WASHINGTON • In the summer of 2013, Aaron Hernandez lived in a four-storey mansion in the Boston exurbs, a 20-minute drive away from Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts, Boston, where he played American football for the New England Patriots with rare agility and striking versatility.
Just a year earlier, the team had rewarded him with a lucrative contract extension, US$12.5 million (S$17.46 million) up front.
He told reporters he was a changed man, different from the 20-year-old whose off-field incidents at the University of Florida had raised concerns about his character.
He had just proposed to his girlfriend, Shayanna, who was pregnant with their first child, a baby girl they would name Avielle. He was 23, handsome and rich, settling down and growing up. He had everything.
Early on Wednesday, correctional officers found his limp body hanging from a bedsheet affixed to a window inside a prison cell inside Souza-Baranowski Correctional Centre in Massachusetts. The state said he jammed the door shut from the inside, to buy an extra few minutes in case anyone tried to keep him from dying. He was 27, and he had lost it all.
For as long as sports have occupied a central place in American culture, athletes have experienced dizzying, public falls from grace. None has come as swiftly and stunningly as Hernandez's.
In February 2012, he caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. Five years and a couple months later, he died in a single-person cell in a maximum-security prison.
In between, he signed a US$40 million contract, following which he said he was "set for life, a good life."
Yet, 10 months later, in 2013, with the discovery of the body of a friend Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player, that had been shot multiple times, his life began a dramatic spiral downward. He would be convicted of the friend's murder, accused and acquitted of two other killings from 2012 and become a vivid, ready example of out-of-control off-field behaviour by National Football League (NFL) players.
A man who grew up in Connecticut, became a star in Florida, and reached the pinnacle of his sport died alone in Massachusetts, serving a life sentence without parole, as Prisoner W106228.
On Wednesday morning, hours before his former team visited the White House to celebrate another Super Bowl victory, those close to him expressed shock.
"There were no conversations or correspondence from Aaron to his family or legal team that would have indicated anything like this was possible," said Jose Baez, his attorney. "Aaron was looking forward to an opportunity for a second chance to prove his innocence. Those who love and care about him are heartbroken and determined to find the truth surrounding his untimely death."
His agent, Brian Murphy, rejected the notion Hernandez killed himself.
"Absolutely no chance he took his own life," Murphy wrote on Twitter.
Hernandez, though, had grown expert at living a double life, disguising dark impulses underneath a charming veneer.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, when asked on CNBC last week to sum up Hernandez in a single word, replied: "Tragedy."
Asked if Hernandez's fate - at the time, life in prison - was also heartbreaking, Belichick responded: "Yes. That would be another word."
WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES