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How ‘Football Inc’ missed warning signs around Aaron Hernandez

Former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez killed himself in prison at age 27, after a stint of criminally violent behavior. Now, the Boston Globe's Spotlight team has investigated the standout's “double lives," including a childhood rife with abuse, extensive reliance on drugs and a severe case of CTE. Were warning signs missed? Amna Nawaz speaks to Globe investigative reporter Bob Hohler.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, troubling questions about the life and football career of the former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez and what those questions today about the game itself.

    Hernandez was an All-American at the University of Florida who became a dominating tight end for the Patriots. He played for two coaching greats, Urban Meyer at Florida and Bill Belichick in New England.

    But Hernandez had a history of instability and volatility and later became criminally violent. He was convicted of the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, a man dating his fiancee's sister. And he was linked to other violent cases, including a 2012 double homicide, in which he was acquitted.

    Last year, Hernandez killed himself in jail.

    His spectacular rise and dramatic fall is now the subject of a major investigation by The Boston Globe's Spotlight team, uncovering new details about his troubled childhood, devastating brain damage, and a number of warning signs missed or ignored by teammates, friends and coaches over the years.

    Bob Hohler is one of the lead reporters, and joins me now.

    Bob, thank you for making the time.

    Congratulations on an incredible series. I know the last one actually comes out tonight. But let me ask you.

    Spotlight team is the storied franchise. What was it about the story of Aaron Hernandez that led you to want to turn all your time and energy and resources towards his story?

  • Bob Hohler:

    Well, this is a huge story, Amna, that broken in our very own backyard here, on our turf.

    And we thought there were so many unanswered questions about every aspect of his life that we wanted to dig into. We wanted to know, was he just an outlier, or is this something that we could learn some lessons from in sort of a broader sense?

    And what was the role of CTE, the terrible brain damage that many football players suffer? How did that affect his life?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So millions of Americans came to know Aaron Hernandez in his public life, right, as a very talented football star, as a charismatic, handsome young man.

    You and your team wrote in one of your reports, though, that that public persona — quote — "proved to be much less important than what he had kept hidden."

    So what was it that he kept hidden? What did you uncover, particularly about his early life?

  • Bob Hohler:

    Well, he lived a double life.

    And, after he died, there was a myth that rose that — his father died when he was 16. And the myth was that he suddenly fell apart, that he — he had come up in this "Ozzie & Harriet" life, and that suddenly everything went awry in his life.

    In fact, his father brutally beat him as a child, brutally beat him as a child. He was sexually molested as a child. And by the time he was in middle school, he was exploring his sexuality and was involved with boys, which would have been an incredible offense to his father, who was extremely homophobic, according to his brother, according to Aaron's brother.

    And so he was living this double secret life even as a child. And he carried that through with him into high school and college and later in life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You document how all of those forces kind of came together to reveal sort of troubling behavior over the years, a pattern, really, when you look back on it now.

    And yet still this was a young man who was basically fast-tracked through high school, through college into the pros. How does that happen?

  • Bob Hohler:

    Well, it's the big business of football. This is Football, Inc.

    And these guys are commodities. And if they're good, they're very valuable. And at the University of Florida, where he went at the age of 17, they pulled him out of high school six months early, they wanted him so badly.

    They got him down there. And they enabled him. He was — as you said, in run-ins with the law down there, no serious consequences. On he went. He did beautifully for them. They won a national championship. Great player. And they send him off to the NFL with all kinds of problems, including marijuana — heavy, chronic marijuana use that they were aware of.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Even in his professional career, you have uncovered there was a real disconnect between what was happening publicly with the rest of us all and what was happening privately.

    And I actually want to play a little bit of an audio recording. This is one of his former teammates testifying to what he saw going on behind the scenes. Take a listen.

  • Brandon Lloyd:

    There would be swings where he'd be the most hypermasculine, aggressive individual in the room, where he'd be ready to fight somebody in fits of rage.

    Or he'd be the most sensitive person in the room talking about cuddling with his mother. Or he'd asked me, "Do you think I'm good enough to play?"

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Bob Hohler, this was not an Aaron Hernandez that most of us got to see.

    But your team went through hundreds of text messages, audio recordings. What was going on in his life at that time?

  • Bob Hohler:

    His teammates knew about his volatile behavior and erratic behavior and potentially violent behavior, and yet it didn't reach the higher levels.

    On top of that, the Patriots have never been forthcoming about what happened down there. Aaron Hernandez told coach Bill Belichick just several months before he killed Odin Lloyd that he was afraid for the lives of his fiancee and his daughter, that they were in danger.

    And that message wasn't relayed to law enforcement, even the Patriots' own security chief. And the Patriots' owner, Robert Kraft, had said he was duped by Aaron Hernandez, he didn't know about this activity.

    So, who knows if lives could have been saved at that point. But the Patriots were aware of what was going on in his life. And we're learning about it now through this report.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You also document in your reporting two documented concussions that Aaron Hernandez suffered as a result of playing football, one early in his career and one later.

    Obviously, there's a lot more work done now about CTE, right, the link between football and that traumatic brain injury.

    What do we know about the role that CTE played in Aaron — Aaron Hernandez's life?

  • Bob Hohler:

    Well, we know that all football players don't get CTE, but some do. And those who do, their lives can be ravaged.

    I mean, I have met men younger than I am who played in Super Bowls for the Patriots who are — their brains so badly damaged, they can't find their way home.

    I mean, this guy, he was only 27 years old, and he had the worse case of CTE that had ever been discovered in somebody that age. So we do know that CTE can cause problems with rage control, impulsive behavior, lack of impulse control, and suicidal thoughts.

    So all of those factored in his life. How much of a role they played in the destruction that he caused, including himself? We may never know. But it certainly is a factor that needs to be considered.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Bob Hohler, it's an incredible series. You mentioned the last one is published tonight.

    Thank you for taking the time to walk us through it.

  • Bob Hohler:

    Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.

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