The ties that bind Hernandez, Lloyd
On a recent summer Sunday in inner-city Boston, Odin Lloyd dreamed about his future. He was at a cookout with Darryl Hodge, a friend he was so close to they called each other the Wolf Pack, a man who, like Lloyd, had boyhood hopes of playing in the NFL. But now here they were, years later, playing semipro football in empty old stadiums with beat-up bodies and paycheck-to-paycheck jobs.
Imagine, Lloyd told his friend, what life would be like if they could wake up every day doing something they loved. If they had the money to take care of everybody -- family, friends -- and fly anywhere they wanted on a vacation.
"I was like, 'Bro, we know it, we've just got to do better overall,'" Hodge recalled. "'Get better jobs. We should be living like that.' That was the mission."
They never really talked like this, Hodge said. But Lloyd was 27 years old and starting to think about these things, most likely because he was hanging out with New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
His relationship with Hernandez had given Lloyd a glimpse of the life he'd dreamed of. Not only was Hernandez playing football for money -- for millions -- he was on the team Lloyd loved. Hernandez used to get him tickets to Patriots games. On at least one occasion, Hernandez, according to one of Lloyd's friends, had dropped $10,000 on a night of clubbing with Lloyd, and of course Lloyd couldn't believe it. Hernandez had promised Lloyd he'd fly him to California for a vacation. You've got to see Cali, he told him. Lloyd, who was working at a landscaping company, had never been there, Hodge said.
On the night of June 16, Lloyd was driving a shiny, black Chevy Suburban that Hernandez had rented for him. Hernandez, according to Hodge, told Lloyd he could keep it until Monday. Lloyd seemed always to be smiling, but his grin was even wider that weekend when he was behind the wheel of the SUV. Since he didn't have a car of his own, Lloyd pedaled his bike to work. He put a positive spin on his transportation issues, figuring the extra exercise would give him an edge on the field with the semipro Boston Bandits. But then Lloyd pulled up in the Suburban that Saturday, the night the Bandits had a scrimmage, and the team was impressed. "Nice car," they told him. Bandits assistant coach Mike Branch did a double-take. "I looked at him like, 'Odin' -- excuse my language -- 'but whose f---ing car is that?'" Branch said.
Lloyd was star-struck -- "Who wouldn't be?" Branch said -- but didn't brag about his friendship with Hernandez. They had met sometime in the past two years through Lloyd's girlfriend, Shaneah Jenkins, the sister of Hernandez's fiancée, Shayanna. When someone would ask about the football player with the $40 million contract, Lloyd simply told his friends that Hernandez was a cool guy.
That night of June 16, Lloyd was supposed to watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals with Hodge. Lloyd would not root for the Miami Heat; as a Bostonian, that seemed treasonous. Sometime before the game, Lloyd's old Blackberry jangled with a message from his boss, who said Lloyd had landscape work to do on Monday. So he grabbed some leftover barbecue and took Hodge home in the SUV.
They were about to say goodbye around 9 p.m. when Lloyd got a text. The person on the other end asked if he wanted to hang out. And then Lloyd said he might go out after all, and Hodge went home to watch the basketball game.
Days later, the barbecue Hodge's cousin had packed up for Lloyd still sat in Lloyd's refrigerator. "He was supposed to be at home eating," Hodge said. "Not out and about."
The future that Odin Lloyd dreamily talked about lasted less than 10 hours. At roughly 3:30 a.m. on June 17, Lloyd was shot five times in the chest and back. Aaron Hernandez is now sitting in the Bristol County (Mass.) House of Corrections, charged with first-degree murder and five gun-related offenses. He is being held without bail.
As the story of two men with similar dreams but completely different lives continues to unfold, all that the people close to Lloyd have are grief and questions. Why would Hernandez, who seemingly had everything, do something that would cause him to lose it all? Why, if he is guilty of killing Lloyd, would he leave the body in an industrial area less than a mile from his mansion? Why would Lloyd get into a Nissan Altima with Hernandez at roughly 2:30 a.m., only hours before he was supposed to work? Did he know he was in danger?
Mike Branch, who coached Lloyd in high school and adulthood, has been tossing and turning over these questions for more than a week.
"Those thoughts are going through my head," Branch said. "'Odin, if you felt fear, why did you get in the car?'
"It had to be trust, man."
Aaron Hernandez grew up in the hills of Bristol, Conn., on a tidy tree-lined street called Greystone Avenue. His dad, Dennis, was a custodian (he briefly worked at ESPN in the early 1980s as a janitor and in the film library); his mom, Terri, a school secretary. In his younger days, Dennis Hernandez was a sports legend around Bristol. He lettered in football at UConn in 1976, and then decades later, his oldest son D.J., a quarterback, became a Husky, too. But neither of them was as accomplished as Aaron.
Bob Montgomery, a longtime sportswriter for the Bristol Press, said the younger Hernandez was the "pride and joy" of the suburban city of 60,000, the biggest star ever to come out of Bristol. Whenever Aaron would be named athlete of the week -- it happened often -- Dennis would accompany his son to the newspaper for the interview, beaming with love.
The kid was well-mannered and said the right things, at least in those settings. He was a fireball pitcher in baseball and one of the best basketball players in the city. He was always determined. Jordan Carello, an old teammate and friend from Bristol Central High, saw it at an early age. He was pitted against Hernandez in flag football as a kid. One game, Carello's team somehow knew a play Hernandez was about to run. They couldn't stop him anyway, not until he was almost in the end zone. When Carello used to tell him that Hernandez was going to play in the NFL, Hernandez usually shrugged it off. "Nah," he'd tell Carello.
"But I know in his head," Carello said, "that he knew he had the talent and skills. And that's what his father groomed him to be, you know? A football player."
When Aaron was 16, his dad went into the hospital for what was supposed to be a routine hernia surgery. He died from complications resulting from the operation. He was 49. In multiple interviews with people close to Hernandez, all of them have pointed to that day, Jan. 6, 2006, as the moment that changed his life.
Hernandez became quieter, showed less emotion. He would zone out and brood. He had planned to go to UConn, then changed course and committed to Florida. John Hevesy, who became his position coach in Gainesville, said it was one of his toughest recruiting jobs because Hernandez was in the middle of dealing with his father's death. Ultimately, he wonders if Hernandez left his home state because he wanted to escape the memories and grief. He graduated from Bristol Central a semester early, shortly after his 17th birthday, and bolted for college.
Hevesy, who was Florida's offensive line and tight ends coach at the time, became sort of a surrogate father to Hernandez.
"I think he's still 17 years old at times," said Hevesy, now an assistant at Mississippi State. "You always hear of those people who never really mourned a death; they never cried. I think that's him. I can't remember him breaking down and saying, 'My dad died.' I don't think he ever had his dad help him finish growing up."
But he had mentors just waiting to reach out and help in that first year at Florida. He had Hevesy. He had Tim Tebow. The quarterback was just a sophomore then but had previously served as the young tight end's recruiting host.
But they were way too different. "Tim struggled with [others'] immaturity," Hevesy said, "like, 'Why aren't you doing this the way I do it?' Kids are kids. I think it's not as much Aaron as it was Timmy. Timmy was a very mature 18-year-old. If you take a poll of 10 18-year-olds, 'What are first three things on your mind?' OK, first is going to be women, second's going be this and third's going got be this. Tim's going to be, 'Well, God, God and God.'
"Were they still close? Yes. But I think 18-year-olds want to do what 18-year-olds want to do, and Tim was more of a 22-year-old."
Hernandez's troubles started early in Florida. Freshman year, he was arrested for fighting with a bouncer at a bar and was questioned for a shooting at a club that left two wounded. Hernandez was never charged in the shooting and was a minor during the fight incident. Reports of marijuana use and failed drug tests dogged him, especially when he was suspended for the season-opening game against Hawaii his sophomore season. Then-coach Urban Meyer did not specify the reason for Hernandez's absence.
"To me, he was always a nice guy, but he was an idiot," said a former Florida schoolmate who spoke under the condition of anonymity.
"Let me try to word this -- you know how you talk to people and you can tell they just don't get it as quick as other people? He was one of those."
In those early days in Florida, Hernandez rode around campus on a scooter. He played beer pong and video games and did many of the things that young men in college do. Everyone interviewed for this story who knew Hernandez then or in Bristol said they were having a hard time coming to terms with the idea that the laid-back kid they remember could be capable of murder. One close friend from Gainesville said Hernandez was afraid of spiders and letting his father down.
But he did occasionally show anger. The angriest one friend ever saw him was when Hernandez's mom and a man she was dating visited Gainesville. Someone accidentally called the man Hernandez's father, and Hernandez growled that he wasn't his dad.
In 2010, Hernandez decided to forgo his senior season at Florida and enter the NFL draft. The character issues followed him to 32 war rooms and a podium in New York. Hernandez, a first-round talent, dropped all the way to the fourth round before the Patriots snatched him up. For three seasons, the gamble paid dividends. Hernandez, at 20, was the youngest player on any active NFL roster to start the 2010 campaign. In three seasons, he caught 175 passes for 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns. He was rewarded with the new contract last year, and told the media that he was a changed man.
On Sunday, June 16, Hernandez texted Hevesy to wish him a happy Father's Day. He talked to Hevesy's son for 45 minutes, because it was the kid's birthday. Hernandez was always doing things like that, Hevesy said.
Hevesy was rushing out the door that day and couldn't talk to Hernandez. He's struggled with that moment since. If he'd talked to him, would Hernandez have been out driving around that night at 2:30 a.m.? Could he have made a difference? Hevesy wants to believe that the man who became a son to him wouldn't be capable of this. His wife and his kids want to believe it.
"They look at him as a big brother," Hevesy said of his kids' friendship with Hernandez. "My youngest daughter got really pissed off about it. She's, like, 'This is wrong. If Aaron did something like this, I'll never talk to him again.'"
Home for Odin Lloyd was a yellow house down a one-way street in a rugged inner-city neighborhood in Dorchester. Young men have been shot to death on Fayston Street, where Lloyd grew up. A 26-year-old died there two summers ago, and it merited four sentences in the local paper. But it's also a place where neighbors sit and laugh on porches on summer nights in the stifling humidity, favoring fresh air and conversation over window air conditioning.
For much of his childhood, it looked as if football would be a way for Lloyd to get out of inner-city Boston. He was a bona-fide Division I talent at John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, a hard-hitting linebacker who helped his team contend for championships. But Lloyd had the tendency to get distracted. O'Bryant had an unusually large female population, and Lloyd let his grades slip. Mike Branch, his defensive coach at O'Bryant and with the Bandits, said Lloyd's grades dropped so low that it ruined his chances of playing college football.
And Lloyd was stubborn, Branch said. At practice, he'd run laps until he stopped talking back to the coaches. Lloyd was slow to trust, Branch said. By all accounts, his father wasn't a big part of his childhood. Omar Phillips, Lloyd's cousin, said John Lloyd lived in the West Indies. So Odin was the man of the family, accompanying his mother Ursula to church, always keeping a watchful eye on his sisters.
Branch, a chief probation officer in nearby Brockton, sensed the void in Lloyd's life and became sort of a big brother. He was an inner-city Boston kid himself and was nearly exactly Lloyd's dimensions -- 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds.
"His talent was off the charts," Branch said. "I could see something special in the kid. If football was something that could get him out of the hood and into college, that was my goal."
The Boston Globe reported that Lloyd was arrested twice but had both cases dismissed. One was for a fight in 2008, the other was in 2010 for breaking and entering. Branch, who saw so much of himself in Lloyd, tried to get him into a university, then a junior college. Lloyd eventually packed his bags and left Fayston Street for Delaware State University. Finally, he was going to play football. He was going to be a star. Within days, he called his old high school friend Darryl Hodge and told him he had to go home. His financial aid didn't pan out, he didn't have any money, and Lloyd knew his family needed him.
Sometime within the past couple of years, he took a job at NSTAR, a Massachusetts power company, climbing poles. He trained for that job, took classes and loved it. His work took him to Connecticut, which is where he met Shaneah Jenkins. Soon, Lloyd was spending long stretches of time in Connecticut to see his girl. He'd miss semipro practices, which irritated Branch. But, Branch knew Lloyd was in love.
Llyod eventually was laid off from NSTAR, his cousin Omar Phillips said.
Through Jenkins family functions, Lloyd met Hernandez. He was by no means a hanger-on, Lloyd's friends said. He didn't even tell some of his Boston Bandits teammates that he was friends with Hernandez. Those who did meet Hernandez liked him. Phillips said that Hernandez never talked about his family. He was surprised by that.
They were opposites in many ways. Lloyd used to wear a grungy pair of flip-flops from high school that were so worn, part of his feet touched the ground; Hernandez lived in a $1.3 million home. But Lloyd seemed happy with the little he had, Bandits teammate J.D. Brooks said. His dreams had changed from those childhood days of crushing running backs and seeing his name on TV. Reality changed them. But other things became more important.
"I think he just wanted to feed his family and have a good life," Brooks said. "He wasn't about glamour and glitz. He was just a simple guy."
The Bandits' roster is a collection of dreamers, realists and guys who just like to hit people on their nights off. There's a carpenter on the team, a guy who works at Jiffy Lube, a couple of aspiring musicians and a man who was once on "Master Chef." Rajon Rondo's brother Will plays on the team, said Bandits head coach Olivier Bustin.
But despite the fact that they're not together for a fraction of the time of an NFL team, the Bandits are tight. They have minicamps just like the NFL does, and some of them work out together in the offseason. Lloyd rededicated himself to his training last winter and spent a lot of time with Branch and Hodge at a gym in nearby Braintree.
The players fork out $75 each year for dues that cover things such as referees and trainers. They also have to buy their own uniforms. Lloyd usually didn't have money for that, so Branch would give him an old jersey to wear. His No. 47 uniform had someone else's name on the back, but Lloyd didn't care. He was happy just to play.
The team is bonded, in part, because of a string of bizarre tragedies that have happened over the past decade. Six players have died since 2002. The first one, Derrick Rucker, died in an electrical fire. "He'd worked a double [shift]," Bustin said. "He didn't even wake up when the alarms went off."
There were the players who died of heart attacks and the man who was stabbed to death. Long before last month's latest tragedy, Omar Phillips, a receiver for the Bandits, was going through his own grief. His sister Marie -- Lloyd's cousin -- and two other women were killed in a drive-by shooting in Dorchester last August. All three women were 22 years old. Their killings have yet to be solved.
It's not fair, Phillips said. Is a man's fate predetermined by geography? By one night at a club? Hernandez is now being investigated for possible involvement in a double homicide from last summer. Lloyd seemed to keep his longtime friends separate, for the most part, from Hernandez. On the Saturday night before he died, he hung out at a club with his cousin Omar. Hernandez wasn't there, Phillips said. "Odin said [Hernandez] was a loner," Phillips said. "[Lloyd] was a loner, too. He was star-struck, but he wasn't hungry for that lifestyle. That's not his personality."
Darryl Hodge was a pallbearer at Lloyd's funeral on Saturday. About 500 people packed into the Church of the Holy Spirit, across the street from a thrift store, to say goodbye. When Lloyd's casket was carried into the hearse, his teammates lined the path and chanted his name.
He was supposed to wear No. 8 this year, have his own jersey and dominate the New England Football League. He wanted to be the MVP this season. He just wanted to play football. The Bandits played an exhibition game Saturday night, hours after Lloyd's funeral. They trailed 13-0 late in the game but ended up tying it in the final minutes. There was no overtime. Everyone was exhausted.
At the end of the night, Hodge said the game was much harder than the funeral. Lloyd, who played both sides of the ball, would normally have been the one blocking for him. So, on Saturday night, Hodge felt alone. He sprawled out on the turf after the game and grabbed his cramping toes. He is 28 years old now and vacillates from dreams to reality. One minute, he says that if he and Lloyd had trainers and agents, they could've been on an NFL practice squad. The next, he jokes that someone is going to have to carry him to his car.
Nothing is the same anymore. His blocker, his brother, is gone. On June 16, Hernandez was on top of the world, and Hodge and Lloyd were trying to figure out how to change theirs. Hodge suggested that maybe one of them come up with an invention, something everyone needs, and they'd make enough money to take care of everybody.
Hodge wants to go back to college now and finish his degree. He has to do something. It's late, and the lights are about to be shut off at the tiny field. Hodge lifts himself off the turf and heads for the parking lot. He has no idea when he'll rest again.
"We just had that conversation," he said. "It's been eating me alive for the last week and a half."