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Coach Urban Meyer's offense at Florida was predicated on getting the ball to elite players as often as possible‚ and Hernandez was particularly effective when he would go in motion from his tight end position and take shovel passes from Tebow. In the January 2009 BCS Championship Game, he had five receptions for 57 yards in Florida's 24--14 victory over Oklahoma. The next season he caught 68 passes for 850 yards and five touchdowns and won the Mackey Award as the country's top tight end. "You just don't plan on someone being that good at tight end," says retired Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, who watched Hernandez catch seven passes for 120 yards in a 27--3 Florida win over the Commodores in '09. "He'd turn short passes into long gains and score on you in a heartbeat."
In September 2007, police questioned Hernandez as a possible witness to an incident outside a Gainesville nightclub that left two men with gunshot wounds. Hernandez had attended the club that night with a friend from Connecticut, but the Orlando Sentinel reported at the time that Hernandez was never a suspect in the shooting. Hernandez admitted to testing positive for marijuana while at Florida; shortly after the '10 draft, The Boston Globe reported that he told NFL teams his marijuana use had helped him cope with the loss of his father.
Following his junior year, Hernandez declared for the NFL draft and was selected by the Pats in the fourth round. Given his stellar career with the Gators, it seemed he should have been taken sooner. Personnel sources from multiple NFL teams told SI that they had been concerned before the draft about possible gang connections among Hernandez's Bristol associates. DeSantis says he even got calls from NFL teams regarding Hernandez's many tattoos. "You can't judge someone unless you know him," DeSantis says. "People judge him by his tattoos."
Those who coached Hernandez at Florida say they found him to be a hard worker with a brilliant football IQ but believed he cultivated a tough image because he wanted to prove himself. To David Nelson, a former Florida teammate and now a receiver with the Browns, that persona was a front. "On the surface he's a tough guy or a thug," says Nelson, who was reached last week in Haiti, where he's doing charity work. (He said he was not aware that Hernandez was linked to a murder probe until informed by SI.) "That's not who he is. To people who know him, deep down there's a sensitive side."
Nelson says that Hernandez would fail drug tests after his trips home to Connecticut, and that Meyer began to discourage Hernandez from going home. Hernandez's relationships with Florida teammates Tebow and the Pouncey twins, Maurkice and Mike (both now centers in the NFL), helped him immensely in Gainesville, according to Nelson. "He's had trouble with some drugs, but it's never gone anything past [that]. I don't see violence in him."
Nelson says Hernandez has the type of personality—"that old quote, loyal to a fault," he says—that made it difficult for him to distance himself from friends back home. That's something that worried Florida coaches as well. "There were always people around him that weren't in his best interest," says a former Florida staffer. "For him, it's like anything else. He's a good-hearted kid who had a hard time saying no."
In the past year Hernandez has twice stood before the assembled media in Foxborough and declared himself a new man. After signing his contract extension last August, he said, "You get changed by the Patriots way." Three months later, after his daughter was born—on his own birthday—Hernandez told the Boston media, "I can't be young and reckless Aaron no more. I'm going to try to do the right things, be a good father and raise her the way I was raised."
But is Hernandez changed? A civil suit refiled last Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Florida by an acquaintance of Hernandez's named Alexander Bradley alleges that in February 2013 the two got into an argument at a Miami strip club, and afterward Hernandez pointed a gun at Bradley and the weapon discharged. Bradley lost his right eye and had multiple facial reconstruction operations, according to the suit. Because Bradley did not cooperate with police, no criminal charges have been filed in the incident. Bradley, who is from Connecticut, was convicted of selling narcotics in 2006 and served 18 months in prison and five months' probation. Hernandez's lawyers have not commented on the suit. The NFL declined to comment on any details related to Hernandez's situation, but the lawsuit alone would certainly be of interest to commissioner Roger Goodell, who has dealt harshly in the past with players involved in gun incidents.
While Hernandez's future with the Patriots is uncertain, and the football ramifications of the case are the least important part of it, last week's news was the latest in a string of stories, ranging from the momentous to the absurd, that have buffeted the New England franchise this off-season.