Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fallen HERO

Folks in Hernandez's hometown struggle to understand what happened to their star football player

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DARTMOUTH, Mass. -- A month ago, Aaron Hernandez was the man at the centre of memories and a life illuminated by stadium lights. His past included a hometown that adored him, the images of the tall kid wearing a maroon No. 15 jersey at his high school before he played at the University of Florida and became a star with the New England Patriots. He was rich and famous, and at age 23, an expensive car, a massive home and a new contract worth nearly $40 million were already his.

Now, Hernandez wears a dark green prison uniform, inmate No. 174954 at the Bristol County House of Corrections, and adjusts to a new life in isolation after being charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Odin Lloyd, a former acquaintance.

His home, at least for the foreseeable future, is a 10-foot-by-7-foot cell adorned only with a bunk bed frame, a stainless steel sink-toilet combination, and a metal desk with an attached stool.

"Others would perhaps be devastated, withdrawn, have very difficult times," Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said at the jail Tuesday. Hernandez "didn't seem at all nervous, which surprised me a little bit."

Hernandez's life changed directions quickly and dramatically, leaving former neighbours and admirers in his home town of Bristol, Conn., stunned. Many say they are unable to find words to describe how a life, or at least what was known about it, can so radically alter its course.

"Where do you start?" said Lori Hvozdovic, who works with the booster club for Bristol Central High, where Hernandez first made his name as a tight end and wide receiver.

Others, including Bob DeSantis, Bristol Central's longtime athletic director, preferred to avoid discussing Hernandez altogether. "Maybe after a week or so, after I get a chance to digest it," DeSantis said.

On Monday night, three men stood in a parking lot beyond the wall at Muzzy Field, the multipurpose stadium where, in September 2006, Hernandez was honoured after being named to the U.S. Army All-America team. Asked about what townspeople think about Hernandez now, the men stopped smiling.

"It's not a good time right now," said one of the men, who declined to give his name.

Hernandez was perhaps the best football player central Connecticut ever produced. His name appeared often in local newspapers; his statistics were almost too much to believe. During one game in 2005, he had 260 receiving yards; two weeks later, he broke a state single-game record with 376 yards catching the ball.

"Everything went well" in my career, Hernandez was quoted as saying by the Hartford Courant in December 2006. "Individually I was happy with everything."

Hernandez told reporters at the time that he liked rap music and scary movies, and his dreams kept trying to keep up with how good he really was. He once idolized his father, Dennis, and his brother, D.J., both of whom played at the University of Connecticut. Hernandez committed early to play for the Huskies too, but in 2006, things began to change.

His father died unexpectedly after routine hernia surgery in January that year, and although Hernandez remained a multi-sport star, his football statistics weren't as gaudy. He dropped his commitment to Connecticut, choosing instead to sign with national champion Florida. He graduated from Bristol Central a semester early, beginning his freshman year in Gainesville at age 17.

This wasn't the only change.

"He was very, very angry," his mother, Terri Hernandez, told USA Today in 2009. "He wasn't the same kid, the way he spoke to me. The shock of losing his dad, there was so much anger."

In recent weeks, a once-overlooked struggle to adapt has emerged. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that, during his first semester at Florida, Hernandez punched a man so hard during a bar fight that the man's eardrum burst. The Orlando Sentinel reported last month that Hernandez was questioned but never charged in a shooting in September 2007. The website TMZ published a photograph Hernandez took of himself in 2009, a pistol in his hand.

Hernandez failed at least one drug test during his three years at Florida, and he reportedly admitted during the 2010 NFL scouting combine that he had smoked marijuana, an admission -- and a suspicion he used drugs more often than he'd said -- that pushed him to the fourth round of that year's NFL draft, when the Patriots selected him.

But Hernandez's reputation in his hometown remained pristine. His college and NFL statistics, which seemed to overshadow all else, were mentioned often in a local newspaper item called "Bristol Bits."

Last August, before starting his third NFL season, the Patriots signed Hernandez to a five-year contract extension, a commitment from New England that the young player seemed eager to reciprocate. He donated $50,000 to a charity named for Patriots owner Robert Kraft's late wife and settled into a four-story home in North Attleborough, Mass., a short drive from Patriots headquarters.

"You get changed by the Bill Belichick way," Hernandez told reporters during an emotional news conference after agreeing to the deal, referring to New England's head coach. "You get changed by the Patriot way."

At the same media gathering, Hernandez revealed that he and his fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins, were expecting a daughter, who was born last November.

This was the kind of image outsiders have tried to reconcile against the Aaron Hernandez who, throughout the past few weeks, has been repeatedly mentioned as being involved in violent acts. A man sued Hernandez last month for allegedly shooting him in the face in February, and on June 17, Lloyd's body was discovered in an industrial park about a mile from Hernandez's home. The Boston Globe has reported that Hernandez also is under investigation for whether he was involved in a double murder in June 2012.

The Patriots released Hernandez hours after he was charged in Lloyd's killing and later voided the remaining guaranteed money owed to him.

As the flood of negativity and suspicion surrounds Hernandez, those in his home town of Bristol struggle to make sense of it.

"Shock," said Hvozdovic, who works with the Bristol Central booster club. "It's not a huge city. You usually hear if something is going on, and I've never heard of anything like that before."

A month ago, Hernandez represented the heights of what's possible. Then, Hernandez was booked at the Bristol County House of Corrections in Massachusetts, where he was given physical and mental assessments, assigned the jail's green uniform for pre-trial inmates, and installed in cell No. 2 in the facility's medical ward. His bed was a foot-tall concrete slab topped with a green mattress pad, and a small camera looked in on him. The plexiglass window is scratched with words and symbols, and the only view is of a dumpster.

He was transferred a few days later to a different cell block, where new freedoms include the ability to hear other inmates through the walls and an increase from one hour per day outside his cell to three. One hour is for phone calls, another for solitary and supervised recreation inside a fenced area, and the third for time in the cell block's common area, where other inmates often lean on their cell door and peer through the rectangular window. For now, Hernandez eats, sleeps and exercises alone. Weightlifting and fried foods are forbidden, Hodgson said, and inmates have no access to television.

"He seems to be able to somehow manage," the sheriff said.

Years after stadium lights first bathed him, illuminating the potential and opportunity of a young man, this new world he has created for himself lacks even the ability to tell time. The only way to know is when, at 9 o'clock each night, the lights go out.

-- McClatchy news service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2013 A1

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