Aaron Hernandez once dazzled crowds with his athleticism and swagger on the football field, only to be implicated in one murder, then two others, before taking his own life. The former New England Patriots star was also found, in death, to have a brain disease linked to the combat of football.
In the aftermath of his downfall, the Globe Spotlight Team took a deeper look into his life and legacy.
Through documents and audio recordings, some never before made public, and interviews with key people who have never before spoken, reporters put together the story of a profoundly troubled young man and the ugly underside of America’s most popular sport.
The series, “Gladiator: Aaron Hernandez and Football Inc.,” was produced in two formats — print and podcast. The six-part print series ran throughout last week. The podcast, produced in partnership with Wondery, is being rolled out more gradually and the third of six episodes was released today.
Both formats of the series can be found at www.bostonglobe.com/gladiator.
Here are some key takeaways:
1. Aaron Hernandez endured physical and sexual abuse as a child.
Aaron Hernandez and his brother, Jonathan, routinely suffered brutal beatings by their father, according to his brother. Details of the abuse undercut the established, glossy narrative about Aaron Hernandez’s childhood.
Dennis Hernandez had previously been portrayed in the media as a good father who was idolized by his sons. Dennis Hernandez’s death at age 49, from a routine hernia operation, has long been seen as a pivotal moment that put Aaron Hernandez on the wrong path. However, the physical abuse that Aaron Hernandez endured at the hands of his father provides a far more disturbing picture of his childhood.
Aaron Hernandez was also sexually molested as a child, according to his brother. One of Hernandez’s lawyers also said that Aaron Hernandez told him he was molested. Neither the brother nor the lawyer provided the Globe with the name of the perpetrator or additional details.
2. Hernandez often exhibited bizarre personal behavior, including hints of danger, to those around him.
Hernandez quickly developed a reputation as one of the most talented and hardest-working Patriots, but teammates also described him as an attention-seeker who at times seemed unhinged. When receiver Brandon Lloyd came to the Patriots, his locker was next to tight end’s locker. Lloyd said he received a warning about Hernandez’s behavior from teammate Wes Welker.
Hernandez exhibited dramatic mood swings, Lloyd said, and one moment he would be in a hyper-masculine fit of rage. “Or he’d be the most sensitive person in the room,” Lloyd said, “talking about cuddling with his mother. Or he’d ask me, ‘Do you think I’m good enough to play?’ ”
Off the field, others said Hernandez was often jumpy and anxious and chronically paranoid that someone was out to get him.
His sports agent said he once saw Hernandez display a rifle, saying he got his “respect” through weapons.
3. Hernandez wrestled with his sexual identity since at least middle school, a struggle that may have been particularly difficult because his father was very homophobic.
The Globe spoke to Hernandez’s high school friend, Dennis SanSoucie, who disclosed for the first time publicly that he and Hernandez had a now-and-then sexual relationship. The relationship with SanSoucie, who was also a quarterback of the high school team, began in middle school and continued through high school.
“Me and him were very much into trying to hide what we were doing. We didn’t want people to know,” Dennis SanSoucie said in an interview.
Hernandez had many reasons to hide his same-sex attractions, including that his father routinely used the word “faggot” at home and made it clear he would not approve of one of his sons being gay, his brother told the Globe.
It would not be until near the end of his life that Hernandez told his mother about his sexuality, even as he was engaged to a woman, Shayanna Jenkins. When Hernandez was in prison, he told his mother he was gay, according to one of his attorneys, George Leontire.
4. University of Florida coaches pushed Hernandez to graduate high school early and helped him escape consequences when he got into legal trouble.
Florida coach Urban Meyer asked that Hernandez be allowed to graduate six months ahead of the rest of his class, according to the former principal of Bristol Central, Dennis Siegmann. It was part of a rising national trend to get top high school recruits on campus early for spring practice.
“They were pushing pretty hard,” Siegmann said. “It was pretty daunting on Aaron.”
Coaches pushed for Hernandez to graduate high school early despite admissions records showing he needed remedial help with reading and writing. Years later in a telephone call from jail that was recorded, Hernandez described arriving in college brimming with recklessness and rage because of his family turmoil. After his father died, his mother began dating the husband of one of Aaron’s cousins, a move that he felt as a deep betrayal.
Coach Meyer told the Globe that Hernandez was distressed when he arrived at Florida and that Meyer and his staff did their best to mentor and guide him. But Hernandez almost immediately found trouble in Gainesville and records show football officials shielded him from consequences.
5. Hernandez made an alarming disclosure to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, but the coach did little in response.
Belichick was confronted with Hernandez’s stressful emotional state and safety fears in February 2013, when Hernandez made a special trip to meet Belichick at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, an annual showcase for amateur athletes before the league’s draft.
At a meeting at a hotel there, Hernandez told Belichick he “was concerned about the safety of his daughter and his girl’’ because “people might potentially harm’’ them, according to a State Police report the Spotlight Team obtained.
Hernandez’s agent, Brian Murphy, told a grand jury that Hernandez asked Belichick to trade him to a West Coast team or release him for his family’s safety. But Belichick rejected the request, Murphy testified.
Belichick told the police he offered to connect Hernandez with the team’s security chief, which Hernandez declined.
But there is no record of Belichick or the Patriots alerting law enforcement that the family of one of their star players might be in danger.
6. The Patriots helped Hernandez secure an extra apartment in Franklin, Mass., that became known as Hernandez’s flophouse — a role the team has never publicly acknowledged.
During the meeting in Indianapolis, Hernandez accepted Belichick’s offer for the team to find him a new residence, presumably with tighter security, according to the State Police report.
But Hernandez was shown several properties by a Patriots staffer and “rented the worst apartment with the least security,’’ the police report stated. The Globe obtained copies of text message exchanges between Hernandez and this Patriot staffer over the rental.
The Patriots and Hernandez’s ex-convict friends knew about the place. But Hernandez never informed his fiancee about it.
Police later searched the apartment and found drugs and ammunition.
7. State prison officials did not disclose to the public all they knew about what happened in the days leading up to Hernandez’s suicide.
Another inmate snuck into Hernandez cell two days before he died, according to new documents obtained by the Spotlight Team. The inmate was locked in Hernandez’s cell with him for two hours and together they smoked K2, a drug that can cause hallucinations and is hard to detect. The guards allowed the lights to be dimmed during that time, obscuring the surveillance camera’s view, according to the report.
On the night Hernandez died, the guard on duty, Gerard Breau, did not thoroughly check on Hernandez’s state in his cell at 11 p.m., midnight, or 1 a.m. He skipped the 2 a.m. round altogether because he was tired and “in a fog,” he said in the report. When he did show up at 3:03 a.m., he did not have his keys on him; he had to wait for another guard to bring them to open the cell door.
Finally, Hernandez’s toxicology reported by the Department of Correction came back “negative” for drugs, including K2. But the medical examiner and other authorities refused to say what tests they did. And the Correction Department did not tell the public in its conclusions that it knew Hernandez had done drugs at least 30 hours before dying.
8. Hernandez was habitual marijuana smoker — and also used other drugs.
Hernandez often smoked marijuana before games in high school and college, according to one of his teammates and Hernandez’s attorney. At the University of Florida, Hernandez said he was high every time he took the field, according to the lawyer, Jose Baez.
Coach Urban Meyer acknowledged that Hernandez did fail one drug test in college, but he said the star tight end passed all subsequent drug tests despite rumors of his chronic marijuana use.
After college, Hernandez was intoxicated when police responded to an argument he was having with his fiancée in Hermosa Beach, Calif. He spent time with known drug users and drug dealers, records show, and at least one friend told the Globe that she saw him snorting cocaine.
In prison, Hernandez illicitly smoked K2, a form of synthetic marijuana.
9. Hernandez described his cell as “cozy” and sounded oddly at home in jail.
Hernandez told his mother that jail did not bother him. “I’ve been the most relaxed and less stressed in jail than I have out of jail,” Hernandez told her, according to a recording of the conversation obtained by the Spotlight Team.
In other phone calls, Hernandez described his cell to his fiancée. “I have everything lined up perfect, have my little trash in there,” Hernandez said. “Everything all folded, I always make a nice perfect pillow.” He added, “It’s actually cozy. I think I enjoy it too much.”
The recordings of nearly 300 phone calls Hernandez made from jail to family, friends, and former teammates offer a unique window into his world. The calls were by turns appalling, bizarre, and pathetic. He tried to understand what had become of his life but couldn’t. But he was clear that his football celebrity, and all that went with it, had meant very little in the end.
“You have to find inner peace to be happy. Nothing you do is gonna make you happy. Nothing you get is gonna make you happy,’’ Hernandez said on one jail call. “Just like me, like by having money . . . having everything in the world, I still was miserable. Know what I mean?”
10. Hernandez displayed some CTE symptoms and some neurologists link the brain diagnosis to part of his behavior.
When Hernandez was alive, he struggled with symptoms associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, including paranoia, flashes of anger, a lack of judgment, and difficulty controlling his impulses. Hernandez also often complained of headaches and memory loss, according to his attorneys and recordings of phone calls he made from jail.
The public and some neurologists remain deeply skeptical about whether Hernandez’s crimes could be attributed in part to CTE, which is a progressive degenerative brain disease. But at least one brain specialist, Dr. Sam Gandy of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, unhesitatingly make a link between Hernandez’s injured brain and his conduct.
The damage to Hernandez’s brain was so extreme, Gandy told the Globe, that some connection between it and Hernandez’s actions is undeniable: “It’s impossible for me to look at the severity of CTE and Mr. Hernandez’s brain and not think that that had a profound effect on his behavior.”
Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com. The Globe’s Spotlight team welcomes feedback and tips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-929-7483.