In 2012, when he was 22, Aaron Hernandez signed a record $40 million contract with the Patriots. Five years earlier, he had been working menial jobs in his hometown, Bristol, Conn., where he drove through fading neighborhoods in a $300 used car he had bought with money borrowed from friends.
That was before Hernandez racked up scoring records in high school and rocketed to the Florida Gators as a top recruit. It was before he became an All-American, and then the youngest player in the NFL and finally a rising star on the most successful pro football team of the century.
On the day he signed his $40 million contract, a gleeful, proud Hernandez said he was "set for life, a good life." That year he got engaged to his girlfriend, Shayanna Jenkins, who was pregnant with their first child, a baby girl they named Avielle.
Yet 10 months later, in 2013, with the discovery of the body of a friend who had been shot multiple times, Hernandez's life began a dramatic spiral downward. He would be convicted of the friend's murder, accused and acquitted of two other killings from 2012 and become a vivid example of out-of-control off-field behavior by NFL players.
Early Wednesday, correctional officers found Hernandez's limp body hanging from a bedsheet affixed to a window in a prison cell at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass., where he was serving a life sentence for the friend's murder. The state said he jammed the door shut from the inside, to buy an extra few minutes in case anyone tried to keep him from dying. Hernandez was 27.
His death left friends, family and his legal team in disbelief, searching for an explanation. Friday, Hernandez was acquitted in the double-murder case.
"There were no conversations or correspondence from Aaron to his family or legal team that would have indicated anything like this was possible," said his attorney, Jose Baez.
Dolphins center Mike Pouncey said on Instagram that he had spoken with his Gators teammate and friend a day earlier. "Today my heart hurts as I got the worse news I could have imagined," he said. "I will forever miss you and love you bro."
Guards found Hernandez shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday, Correction Department spokesman Christopher Fallon said. The former tight end was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead about an hour later.
Fallon said he was not aware of any suicide note and officials had no reason to believe Hernandez was suicidal.
The Worcester County district attorney's office and the Correction Department are investigating.
The Patriots had no comment.
Hernandez was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the murder of Odin Lloyd, who had been dating his fiancee's sister. A legal technicality redeemed Hernandez, at least for the record, in death. Because he had not exhausted his appeals, the murder conviction will be vacated under a Massachusetts legal principle that dates to pre-Revolutionary War times. He died, in the eyes of the state, an innocent man.