Throughout his football career, into college and onto the big money with the pros, it was always one step forward, one step back – on-field glory eclipsed by off-field troubles – until it all came crashing down this week.
The 23-year-old was charged for the first degree murder of Boston semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd near the NFL star's North Attleborough, Mass., home. He is also under investigation for two more killings and has five other gun-related charges connected to Lloyd's death, which occurred on June 17.
He had pleaded not guilty in the Lloyd murder case.
It is a stunning fall for Hernandez, who signed a $40 million contract with the New England Patriots last year. The youngest player since 1960 to have 100 yards receiving in a single game, the star, born to a Puerto Rican family in Bristol, Conn., would hold himself up as a role model.
"When I see Hispanics who look up to me, I try to lead them in the right direction and hopefully it gives a lot of Hispanics out there a drive to be able to be successful," he told Extra in April. "There's not that many Hispanics in the NFL and it's just an honor to be one."
High School GloryHernandez was first recognized as a standout on the football field when he attended Bristol Central High School, where he set several records and won a few prestigious awards.
Although his talent was spotted early on, so were his problems. “Personally, I’ve always had concerns,” Hernandez's former high school coach Doug Pina told the Boston Herald in 2010. “He’s still finding himself. With the right people around him … he’ll do very well.”
Following his arrest, police began retracing Hernandez's history, drawing on clues literally written on his arms. Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson says investigators are looking at Hernandez's tattoos for evidence of gang affiliation.
A photo obtained by TMZ shows a then-17-year-old Hernandez wearing all red while making a hand gesture similar to the gang signs used by a local Bristol Bloods street gang.
An additional shot, also obtained by TMZ, shows Hernandez, at 19, taking an iPhone selfie while again dressed in all red – this time carrying a handgun.
Michael Dwyer / AP
Nevertheless, his success throughout his time at the university was seemingly unstoppable. Gaining a slew of recognitions during his time at the University of Florida, he most notably won the John Mackey Award, given annually to the nation's best tight end.
He skipped his senior season to enter the 2010 NFL draft, seen as a possible first-round pick.
But while that year proved a winner for Hernandez's career, his personal life suffered another setback. His mother Terri, who remarried after Hernandez's dad died, divorced her then-current husband while he was behind bars for slashing her with a knife, Connecticut's Hartford Courant reports.
Then Hernandez fell as an NFL draft prospect because of testing positive for marijuana while he was still in school. Still, the Patriots took a chance on him, and true to form he excelled as an athlete – only to suffer his worst fall yet.
Following murder allegations, Hernandez, who was dropped from sponsor Puma on Thursday, was dropped from the Patriots.
Extending their "sympathies to the family and friends who mourn [Odin's] loss," the team issued a statement sharing their "disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation."
Those who knew him, while always aware of his troubles, still were shocked.
"It seemed like he had turned a corner and was maturing," a former staffer who worked with the athlete when he played for the University of Florida, tells the Boston Globe. "We knew there were things to work through. Hard-working kid, guys on team loved him. He's a tough guy … but never to the lines of what's being talked about [now]."