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Spotlight: 2018

Did brain damage from football contribute to the violent life of Aaron Hernandez?

In a podcast and print series, the Spotlight Team tells the story of the former Patriots star — and the brutal business of football.

Aaron Hernandez speaks to the media during his Patriots playing days.John Tlumacki

Spotlight Team: Patricia Wen (editor), Andrew Ryan, Beth Healy, Sacha Pfeiffer, Bob Hohler, and Todd Wallack. Podcast producer: Amy Pedulla


When former New England Patriots star and convicted killer Aaron Hernandez hanged himself in prison in April 2017, he left behind a fiancée, young daughter, and many unanswered questions: Had his reckless behavior — heavy drug use, a fascination with guns — been ignored or enabled? Did football-related brain trauma play a role? Spotlight reporters sensed a deeper story, one that shed light on professional football’s brutal, win-at-any-cost culture.

In Hernandez’s 27 years, Spotlight reporters found troubling warning signs: a childhood scarred by a physically abusive father and sexual molestation; chronic pot smoking; an apparent struggle with his sexual identity; and college and NFL teams that seemingly overlooked his off-field troubles. Anchoring the reporting was material never made public before, including nearly 300 jailhouse phone calls from Hernandez to family and friends that Spotlight reporter Todd Wallack obtained through Massachusetts public records law. Those tapes were “like going inside Aaron’s brain,” recalls reporter Beth Healy, “a deep dive into his thinking and personality.”

For the first time, Spotlight worked with an outside group, a Los Angeles-based podcast production company called Wondery. Their joint-venture podcast, “Gladiator,” premiering in January 2019 and stretching to eight episodes, shot to No. 1 on Apple’s podcast chart and has been downloaded more than 10 million times. “Our challenge was to tell a more universal, human story about what happened to this kid” and not just about the downfall of a famous athlete, says podcast producer Amy Pedulla. FX has secured the rights to the podcast and announced this year that it is developing it into a TV series that will be part of a sports-themed spinoff of the American Crime Story series.

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Within Patriots Nation, the story felt painfully local, causing fans to wonder what team officials knew (or suspected) about Hernandez’s off-field problems. At first, “the Patriots really stonewalled us,” says Bob Hohler, an investigative reporter in the Globe sports department assigned to the story. However, other sources surfaced, including State Police records connected to Hernandez’s murder of his friend Odin Lloyd.

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Coach Bill Belichick’s statements to law enforcement “were incredibly revealing,” Hohler recalls. Hernandez expressed safety concerns for his family, but turned down Belichick’s offer to connect him with the Patriots’ head of security, according to Spotlight reporting on notes of Belichick’s meeting with police. Then Belichick offered to have the Patriots help Hernandez find a new place to live. The apartment Hernandez selected, separate from his main residence, was eventually where he stored guns and ammunition.

Then there was the brain trauma: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Researchers at Boston University’s CTE Center diagnosed Hernandez’s condition post-mortem at Stage 3, the worst case anyone had ever seen in a person that young. The series also delved into the NFL’s history of violence, settlement payouts to brain-injured college and pro players, and liberal use of painkillers, often supplied by team officials.

While Hernandez’s on-field exploits have been largely erased, his story still reverberates within the medical and sports communities. Dr. Samuel Gandy is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and program director with the NFL Neurological Care Program, which seeks to help retired NFL players suffering from brain trauma. In the series, he called it “impossible” not to link Hernandez’s CTE to his violent behavior.

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“I do think the [Globe’s] reporting had a larger effect in reflecting on a prominent athlete living in a sustained spotlight, as Aaron was doing,” Gandy says today, “and coming to such violence.”


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