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As a member of the 2008 University of Florida national championship football team, 19-year-old tight end Aaron Hernandez was playing alongside future NFL players like Cam Newton, Tim Tebow, Deonte Thompson and Mike Pouncey.
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"Aaron stood out, even among the football players," says classmate Katie Benson Sears. "The Gator football players were gods here. They weren't just big men on campus; they were known in the community. If they went to restaurants, the owners would want to take their pictures. Kids would come up for autographs. He had a swagger that made people notice him."
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However, Hernandez had a dark side: He was known for having a hair-trigger temper and a penchant for fighting, once punching a waiter in Gainesville so hard that he ruptured his eardrum, and another time sought for questioning in connection with an incident in which five shots were fired into a car (he invoked his right to counsel).
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Despite his temper, Hernandez was a disciplined athlete. "I think a lot of people don't understand the hard work and discipline that Aaron had to become so successful," his attorney, Jose Baez, told PEOPLE. "He worked very hard to get to where he was, and he overcame a lot of odds to get there."
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By his junior year, Hernandez had won the John Mackey Award, which is presented to college football's best tight end. He was recognized as an All-American. He put up impressive statistics. And the NFL took notice.
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Hernandez was selected by the New England Patriots in the fourth found of the 2010 NFL Draft. He signed a four-year contract that included a $200,000 signing bonus. He started the 2010 season as the youngest active player in the NFL. The first two years went well, and Hernandez became a valuable member of the Patriots. In 2012, the team signed him to a five-year contract extension. His $12.5 million signing bonus was the largest ever given to a tight end in the NFL. He was under contract to stay with the team until at least 2018.
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Off the field, Hernandez started dating Shayanna Jenkins in 2007. In November 2012, the couple had their first child, a daughter named Avielle Janelle Jenkins-Hernandez. The couple got engaged, but never married.
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In 2013, he was arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd, a man who dated his fiancée's sister. As he awaited trial, he was charged with the drive-by fatal shootings of Daniel Jorge Correia de Abreu and Safiro Teixeira Furtado; prosecutors alleged that he had shot the two over an accidental spilled drink. Though the motive for the Lloyd murder was never fully articulated in court, there was enough evidence for a jury to convict Hernandez in the shooting. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
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The trial over the de Abreu and Furtado murders were a different story: The defense raised an enormous amount of reasonable doubt, pointing the finger at the prosecution's star witness, Alexander Bradley. (Bradley had also claimed that Hernandez shot him in the face to prevent him from testifying.) After 37 hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Hernandez, however he still remained behind bars because of his conviction on Lloyd's death — which he planned to appeal.
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In the early hours of April 19, 2017, Hernandez was found hanging from a bedsheet attached to the window of his prison cell. By all accounts, Hernandez was miserable in jail: he missed the adulation of fans; he grew angry and despondent; in 2015, he served as the lookout for a gang-related fight. He also racked up some additional charges in prison: In November 2013, he was charged with threats to do bodily harm for allegedly threatening an officer, and three months later, he was charged with assault and battery after a fight with another inmate. But no one knew just how despondent Hernandez had gotten until the end. He was 27.
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Hernandez Had CTE and His Family is Suing the NFL
Hernandez' family attorney Jose Baez told PEOPLE Hernandez had severe CTE, a degenreative brain disease, and that his family plans to sue the NFL and the New Enagland Patriots.
According to Baez, researchers at Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center said Hernandez had "the most severe case that they've ever seen in a football player of his age."
"There are four stages of CTE, and Aaron was a stage 3 at 27."
Baez said Hernandez's family believes "the CTE can explain a lot of his behavior," and adds that "the CTE is a result of playing football."