s unclear exactly what role Belichick played, and the Patriots wouldn’t offer any further comment.
Bradley, still enraged, demanded $5 million from Hernandez. When Hernandez countered with $1.5 million, Bradley asked for $2.5 million, and Hernandez wouldn’t oblige. That led to Bradley filing a federal suit, but he withdrew it four days later.
Hernandez’s history of crime hit its zenith in June 2013, when he allegedly shot Jenkins’ sister’s boyfriend, Odin Lloyd, six times and killed him following a drunken incident at a bar. He left a trail of evidence, and police showed up at his door to question him. The Patriots released him, officially moving on after an eventful era.
He enjoyed reading Harry Potter and eating honey buns in prison.
Life at the Suffolk County Jail wasn’t too terrible for Hernandez, as he awaited his trial in the summer of 2014. The Globe, in part 5, titled: “Prison: A room of his own,” detailed his experience behind bars.
“My room is very organized,’’ he told Jenkins at the time. “I have everything lined up perfect, have my little trash in there. Everything all folded, I always make a nice perfect pillow.” He added, “It’s actually cozy. I think I enjoy it too much.”
He reportedly enjoyed the pickup basketball games, wrapping his cell light in a shirt to give it a homey, burnt orange glow, and taking bird baths at his sink. Hernandez didn’t mind the mice, saying they weren’t as bad as mosquitoes, roaches, spiders, or other creatures that were at the Bristol County Jail he was at before.
“Jail doesn’t bother me,” he told his mother on a call. “I’ve been the most relaxed and less stressed in jail than I have out of jail.”
Of course, being in jail had its detriments. He was away from his daughter, and he also had to hear second-hand that Bristol Central removed the awards at the school with his name on them.
He said prison couldn’t help him attain one thing he had coveted for years.
“I’m just one empty person,’’ Hernandez said. “I’ve been like that for so long.”
Before killing himself, he wrote John 3:16 on his forehead in blood.
When he was found guilty of murdering Lloyd, Hernandez ended up at Souza-Barnowski Correctional Center, where his downward spiral of emotional turmoil reached a new degree. Inmates typically spent about 20 hours a day in their cells, and there was much less room to move around or feel a semblance of freedom.
“Hernandez was disciplined dozens of times, and spent a lot of time in the hole,” the Globe reported in part 5 of the series. He was moved to 23 different cells at the prison in two years, usually as punishment.”
That period of his life is when he told his mother he was gay, and that he had been molested as a child. He reportedly noted that he believed the sexual assault made him gay, and that it wasn’t his fault. That helped him control his self-hatred, at least to some degree.
In another lengthy trial, ending on April 14, 2017, the jury acquitted him of murder and did not find Bradley credible. Hernandez was moved to tears, but roughly three days later, a guard walked by and saw him hanging from the bars of his window.
He had written John 3:16 on his forehead in blood, according to the Globe. His lips were already blue, and he was naked. There was a Bible open on the desk and red writing on the walls.
The family held a private funeral in Bristol.
Parts of his brain had become shrunken before he died.
The Globe concluded the series with part 6, titled: “CTE: A terrible thing to waste.” The Spotlight team took a dive into the long-term ramifications of Hernandez’s life, and whether his history of concussions ultimately played a significant role in his death.
In November 2017, Boston University revealed that Hernandez had died with the worst case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy ever seen in someone so young. He was 27 when he took his life.
“Parts of his brain had become shrunken,” the Globe reported. “Others were unusually enlarged. Some areas had ‘micro-bleeds.’ Some had accumulated a protein called tau commonly found in Alzheimer’s patients.”
Later on, part 6 noted that 26 men who played in the NFL have taken their own lives since 2005, and 16 of them were diagnosed with CTE. Hernandez had two documented concussions, including one with the Patriots, but he undoubtedly took several other malicious hits to the head.
In a Globe interview, one of Hernandez’s attorneys, Jose Baez, said Hernandez experienced migraines while he was in prison. He also said Hernandez suffered from memory lapses, as well as episodes of paranoia and depression. Suicidal behavior is also associated with CTE.