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Aaron Hernandez pets a dog alongside his brother and father in a family photo
Aaron Hernandez (right), at about 7 years old, with his older brother Jonathan Hernandez, and their father, Dennis. (Hernandez family)

Gladiator Aaron Hernandez & Football, Inc.

Part 1 of 6: Bristol

The secrets
behind the smile

The series was reported by Bob Hohler, Beth Healy, Sacha Pfeiffer, Andrew Ryan, and editor Patricia Wen. Today's story was written by Hohler and Wen.

Sports agent Brian Murphy and one of his top young clients, Aaron Hernandez, had a lot to celebrate in the late summer of 2012. Murphy had just helped the star tight end secure a $41 million deal with the New England Patriots, and Hernandez had told a crowd of reporters that being a Patriot had purged him of his reckless ways.

But, as Murphy flew into Boston, to meet with Hernandez at his condo, he had another matter on his mind. A little thing, perhaps, but also a measure of how much his client had really changed.

A local Toyota car dealer had loaned Hernandez a silver SUV with the expectation of some free Patriots tickets and promotional appearances. But Hernandez, then 22, hadn’t done his part.

This was no way to build a reputation, Murphy told him. To earn respect you have to honor the deals you make.

“No, no,” responded Hernandez.

He reached into his closet and pulled out a rifle.

“I get my respect through weapons.”

Murphy told a grand jury later that he chose to interpret that encounter, never reported on before, as a joke.

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He now knows it was another warning sign missed. There had been so many and would be many more, missed or minimized by Hernandez’s friends, family, coaches, and associates as his star soared, then plummeted toward murder, prison, and suicide.

Infamy outran fame — in the end, it wasn’t close. What was so obvious about him — his athletic gifts, his outsized persona, his growing taste for violence — proved to be so much less important than what he’d kept hidden.

And he hid a lot. A Spotlight Team investigation found a man who lived a life of secrets — about his childhood, his football career, his sexuality, his drug habits, and his fascination with violence. On closer examination, much about him was not as it seemed or has been commonly reported.

Aaron Hernandez smiles during an NFL game against Houston
New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez in a game against Houston, six months before he was arrested in the death of Odin Lloyd. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

Much of his unraveling occurred in plain sight, but those who profited from his onfield heroics rarely troubled to look or care. In life, one of the National Football League’s star gladiators was not who he seemed to be; the elite athlete behind the dimples and the goofy grin was degenerating into a reckless thug. In death, Hernandez provides a damning example of the indifference big-time football often shows to the price some of its players pay.

For Hernandez, as for so many, the proof is now best seen on a microscope slide — his brain was ravaged by CTE, the devastating disease caused by hits to the head, of a severity never seen in someone so young.

This portrait of Hernandez was filled out by scores of interviews across the country and volumes of previously undisclosed information, including thousands of court and government records, and text messages, e-mails, and images that Hernandez sent and received.

Also by his own words and voice. Globe reporters obtained recordings of nearly 300 phone calls Hernandez made from jail over a six-month period while he awaited trial. His conversations with family, friends, and former teammates open a window on his life the public has never seen.

Hernandez at a bail hearing
While behind bars, Hernandez spoke on the phone frequently to family and friends, often reflecting on the highs and lows of his past. He is shown at a bail hearing in June 2013. (Ted Fitzgerald/Pool)

Those calls reveal many things, some of them appalling, some bizarre, some 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?”

Like father, like son

The misery of Aaron Hernandez was, for almost all of his short life, obscured by the myths and secrets of Aaron Hernandez. It was a pattern that went back to his earliest days, to the foundation stories of his childhood, to three key relationships in his life that were nothing like what they seemed.

First comes his father, Dennis, nicknamed The King. In Bristol, Conn., people trying to fathom Aaron’s epic fall said that he never got over the loss of this larger-than-life patriarch. The school janitor who dreamed of athletic greatness for his sons died abruptly after a routine hernia surgery at age 49.

Dennis Hernandez poses in a four point stance in an old yearbook photo
Dennis Hernandez in his 1975 yearbook at Bristol Central High, the same school that his two sons would attend. (Bristol Public Library)

Aaron had adored his dad and lost his way when he was gone, the story goes. Maybe that’s why this good boy went bad.

It was a myth and behind it lay misery, the Spotlight Team review found.

Aaron and his older brother were often beaten and brutalized by their dad. Aaron didn’t cry at his father’s funeral, and people took note. He kept it all inside.

Maybe that’s what he couldn’t get over.

His only sibling, Jonathan Hernandez, now 32, told the Globe that he and Aaron lived in constant fear of their father’s beatings, which were so severe and routine that Jonathan once threatened to call authorities rather than keep it a private family matter.

A photo of Aaron Hernandez’s older brother
Jonathan Hernandez, brother of the late Aaron Hernandez and a former quarterback at UConn. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

“I picked up the phone once to call, to seek help,” the brother said in his first interview on the subject. “And his response was, ‘Call them.’ And he handed me the phone, and he said, ‘I’m going to beat you even harder, you and your brother, and they’re going to have to pull me off of you when they knock down the door.’”

The beatings inside their Greystone Avenue home were often about the tiniest of transgressions, and sometimes related to the father’s drinking. But there was a special fury when The King felt his two sons were not trying hard enough in school or sports, said Jonathan, whose upcoming memoir, “The Truth about Aaron,” is due out later this month. Sometimes the boys couldn’t see any cause for the beatings at all — a kind of impulsive lashing out that Aaron would also manifest in the years to come.

Outside the family home, the image of Dennis Hernandez was quite otherwise. In the traditional working-class city of Bristol, some 18 miles west of Hartford, he was generally regarded as a local success story. He was the scrappy kid who grew up in a family with Puerto Rican roots. People knew he had had his share of run-ins with the law, but they saw him pull himself together as a teenager and become a Bristol Central High football star and a football scholarship recipient at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

Terri Valentine poses in old yearbook photos
Terri Valentine in her 1977 Bristol Central yearbook photos. (Bristol Public Library)

Dennis married Terri Valentine, also a graduate of Bristol Central, and they settled into jobs with the public schools — she was a secretary and he worked as a custodian. They seemed to have much to be admired, even envied, in this sports-crazy town that became home to the headquarters of ESPN. Above all, they had two good-looking, athletic sons who broke records under the bright lights of Muzzy Field.

First to shine was Jonathan, then known as DJ, who would follow his father’s footsteps and get a football scholarship to UConn.

He’d done so well, but at a price.

In his interview with the Globe, Jonathan wept several times recalling painful parts of his childhood that no one had discussed for decades. He recalled a Fisher Price game table at their home in which one of two long sticks was frequently missing: His father used it in his assaults.

Only later in life — and with some counseling help — has he been able to better cope with his past.

“You realize … that’s not how other families do it. You’re just like wow, you don’t have to hide at home if you get a C? Like really?”

He said he and his brother were raised believing that seeking psychological help for problems was a sign of weakness.

Some outside the family did get a hint of the harshness inside the Hernandez home.

Jeff Morgan, a former assistant football coach at Bristol Central, remembers Dennis as an old-fashioned disciplinarian, but one time he wondered if Dennis took it too far with Aaron.

Jeff Morgan, the ex-assistant high school football coach at Bristol Central
Jeff Morgan, the ex-assistant high school football coach at Bristol Central, knew Dennis Hernandez as a strict father who would be obeyed. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

“I know one time (Aaron) went to a senior dance as a freshman. I guess he was drinking before he went to the dance, and they threw him out of the dance at the school. Then, the next time we saw him, he looked like I guess his father did discipline him some.’’

When asked how he knew that, Morgan responded, “He had a black eye. I’m assuming that’s where that came from.’’

Dennis Hernandez also once brought his rough ways to the football sidelines, where he was often on hand to cheer his boys on.

When Aaron was just 8, he had a youth tackle football coach named Tim SanSoucie, whose son was Aaron’s age and would later become a high school quarterback throwing touchdowns to Aaron. Aaron’s father made it known he didn’t think much of SanSoucie’s coaching decisions. After a heated exchange of words, Aaron’s father got physical.

“He promptly turned around and clocked me one across the face, broke my glasses off my face,” said SanSoucie in an interview in his son’s home in Las Vegas.

Police responded, but the matter was later resolved through small claims court when Aaron’s father was ordered to pay for the broken eyeglasses. That money was never paid.

These episodes never fundamentally changed the good-father image that people around Bristol had of Dennis — though there were murmured words of something ominous back in his college days. In retrospect, it looked like a harbinger of the trouble that would tempt and envelop Aaron.

Outdoor shot of Main Street in Bristol
Life along Main Street in downtown Bristol, located about 18 miles west of Hartford. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Two days after UConn lost the final game of its 1977 football season, a police officer from Plainville, Conn., was killed in a bungled home burglary, and detectives ended up questioning Dennis.

He was a person of interest for a reason. The Globe uncovered a police affidavit that says Dennis Hernandez, while not involved in the cop killing, tried to help the burglars evade police. One of the burglars was a football teammate at UConn and Bristol Central.

Dennis, then a junior, was never charged in the case, but he was finished at UConn, where records show he was also on the brink of academic failure.

The turbulence of his personality — and past — was felt most by those who lived with him.

Much later, Aaron, in tapes of jailhouse phone calls obtained by the Globe, reflected on his father’s dark influence on the family. In one conversation, he described growing up in a household where there was “arguing 24/7” and where there was a lot to argue about.

Home where Aaron Hernandez grew up
The home on Greystone Avenue in Bristol, where Aaron Hernandez and his older brother grew up. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Terri and Dennis went through many tough times as a couple. Records show that after they married in 1986, they got divorced in 1991 when Aaron was a toddler, and then remarried again in 1996 when Aaron was 6. Also in 1999, when Aaron was 9, the couple filed for bankruptcy, with credit card and other debts.

There were other troubles. When Aaron was 3, his father was arrested and charged with trying to buy cocaine from an undercover officer. His mother was also once arrested for being part of an underground sports gambling bookie operation, out of the family home, when Aaron was 11.

Aaron, in the jailhouse calls, recalled scenes of his father being tossed out by his mother — and then always allowed back.

“My mom went through a real lot with my father,” he said in another call. “But she just believes in — she loves someone, she just always sticks by them.”

Brutality was not the entire picture. Jonathan said his memories of childhood can be confusing, as the terrifying ones are mixed in with very warm, tender, and loving memories of his father. He recalled the family watching TV together on the couch, eating homemade brownies as a family, and playing sports in the yard. He recalled his father inventing makeshift games with paper bags and yarn for the boys to play.

He said his father helped the two of them at sports practice and games — and that he dearly wanted them to excel in life.

Still, abuse was one of his major motivational tools, though the beatings tapered and eventually stopped as the boys got older, Jonathan said.

Hernandez turns upfield during a high school football practice
Bristol Central receiver Aaron Hernandez, shown here in 2006, set high school football records in the state of Connecticut. (Bob MacDonnell/The Hartford Courant)

Teenage exploration

Aaron would mature into a football player of a skill and local renown his father never knew. But here, too, the gap between the local fable and the reality opens wide under scrutiny.

Hernandez looked like the image of one sort of young athlete on the field but off it, secretly, was another.

The lush green turf of Muzzy Field was where Hernandez could escape the stress of family strife. It was also a place where he could show off his genetic good fortune: uncanny athletic ability that included lightning-quick speed, nimble hands, and exceptional eye-hand coordination.

In his elementary years, Hernandez was a skinny kid, but by high school he quickly became a man among boys, almost reaching his full height of 6 feet, 2 inches and filling out a sturdy muscular build. He wasn’t a motivated worker in his earlier years, but by high school he was practicing harder than anyone else. He seemed determined to be a star.

He also had his trademark dimpled smile, dark handsome looks, and an easygoing side, which drew many friends and admirers. Among them was Shayanna Jenkins, a female classmate whom he dated for a time in high school and who would years later become his fiancee.

By his junior year, he had become an exceptional pass receiver, particularly with Tim SanSoucie’s son, Dennis, as the quarterback. They were one of the most prolific passing tandems in the state — nine touchdown completions in the first four games. In Hernandez’s junior year, he caught 67 passes for a total of 1,807 yards, a Connecticut high school record.

Hernandez with his Bristol Central High football team in 2006.
Hernandez with his Bristol Central High football team in 2006. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

The two teenagers also shared a life outside football. Dennis SanSoucie told the Globe he and Hernandez smoked a lot of marijuana — before school, before practices, and after games. It would become the beginning of Hernandez’s lifelong relationship with getting high, even before big games.

Dennis SanSoucie recalled the first day of junior year walking with Hernandez near the high school.

“We were baked,” said SanSoucie, who later joined the Marines.

For the first time publicly, SanSoucie also talked about a now-and-then sexual relationship he had with Aaron, which 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.

Aaron Hernandez pictured with friend Dennis SanSoucie
Hernandez caught many touchdown passes from his high school quarterback, Dennis SanSoucie, shown here as they prepared for a junior prom event at Bristol Central. (SanSoucie family)

SanSoucie said he and Hernandez worked hard to keep their relationship a secret. In their traditional community of Bristol, where Dennis was bound for the military and Aaron for big-time football, it was not something they wanted people to know about.

For Aaron, it would not have played well at home, especially with his dad.

Dennis Hernandez had long had concerns that Aaron, as a boy, had a feminine way about him — the way he stood or used his hands, his brother said. He also remembered one of Aaron’s early ambitions that sent their father over the edge.

“I remember he wanted to be a cheerleader. My cousins were cheerleaders and amazing,” Jonathan said. “And I remember coming home and like my dad put an end to that really quick. And it was not OK. My dad made it clear that … he had his definition of a man.”

The home environment, in general, was deeply homophobic.

‘Faggot’ was used all the time in our house,” Jonathan said. “All the time. Standing. Talking. Acting. Looking. It was the furthest thing my father wanted you to even look like in our household. This was not acceptable to him.”

Hearing this sort of harsh talk must have been hard for a teenager exploring his sexuality, though Aaron kept his thoughts to himself. He was also privately nursing another sort of sexual hurt.

Jonathan said that Aaron disclosed later in his adult life that he had been sexually molested as a young boy. Jonathan declined to say more to the Globe about this revelation. One of Aaron’s lawyers in his criminal case, George Leontire, also said Aaron had spoken to him of sexual abuse as a child. Neither the brother nor the lawyer was willing to identify the perpetrator.

Aaron’s sexual complexity was one of his closest secrets, one he hinted at only rarely. His high school quarterback friend was similarly circumspect, and for many years.

Various photos of Hernandez with his high school friends
Photos from Dennis SanSoucie’s high school years with Hernandez and other friends. (SanSoucie family)

SanSoucie said he has finally come out in his late 20s to family and friends, after Hernandez’s suicide, despite the difficulty in doing so. He believes that Aaron would be proud of him — for that and his publicly acknowledging their past relationship.

“I really truly feel in my heart I got the thumbs-up from him,” he said.

“He didn’t get back up”

Before his father died during Aaron’s junior year, Aaron had informally accepted a football scholarship to UConn, which would have cemented the special UConn Huskies tradition in the Hernandez household. But Aaron’s outsized talents — and work ethic — captured the attention of college recruiters across the country. Soon, he was getting calls from such places as the University of Michigan, Notre Dame, Boston College, and the University of Florida.

Aaron got a taste of the national media scene, too, as reporters peppered him about where he would take his top talent. At the time, he also began talking about his father in glowing terms, reinforcing the glossy image that many in Bristol saw of the supportive sports dad.

“I wish my dad was here now that more schools are coming. Notre Dame just came on recently and it really makes you think. It just makes me think more,” Hernandez said in a Hartford Courant article. “My dad would have been able to help me out even more. But I’m pretty sure he would have wanted me to go UConn. My family wants me to go to UConn and my heart’s at UConn.’’

But that commitment would waver as he began to be courted by the University of Florida and its legendary college coach Urban Meyer, known for his win-at-all-costs philosophy.

Outside the recruitment whirlwind, Aaron entered his senior year as a teenager searching for his identity — and a good time. He kept up decent grades, but also maintained a vibrant social life, which started to include a sizable amount of drinking, along with smoking pot. On the field, he continued to dazzle crowds with his knack for outmaneuvering defenders.

But in one game against Maloney High School of Meriden, he gave the crowd a scare when he was knocked down by a blindside hit to the head and lay motionless before a hushed crowd.

“I saw him get hit, and I saw him go down. And he didn’t get back up,” said Lorrie Belmonte, a registered nurse in Bristol who was in the stands. “And Aaron would always get back up. And then the coaches went out on the field and … he must have been totally out of it because they called … the ambulance [that] was standing by. And so the EMTs immediately came up on the field and got him and took him.’’

This was 2006, and scientists were just beginning to establish a link between blows to the head in football and the disease now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Soon, researchers would also begin to understand the damage of subconcussive injuries, which may not have immediate symptoms, but still cause profound damage. That research would affect not only professional players, but millions of children who play contact sports.

Two young boys collide during a youth football practice
In the Boston area, young boys from the South End Titans “D” team participated in tackling practice drills. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File)

The pace of CTE research was accelerating, but there was so much that wasn’t known, and the NFL and youth football leagues were largely downplaying the health hazards for players of all ages.

Aaron’s concussion sidelined him for one game. Then he came back and finished out the season. He was named Connecticut’s Player of the Year.

“You’re gonna die without even knowing your son”

As Aaron was juggling college decisions, he was also painfully moving between two homes. He had become alienated and full of anger at his mother after his father’s death. It was a rift that would last for years, another betrayal for Aaron to try to make sense of, another well of misery.

Among Aaron’s relatives based in Bristol, he was closest to a cousin, Tanya Singleton, who was about 14 years older. She was like an older loving sister he never had — and someone he could totally trust.

After Aaron’s father died, he learned what seemed unimaginable: His mother was in a serious romantic relationship with Tanya’s husband, Jeff Cummings. It came as a shock to Aaron and Tanya — and over the years the two grew even closer through shared anguish. Tanya would divorce her husband and see him move in with Aaron’s mother.

Aaron was crushed and enraged, and his loyalty shifted even more to Tanya. He began spending long stretches at Tanya’s house on Lake Avenue, which was across from an athletic field where Aaron used to play youth football. It became like a second childhood home.

Tanya Singleton, Aaron Hernandez’s cousin, and her Bristol home
Amid the turmoil at home, Hernandez grew particularly close to his cousin, Tanya Singleton, and her Lake Avenue house in Bristol became a refuge and a place where he fell in with a tougher crowd. (Pool photo (left); John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

It was a warm, nurturing house that seemed to have an open door to anyone. It was also a house that drew in all kinds of stragglers and drifters, including many with long rap sheets.

It was a place where prosecutors say Aaron got needed solace but also acquired the swagger — and the street-wise mentality — of the wrong crowd.

In later years behind bars, Aaron would have phone calls with his mother in which it was clear he was trying to repair their ruptured relationship. The conversations could be tender, but also blunt — and often profane.

In one, Aaron suggested that she never helped fully treat his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as a boy.

“Matter of fact, you’re the reason I never could pay attention in school and shit. You were supposed to get me my medication,” he said in a call in the fall of 2014.

“Yeah, I knocked you over the head with a frickin’ hammer. That was your medication,” she replied.

Later in that same conversation, his mother seemed to equate the effects of an ADHD medication with a dangerously addictive drug.

“That’s what Adderall is: B-L-O-W,” she spelled out over the phone.

The two went back and forth repeating those letters because Aaron couldn’t figure out what she was trying to spell, until his mother became frustrated and blurted out: “Cocaine, dipshit! That’s what Adderall’s like.”

Terri Hernandez and Jeff Cummings sat in the Fall River courtroom during the murder trial for her son in 2015.
Terri Hernandez (center) and Jeff Cummings sat in the Fall River courtroom during the murder trial for her son in 2015. (Steven Senne/Pool)

Aaron’s mother, Terri Hernandez, declined the Globe’s request for an interview.

In another of their jailhouse calls, Aaron lamented that he long felt he could never be fully open with her.

“There’s so many things I would love to talk to you [about], so you can know me as a person,” he told her. “But I never could tell you. And you’re gonna die without even knowing your son.”

Hernandez reflects on his NFL fame in a jail call

The strains of this relationship were apparent to many of Aaron’s closest friends and family, but not to the college recruiters and coaches assessing his rare ability as a football athlete. In wooing Aaron, they felt they needed his mom on their side — she was, after all, the only parent of this rising national star who tragically lost his father in high school.

It was their story, and publicly they would play their roles in it well.

Meyer, one of the nation’s top college coaches, traveled to Bristol. He visited Aaron’s childhood home and met with his mother.

There was another visit. Hernandez’s high school principal said he also met with Meyer. The Florida coach asked for something that took the principal by surprise.

Meyer wanted Hernandez at the University of Florida — and soon.

Read part two of Gladiator, “Lost in the Swamp,” and sign up below to receive an email when the next story in this series is published.

Spotlight reporter Bob Hohler can be reached at [email protected] and editor Patricia Wen at [email protected]. The Spotlight Team e-mail is [email protected].

For more information on issues raised by this series, including suicide prevention, mental health, LGBTQ+ support, and concussion and sports safety, here is a list of support groups and educational organizations.

Discuss: To what extent, if any, do you think that Aaron’s childhood was a factor in who he grew into?

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