INDIANAPOLIS - The calendar says it has been less than six years but Aaron Hernandez feels that his trip from There to Here seems much longer. “Sometimes I still sit back and think how crazy it really is,’’ says the Patriots’ eclectic and electric tight end, who has made it from high school to the Super Bowl at fast-forward speed.
Along the way the 22-year-old from Bristol, Conn., has redefined how his position is played in the NFL and made himself the universal adapter on a New England team that long has had a reputation for using its players in unconventional ways.
“It’s hard to find anybody in the league or anybody in the last five or 10 years that you can compare him to because he’s not prototypical in any form or fashion,’’ observed guard Brian Waters. “But yet and still, every job he’s asked to do he does it and does it really well.’’
Hernandez not only plays tight end, he also lines up as a slot receiver, carries the ball, and serves as a blocker. And if coach Bill Belichick asked, he’d be happy to line up on the other side of the ball. “I’d definitely play,’’ said Hernandez, who was an imposing defensive end in high school. “I don’t think he would do that but if he ever asked me I’d have no problem doing it.’’
Hernandez’s performance artistry extends to his skin, where his torso, back, and arms are covered with tattoos that serve as a Rand McNally road map of a life during which the man always has been ahead of himself and most other people. Keeping up with older brother DJ forced him to get comfortable in the fast lane.
“He pushed me when I was younger,’’ says Aaron, who was a freshman receiver when DJ quarterbacked Bristol Central’s team. “I was always going against my brother and older people so it helped my game in whatever sport it was.’’
His power-packed physique didn’t hurt. “A little boy in a man’s body,’’ said Peter Wininger, who had Hernandez starting on the varsity basketball team when he was 14. “The things he did on the court were sometimes amazing.’’
Hernandez could play center, power forward, shooting forward, even playmaker. “When I needed him to, he would bring the ball up because nobody could take it from him,’’ Wininger said.
His natural football position was receiver and Hernandez balked when the offensive coordinator suggested he switch to tight end. “Aaron’s first reaction was, he was furious,’’ recalled DJ, whose first pass that season was a touchdown to his brother. “But the coach said, I don’t rotate my tight ends.’’ That’s all Aaron needed to hear. As long as he was on the field, he didn’t care where he lined up. “One Thanksgiving it was like a monsoon,’’ his brother recalled. “So they threw him in the backfield.’’
Football was in Aaron’s DNA. DJ went on to play quarterback at the University of Connecticut and now coaches them at Brown. Their father Dennis, known as “The King’’ during his playing days at Bristol Central, also suited up for UConn. When he died six years ago at 49 after undergoing routine hernia surgery, Aaron was devastated.
He had seemed uncharacteristically detached at the previous night’s basketball game and Wininger had ridden him about his lackluster play. “Aaron never shared with me that his dad was in intensive care,’’ the coach said. “When I called him, the moment he picked up the phone he was screaming: ‘He just died! He just died!’’ The first place he came was back here to the school. He came here to seek solace.’’
The day his father was buried Aaron insisted on playing that night’s game - “He wouldn’t let me move it,’’ Wininger said - and scored his 1,000th point. But his life had been turned upside down. “It was a little easier for me because I was a little older and I was out of the house,’’ said DJ. “But Aaron was still there and going home every day and not seeing his father, it was a bit of a speed bump, to be expected.’’
When the bump appeared to be throwing Aaron off track amid his grief and anger, DJ set him straight with some big-brotherly talk. “I was hard on him,’’ he said. “I feel bad now that I look back on it but you could see what was ahead of him if he stayed on the right track.’’
In a sunshine state
Originally that track figured to lead to Storrs. Aaron had made a verbal commitment to UConn when he was a sophomore but after Bristol coach Doug Pina sent films to Florida, Hernandez, whose 180 receiving yards a game as a senior set a national record, was attracted to a bigger stage and a brighter spotlight. “The day I walked down the hall and saw Urban Meyer sitting there, I knew we were in a whole different territory,’’ said Wininger, who’s now Bristol Central’s principal.
Hernandez committed to the Gators as soon as he visited The Swamp and since he’d taken extra courses to earn his credits during the winter, he was able to start college early. “Just trying to get a step ahead,’’ he said.
Florida was the perfect fit for a spread offense directed by a most unconventional quarterback. “Tim Tebow is a big reason why I am where I am as a player,’’ said Hernandez. “He helped me with how to attack defenders, he worked with me a lot. He’s a main reason why my knowledge of the game is where it’s at today.’’
Hernandez became a demolition man at Gainesville, where he became the first SEC player to win the Mackey Award that goes to the best collegiate tight end. “He makes any quarterback he’s with look a lot better,’’ Tebow said recently.
Hernandez was pegged as a late first-round draft pick but his college marijuana use, which he revealed to NFL inquisitors at the scouting combine, knocked him down to the fourth round behind seven of his teammates and 71 spots behind Rob Gronkowski, who was taken 42d. “I think it definitely hurt him a little bit inside,’’ DJ said.
Many alignments, assignments
Though the slippage was a blow both to his ego and his pocketbook, Hernandez didn’t figure it would sabotage him once he got to camp. “The draft is a one-day thing,’’ he said. “Once you get to the team you’re just like everybody else. You’ve just got to prove yourself.’’
That has been Belichick’s perennial summer message to veterans, draftees, and free agents. “I tell the team that I don’t care how you got here, it’s what you do when you get here,’’ he said this week. “It doesn’t matter if you were drafted in the second round, the fifth round or not drafted at all. Ten years in the league, one year in the league, we are going to play the best players. Whoever that is, is decided by you.’’
Hernandez, whom Florida tight end coach Brian White likened to “one of those crazed super computers,’’ soon made himself indispensable to an offense that thrives by fitting square pegs into round holes. “He is a tremendous talent to be able to do so many things,’’ former factotum Troy Brown said before the AFC title game. “Really, the mental capacity of it is pretty astounding, too, because there is so much you have to put on your plate.’’
The alignments and assignments change with every formation in a system in which Tom Brady can make alterations at a moment’s notice. “One time you’re the “X,’’ one time you’re the “Y,’’ one time you’re the “Z,’’ one time you’re the “F,’’ whatever it is,’’ said Belichick. “[Aaron’s] a smart player, he’s versatile athletically. He can do a lot of different things from a skill standpoint. He has the mental flexibility to have a lot of different assignments. When you put all that together, you have good versatility.’’
Hernandez doesn’t mind being moved around the chessboard like a runaway rook. “I love the way they use me,’’ he says. “I love the offense, I love this team.’’ He may come from a family of Giants fans in a town that is just as close to the Meadowlands as it is to Foxborough, but Hernandez always has been a star-spangled guy. “My first jersey was Bledsoe,’’ he said.
His favorite quarterback now, he says, is Brady. “But my brother’s definitely up there, as is Tim Tebow,’’ he reckoned. “I’d have to go with Tom Brady but it’s a close one. Real close.’’
As Hernandez understands, Brady’s favorite receiver always is the one who’s open. In the victory over the Ravens that got him and his teammates here, Hernandez was Brady’s most frequent target, catching seven balls thrown his way. If Gronkowski’s reported high ankle sprain hobbles him on Sunday, Hernandez likely will draw even more attention all around. “If he’s not here it’s obviously going to be a lot tougher on me,’’ he acknowledged.
Not that Hernandez is looking to take any downs off. Never has, never will. And certainly not with a championship at stake. “It’s what you live for,’’ he said. “You want to be that person making plays in the big game, being on the field starting, being able to contribute.’’
The man who was the youngest player in the league a year ago now finds himself a moveable fixture on a team that is 60 minutes away from winning its fourth ring in 11 years. It took Hernandez days to get his head around that idea after the Patriots plucked the Ravens, but now he savors it. “The times I am by myself listening to music thinking how amazing it really is, sometimes it brings tears to my eyes,’’ he said. “Because it’s a dream come true.’’