BY STEVE BRENNER
Once the feeling of shock dissipated, a sense of sadness hung over what is arguably the greatest fall from grace in American sporting history.
As former New England Patriots’ tight-end Aaron Hernandez begins life in jail without parole — just a mile from the home of the Super Bowl champions — after being found guilty of murdering alleged friend Odin Lloyd, the NFL questions how things ended up here.
He was an outstanding athlete, a college phenom, who was on the receiving end of a $40 million deal. Hernandez had the world at his feet.
Yet, delving into the 25 year-old’s brutal background reveals a life tumbling inexorably out of control to the point of no return.
When Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft initially took the stand following Lloyd’s murder two years ago, he told the jury how he had been ‘duped’. The Patriots, he said, did not know about the player’s problems.
If that is so, Kraft clearly has no idea about reality. Hernandez was notoriously known as a troubled individual with a serious narcotics problem which would ultimately act as the crux for his devastating downfall.
His association with gangsters and hangers-on who loved the idea of being associated with an NFL superstar sent him down a path from which he was never able to course-correct.
Indeed, in just a few weeks, he stands trial on double-murder charges for allegedly being the gunman in a drive-by shooting after an incident at a Boston nightclub in the summer of 2012.
Since 2007, Hernandez has been linked to shootings involving six people in four incidents, which have resulted in three murders. One survivor lost his right eye in a fracas which occurred while attending the University of Florida.
Of course, Kraft had no idea he was trouble. It’s beyond parody. Fears his fame would help with his case were not realized.
There is, however, a tragic root to the story. Hernandez and his brother DJ, a proficient quarterback himself, doted on father Dennis — no paragon of virtue – who spent time in jail and associated with mobsters.
Yet, Hernandez senior was able to turn his life around and focus on his boys – and with good reason. While DJ was impressive, his younger brother’s athleticism and strength simply blew him out of the water, breaking records at will. High school stats of 1,800 yards and 24 touchdowns in a season saw him crowned “Defensive Player of the Year” in his junior year in 2005.
Hernandez was hailed as one of the greatest athletes the city of Bristol, Connecticut, had ever produced. A polite and humble star of the future.
What followed was heartbreaking. Mother Terri had already been arrested in an attempted sting on sports bookmakers in 2001. She already was hurtling off the rails and cheated on their father with a vicious drug-dealer who would attack her with a knife years later and be sent to jail.
The hammer blow, though, came in 2006. Dennis had checked himself into hospital for a routine hernia operation only to catch an infection and die. He was just 49 years old.
It left Hernandez, 16 at the time, utterly heartbroken and spiraling into a life of drugs, mayhem and madness from which he never recovered.
This was a boy whose life was about training and being in the gym; a little partying, yet nothing irretrievable. His father was his shield. Without his help, his world was blown apart.
He began hanging out on the wrong side of the tracks, his body became adorned with thug-like tattoos. On his left arm, it screamed “HATE ME NOW.” The word “BLOOD” was on his right hand. He degenerated into a severely troubled, angry young man whose lashing out left too many dead in his wake. He was hooked on the mind-bending PCP and marijuana.
Yet he had it all.
In 2011, the pairing of Hernandez and current Patriots’ star Rob Gronkowski smashed every record in sight.
Then the multi-million-dollar contract followed, sadly, by the descent into a life of murder and sitting caged up for the rest of his life.
The last word though should come from the mother of Lloyd, a woman who has lost a son at the hand of a vicious , paranoid madman who felt there had become grievance between the pair so damaging that shooting him dead was the only answer.
“The day I laid my son Odin to rest, I felt my heart stop beating for a moment,” said Ursula Ward.