By Mahita Gajanan
January 15, 2020

Aaron Hernandez’s downfall from football star to convicted murderer is one of the most notorious cases to emerge from not just the NFL, but the sports world at large. In 2015, the former New England Patriots tight end was convicted of murdering Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player who was the boyfriend of Hernandez’s fiancée’s sister. Two years later, the 27-year-old Hernandez hanged himself in his prison cell, days after he was acquitted of a separate double homicide.

A new documentary series from Netflix, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, explores the tumultuous life of the football player, investigating the forces in his life that could have driven him to violence. The series, an extension of director Geno McDermott’s 2018 documentary My Perfect World: The Aaron Hernandez Story, seeks to understand who Hernandez was beyond the headlines that tracked his dramatic rise and fall inside the NFL. Weaving together news footage, trial footage, interviews with friends and former teammates and recordings of phone calls Hernandez made from prison, the three-part series, out Jan. 15, argues that several factors contributed to Hernandez’s behavior. Chief among them were a troubled home life, the unexpected death of his domineering father and, according to some who knew him, pressure to conceal that he was allegedly gay. Following Hernandez’s death, a study of the ex-football player’s brain found that he suffered from the worst case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) doctors had found in a person his age. Doctors said the damage would have affected Hernandez’s impulse control and judgment. A highly prevalent disease among football players, CTE has been discovered postmortem in several ex-NFL players, including some who exhibited violent and irrational behavior toward the end of their lives.

Killer Inside begins with footage of Hernandez’s arrest in 2013 in connection with Lloyd’s murder, before diving into the football player’s early life growing up in Bristol, Conn. The Hernandez family was “known as a sports family,” says Tim Sansoucie, the father of Dennis Sansoucie, a high school football teammate who says he was a lover of Hernandez’s, in the documentary. Hernandez’s late father, Dennis Hernandez, a football star in his own right, had a reputation as “the king,” Sansoucie said — controlling a tight ship that ensured his sons would become athletes. People who knew the Hernandez family and are interviewed in the docuseries say that Dennis Hernandez could be violent, and that domestic violence was embedded into their family life. As the series depicts through the recollections of family friends, Hernandez’s personal life began falling apart after his father’s death in 2006. Despite the violence he allegedly endured, according to the series, Hernandez looked up to his father for discipline and a sense of stability. That evaporated after Dennis’ death, contributing to Hernandez’s eventual turn toward criminal behavior and drug use while still in high school, the documentary argues. Football became a way for Hernandez to cope, shine and hide aspects of his true self.

Dennis Sansoucie, who shares that he eventually came out to his father after Hernandez’s death, says the macho atmosphere associated with football allowed him and Hernandez to conceal that they were homosexual. Rumors about Hernandez’s sexuality became public in 2017. Two days before Hernandez died by suicide, the journalist Michele McPhee, who had been looking into his sexuality as a possible motive for Lloyd’s murder, began discussing and joking about the rumor on a Boston sports radio show. Following Hernandez’s death, an article appeared in Newsweek by McPhee that claimed his sex life was being investigated as a potential motive.

Hernandez’s father had made it clear that he would not tolerate having a gay son, Sansoucie says, forcing him to hide that part of himself. While the documentary does not suggest that Hernandez’s actions can be excused by the pain of hiding such a secret, the series does pose the question of how Hernandez’s fate might have turned out differently, had he been able to be open about his sexuality. Interviews in the documentary with Sansoucie as well as ex-Patriots offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan, who hid that he was gay while playing professional football and came out publicly in 2017, underline the idea that the sport did not offer clear avenues for players to be open and proud about being gay.

Hernandez left high school early to play for the University of Florida in 2007, breaking a family tradition of attending and playing for the University of Connecticut, where, the documentary shows, the football player skillfully masked a double life using his privilege as a star athlete. In one instance, Hernandez is alleged to have beaten up a bar manager who tried to give him his bill; the manager did not pursue charges, likely because of the celebrity status football players were afforded. Hernandez was also linked to a 2007 double shooting in Gainesville, Fla., though he did not face charges.

Hernandez was drafted to the Patriots in 2010 — picked in a lower round than expected due to concerns about his maturity — which brought him back to the Bristol area, returning to a group of friends who had previously encouraged some of Hernandez’s poor judgment in decision-making. The documentary shows that the patterns Hernandez developed in Florida, like playing football successfully by day and then spending his spare time with friends who did not call him out for bad behavior, continued with ease back in New England. Hernandez became a suspect in the 2012 double murder of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado and was later charged in the case (he was acquitted in 2017). Hernandez was accused of killing the men after one of them spilled a drink on him at a Boston nightclub in 2012. The case was based largely on testimony of Alexander Bradley, a friend of Hernandez who later said the football player shot him in the face in 2013 in an attempt to keep him silent about the double homicide. Jose Baez, a famed attorney known for representing acquitted murder suspect Casey Anthony, defended Hernandez, and contradicted Bradley’s testimony with photo evidence.

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On June 17, 2013, Hernandez killed Lloyd, a person who, by all accounts, he had considered a friend. An official motive for Lloyd’s murder was not determined, apart from prosecutors saying that something had occurred that constitute a breach of trust between the two men.

Taken together, the footage and interviews collected in Killer Inside portray Hernandez as a man dogged by darkness, well before he killed Lloyd. It suggests that perhaps without the combined forces of the aggressive, macho culture of the NFL, the brain damage wrought by a career in professional football and the friends and family that encouraged his worst tendencies, Hernandez could have gone a different way.

“I don’t think you can blame it all on football because lots of people play football,” says sports journalist Dan Wetzel in the documentary. “We’ve never seen an NFL guy in the middle of his success go out and start murdering people. So, I don’t think you can put it all on football. But would Aaron Hernandez be in this situation if he was a concert pianist? Probably not.”

Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com.

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