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It's a smile that radiates youthful invincibility. Aaron Hernandez's class photo from the 2007 Bristol (Conn.) Central High yearbook exudes a confidence befitting a transcendent football talent who was the most highly recruited player in school history. He had even graduated a semester early, in December '06, so that he could enroll at Florida and take part in spring practice.
Beneath Hernandez's class picture is his senior quote, echoing the advice his father, Dennis—who had passed away a year earlier—bestowed upon him frequently: "If it is to be, it is up to me." So meaningful was that message to Aaron that he had the line tattooed on his left forearm.
In the six years since Aaron Hernandez left Bristol, he has fulfilled much of that promise. He won a national title at Florida, played in a Super Bowl with the Patriots and emerged as a transformative NFL player, joining with Rob Gronkowski to form the most productive tight-end pairing in league history. In August 2012 the Patriots rewarded him with a seven-year, $41.1 million contract extension, including a $12.5 million signing bonus, the largest ever given to any tight end by any team.
But now the career of the 23-year-old Hernandez is suddenly in peril, and potentially even his life as a free man is in jeopardy. Last week he became a central figure in the investigation of the murder of Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semipro football player who had dated Shaneah Jenkins, the sister of Hernandez's fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins.
In the early morning of June 17, neighbors near Hernandez's house in North Attleborough, Mass., reportedly heard gunshots. At about 5:30 p.m. that day, a teenage jogger found the body of Lloyd, who had been shot multiple times, in an industrial park about a mile from Hernandez's house. Within 24 hours, local and state police were searching Hernandez's $1.3 million home on a quiet lane in the leafy suburban town a little more than 10 miles from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Investigators returned to the property the next two days and again last Saturday. On Monday, police in wetsuits with metal detectors searched a body of water near his house for evidence.
Hernandez's activity on the night of June 16 and afterward has become a focus of the police probe: There were reports from Fox25 in Boston that he and Lloyd were together at a bar in Boston with two other men, yet to be identified, that Sunday night. ABC News reported that Hernandez had his house professionally cleaned on June 17, and investigators found his home-surveillance system destroyed. A vehicle rented in Hernandez's name was found near the crime scene.
Last Thursday, in what will henceforth be known as Massachusetts's White Bronco moment, TV helicopters followed Hernandez as he drove a white Audi SUV to the Patriots' training facility and then headed to his lawyer's office in Boston. Along the way he stopped at a Gulf station in Foxborough, where he was surrounded by reporters as he pumped gas. So many journalists were camped outside his house last week that neighborhood kids set up a lemonade stand, and an ice cream truck visited daily.
Hernandez had yet to be accused of a crime as of Monday, but sources say he could face charges related to obstructing the investigation, with the possibility of more serious accusations as the case develops. Suffice it to say it seems unlikely that Hernandez will make his scheduled appearance at the Bristol Boys and Girls Club's "Inspiration Day" next month. Cytosport, the nutritional supplement maker, severed its ties with Hernandez last Friday.
In a week during which the trial of reputed Boston mobster Whitey Bulger began and the Bruins were playing for the Stanley Cup, Hernandez dominated the city's front pages, not to mention the sports pages. As the story unfolded, a portrait of Hernandez emerged, but it was one of contradictions. Some who thought they knew him best now wondered if they knew him at all. From Bristol to Gainesville to Foxborough, the question lingered: Who is Aaron Hernandez?