By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The death of Aaron Hernandez certainly brought a close to a sad chapter for, perhaps, one of the greatest scholastic athletes the Mum City has ever seen.
When Hernandez began to compete athletically in Bristol, whether it was midget football or Little League or even just at the park, the stories of a talented young athlete with what was seemed like limitless ability and potential was beginning to grow.
Observers were marveling at the accomplishments of older brother DJ and before long, younger brother Aaron joined those conversations.
Eventually, both siblings called Bristol Central High School home and once the younger Hernandez reached sports at the scholastic level, all of his skills were quickly showcased.
Compared to teammates and opponents alike, he was a man-child – bigger and strong than everyone else with polished skills and athleticism someone at the high school level shouldn’t have.
And those football skills were uncanny.
Aaron could run faster, jumper higher, and slip his way out of all the double and triple teams of defenders he faced.
Catching a football seemed to be second nature and if Bristol Central quarterbacks like his big brother or former standout Matt Coyne simply lobbed a ball towards Hernandez, it was going to be caught.
And those types of examples were too many to count.
At the Thanksgiving game against Eastern in 2004, a cold evening affair, Hernandez was in the end zone – sealed off by the Lancers’ Paris Carmel – an excellent athlete in his own right – and another defender.
Hernandez simply skied in the air to nab the ball, rising above both defenders, and snaring it in to thunderous applause as the Rams eventually shut out the Lancers by a 20-0 final.
He played defense too (we’ve even seen New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, at one time, go to him defensively to patrol the end zone on a last-minute drive).
At Central, Hernandez would force fumbles, sack opposing quarterbacks, and put together an all-around package that made him the top tight end in the state – and in the country.
As a senior, Hernandez scooped up 1,334 receiving yards and was putting himself into the state record books.
For his career, he wrangled up 172 catches for 3,677 yards – and those record breaking state totals put himself on every NCAA Division I radar while earning Connecticut Gatorade Football Player of the Year honors.
But he also dominated in basketball at Central, again suiting up with brother DJ, and managed to score 1,222 points in only three years of play, the 12th most points in boys scholastic history in Bristol.
He notched his 1,000th point in a home victory against Bristol Eastern, could easily dunk a basketball, and was a volume scorer and rebounder.
As a sophomore forward, Hernandez averaged 21.1 points and 11.4 rebounds-per-game while once sinking 38 points in a game.
He blocked 35 shots that season and marched to the free throw line a mind boggling 205 times.
The volume scorer reference should be amended because most volume scorers don’t shoot for a high percentage.
Well, Hernandez made 54-percent of his field goals in 2005 as a sophomore and came off a freshman campaign that saw him drain nearly 60-percent of his shots.
He even dabbled a little bit in track and field and there wasn’t any doubt that he’d be headed to the top collegiate level in football.
Hernandez made an oral commitment to the University of Connecticut but after a whirlwind weekend recruitment visit to the University of Florida, Hernandez changed his mind about staying in state and headed down South instead.
Yes, there were times when Hernandez got himself into trouble in Florida, but when his focus was on the gridiron, he quickly proved his skills at the tight end position for the Gators – eventually helping the squad to the 2009 BCS Championship.
He made nine catches for 151 yards and a couple touchdowns as a freshman while one short year later, Hernandez started all but two games for the program.
Keeping that position as a junior, he caught a combined 102 receptions for 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns over his final two campaigns.
And it was as a junior in 2009, Hernandez earned the John Mackey Award – given to the best tight end in the nation – and his 68 catches for 850 yards and five touchdowns were some of the best totals at his position in the country.
He then opted to bypass his final year of collegiate eligibility and declared for the 2010 NFL Draft.
The tight end should have been a first round pick and when the middle rounds approached and he was still on the draft board, a local squad made the decision to scoop him up.
Hernandez was drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round, taken with the 113th pick, and with New England also drafting (in the second round) tight end Rob Gronkowski, the squad quickly built up one of its most questionable positions at tight end.
He signed a four-year deal and his career was off and running as a 20-year old rookie – the youngest player in the league that year.
Hernandez’s first reception in the NFL was a monstrous 46-yard completion that saw the tight end run here, there, and everywhere, giving just a glimpse of what he would bring to the Patriots.
The following week against the Jets, he surged for 101 yards on six receptions, making him the youngest player to tally 100+ receiving yards in a game since 1960.
His rookie year numbers saw him collect 563 yards on 45 receptions, catching six passes for touchdowns while playing in 14 regular season contests.
In his second campaign, Hernandez was named to the Pro Bowl and once again played in 14 games.
He made a career best 79 catches for 910 yards, good for seven touchdowns, and once again had his longest grab go for 46 yards.
Hernandez also ran a little bit in the Patriots offensive schemes as he made nine rushes for 97 total yards, averaging just under 11 yards-per-carry for his career.
He even scored a touchdown in the 2011 Super Bowl as the Patriots fell to the Giants.
Pay day came on August 27, 2012 when the Pats signed Hernandez to a five-year contract extension worth $40 million that included a $12.5 million signing bonus.
To say the least, Hernandez was going to factor into the Patriots’ plans for years to come.
A high ankle sprain sidelined him in 2012, his final season in the NFL, but he still posted 51 catches for 483 yards and five touchdowns.
And when New England fell to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship game, it marked Hernandez’s final appearance in the NFL.
From there, Hernandez’s life took a tragic turn that effected several individuals over recent years.
And while the final chapter of his life was of Shakespearian quality, there’s simply no denying his scholastic accomplishments and athletic abilities we all marveled at before Hernandez left the Mum City.
Comments? Email mletendre@BristolObserver.com.