From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
A working-class kid with big dreams, Aaron Hernandez idolized his star quarterback older brother, worked out for hours before and after school and played out his fantasies with his thumbs on the controllers of the Madden NFL video game. "We'd say, 'One day we're going to be like that,'" friend Dustin Tucker tells PEOPLE of their childhood in Bristol, Conn. "And he did become like that!"

With his June 26 arrest on a first-degree-murder charge, however, Hernandez's hard-won life as a tight end for the New England Patriots has begun to crumble. In a shocking case pieced together from his own cell phone records and home-security cameras, prosecutors say he "orchestrated the execution" of his friend Odin Lloyd, a semipro football player who was shot five times and left for dead after Hernandez, 23, had texted he wanted to see him in the middle of the night. Prosecutors say Lloyd tapped out three eerie texts to his sister, who had watched him get into Hernandez's rental car around 2:30 a.m. on June 17: "Did you see who I'm with"; "NFL"; and finally, "Just so you know."

The Patriots dumped the promising but troubled player, whose meteoric rise led him to the top ranks of the NFL and a $40 million contract. Meanwhile, disturbing questions continue to pile up around Hernandez: Was he, as police are now investigating, the one who shot two men dead last summer after a nightclub fight in Boston? Was Lloyd killed because he knew about the crime? Could it be, as laid out in a pending civil lawsuit, that Hernandez shot another friend in the face earlier this year? His attorney Michael Fee says the case against him is "at bottom, a circumstantial case." His mother, Terri, says her son will be cleared.

Hernandez grew up in the Hartford suburb where his mother still works in the office of South Side Elementary school. "He was a good friend and a kid people looked up to," said Tucker, who has known him since the fifth grade. But Hernandez's mother told USA Today in 2009 that the shock of his father's death led her son, only 16 at the time, to hang with the wrong crowd. "There was so much anger," she said. His reported association with gangs and guns followed him into the 2010 NFL draft and turned him from a first-to a fourth-round pick.

Fatherhood seemed to kick-start his self-awareness. After his high school sweetheart and fiancée Shayanna Jenkins, 24, gave birth to their daughter Avielle in November, Hernandez told an interviewer, "Now another one is looking up to me. I can't just be young and reckless Aaron anymore."

But Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen thinks he never shed his reckless behavior. "One of our brothers is in trouble right now because he didn't want to be different," Allen told newbies at the NFL's rookie symposium the same day as Hernandez's arrest. "You're right, I'm different. I got a lot more money in my pocket and a lot more sense. That's the way you got to go about it." Now, denied bail and with his athletic promise cut short, Hernandez sits in a Dartmouth, Mass., jail with plenty of time to ponder what went wrong. "If the charges are true, not only is his career over, but he'll spend the rest of his life in prison," says Tucker. "Whatever happens, though, he's still my friend."

  • Contributors:
  • Reported by Juliet Pennington,
  • Jeff Truesdell.