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Aaron Hernandez grew up in the hills of Bristol, Conn., on a tidy tree-lined street called Greystone Avenue. His dad, Dennis, was a custodian (he briefly worked at ESPN in the early 1980s as a janitor and in the film library); his mom, Terri, a school secretary. In his younger days, Dennis Hernandez was a sports legend around Bristol. He lettered in football at UConn in 1976, and then decades later, his oldest son D.J., a quarterback, became a Husky too. But neither of them was as accomplished as Aaron.
Bob Montgomery, a longtime sportswriter for the Bristol Press, said the younger Hernandez was the "pride and joy" of the suburban city of 60,000, the biggest star ever to come out of Bristol. Whenever Aaron would be named athlete of the week -- it happened often -- Dennis would accompany his son to the newspaper for the interview, beaming with love.
The kid was well-mannered and said the right things, at least in those settings. He was a fireball pitcher in baseball and one of the best basketball players in the city. He was always determined. Jordan Carello, an old teammate and friend from Bristol Central High, saw it at an early age. He was pitted against him in flag football as a kid. One game, Carello's team somehow knew a play Hernandez was about to run. They couldn't stop him anyway, not until he was almost in the end zone. When Carello used to tell him that he was going to play in the NFL, Hernandez usually shrugged it off. "Nah," he'd tell him.
"But I know in his head," Carello said, "that he knew he had the talent and skills. And that's what his father groomed him to be, you know? A football player."
When Aaron was 16, his dad went into the hospital for what was supposed to be a routine hernia surgery. He died from complications resulting from the operation. He was 49. In multiple interviews with people close to Hernandez, all of them have pointed to that day, Jan. 6, 2006, as the moment that changed his life.
Hernandez became quieter, showed less emotion. He would zone out and brood. He had planned to go to UConn, then changed course and committed to Florida. John Hevesy, who became his position coach in Gainesville, said it was one of his toughest recruiting jobs because Hernandez was in the middle of dealing with his father's death. Ultimately, he wonders if Hernandez left his home state because he wanted to escape the memories and grief. He graduated from Bristol Central a semester early, shortly after his 17th birthday, and bolted for college.