A somber homecoming for Aaron Hernandez

By TAYLOR HARTZ

CORRESPONDENT

Invitation-only funeral services were held in Bristol last week for former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Visitors from all across the country gathered at the bright yellow O’Brien Funeral Home on East Main Street under gloomy grey skies for a private service on Monday afternoon. In attendance were Hernandez’s mother Terri Hernandez, brother D.J. Hernandez, fiancé Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, and the couple’s 4-year-old daughter Avielle Hernandez.

The 2007 graduate of Bristol Central High School was found hanging by a bedsheet in his prison cell in the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass., on April 19. His death was ruled a suicide.

The day of the funeral, a Massachusetts judge ordered that the three notes Hernandez left behind in his prison cell would be released to Jenkins-Hernandez before his body was buried. The New England Sports Network reported that the three notes were addressed to Hernandez’s fiancée, daughter, and attorney Jose Baez.

Baez and other members of Hernandez’s legal team, including Harvard law professor Ron Sullivan and Linda Kenney Bayden attended the services and issued a statement on behalf of the family before the burial.

“They love him and they miss him,” said Sullivan, who also said the family thanked the public and Bristol community for respecting their privacy.

At the time of his death, Hernandez was serving a life sentence without parole for the murder of semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd. In 2013, Lloyd’s body was found in an industrial park near Hernandez’s home in North Attleboro, Mass. Just five days before his apparent suicide, Hernandez was acquitted on charges of a double murder in 2012.

The former football star’s body arrived at the Forestville funeral home earlier last week, after Hernandez’s brain was sent to Boston University to be studied for the effects of football injuries on the brain.

Hernandez and brother D.J. attended Bristol schools, playing football in town since they were young. Both boys played for the Bristol Bulldogs, where they father Dennis Hernandez coached. Hernandez was a tight end for the Rams, playing varsity all throughout high school. His first three years playing Muzzy Field, the team was victorious in the Battle for the Bell. Hernandez finished his tenure at Central with a 14-14 tie in his final game in 2006.

Bob Lincoln, who coached Hernandez his first year at Central, said Hernandez had “outstanding talent,” from an early age.

“He was always a good very, respectful kid and an outstanding athlete,” said Lincoln.

Aaron Stanton, who played for the Bulldogs and the Rams with Hernandez, was turned away from the funeral services with his mother Lynn Stanton.

The Stantons were not admitted into the funeral home by the Bristol Police Department, who had officers monitoring a guest list at the end of the home’s driveway. Longtime friends of the family, Lynn Stanton said she and her son have known the Hernandez family for years. “He grew up with them,” she said.

Stanton said he was disappointed he could not pay his respects at the services, and hopes Hernandez is remembered fondly in his hometown. “I loved Aaron, he was a good guy.”

While several self-proclaimed Patriots fans stood on East Main Street to pay homage to the NFL star, other Bristol residents discouraged the crowds of spectators. Walking past the crowd outside, Pat St. John, Bristol, said “It’s a shame that our town is highlighted off of him.”

Although he said he didn’t know Hernandez personally, St. John said he doesn’t think he will be remembered for his NFL record.

“A lot of people who believe sports are almighty might remember him as good, but the fact is, he’s a murderer,” said St. John.

After playing four years for Bristol Central, Hernandez went on to play for the University of Florida, and was drafted for the Patriots in 2010. He later signed a seven-year, $41 million contract with the New England team.

Lincoln said he hopes his high school legacy can live on. “I’d like to remember him as he was when I knew him,” said Lincoln, “a very fun loving good kid.”

Aaron Hernandez’s legal team delivers a statement outside the O’Brien Funeral Home after Hernandez’s funeral on March 24. Ron Sullivan read a statement from the family. (TAYLOR HARTZ)