Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez review — Netflix docuseries isn't most compelling take on NFL star's story

Rohini Nair

Jan 23, 2020 10:22:28 IST

A year-and-a-half after he died of suicide at the age of 27 in prison, where he was serving a life sentence on a murder charge, the Boston Globe's Spotlight team put together a six-part investigative series on former NFL star Aaron Hernandez.

Across print, and a riveting podcast narrated by Bob Hohler, the series pieced together the spectacular rise and fall of Hernandez — a tight end with the New England Patriots, only 23 when he was convicted of killing his fiancée's sister's boyfriend, a young man by the name of Odin Lloyd.

The series was called Gladiator.

Just as male and female warriors engaged in bloodsport for the amusement of crowds in ancient Rome, the Boston Globe series posited that football players were the gladiators of America, sports stadiums were the modern-day arenas, and the brutal contact game a substitute for the combat of yore. Of course, these players were paid millions of dollars, and enjoyed the adoration of thousands of cheering fans, but the toll on their bodies and minds could not be underestimated.

And in Hernandez's case, the consequences proved especially tragic — not just for him, but others who came into his orbit.

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A little over a year since Gladiator, a new Netflix docuseries by Geno McDermott also looks at the Aaron Hernandez story.

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez spans three episodes, each roughly an hour long, tracing his childhood in Bristol, Connecticut, his stint at the University of Florida as part of the Gators football team, and being drafted into the NFL by the New England Patriots, while also charting his long descent into violent crime.

It does this through interviews with Hernandez's old friends and former teammates, law enforcement officials and lawyers, sports journalists who covered the case, archival footage from Hernandez's trial as well as television interviews granted by key figures at the time of Hernandez's arrest in 2013. All together, it's a comprehensive picture.

And yet, contrasted with Gladiator, it comes up short.

At least over its first two episodes, Killer Inside poses a somewhat familiar conundrum as other Netflix true crime offerings — be it The Keepers, The Innocent Man, Conversations With A Killer or Abducted In Plain Sight: Is it objectively a well-made docuseries, or does the compelling story at its core influence one's judgement of its merit?

Because few stories are as compelling as Aaron Hernandez's.

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 Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez review — Netflix docuseries isnt most compelling take on NFL stars story

Aaron Hernandez sits in the courtroom of the Attleboro District Court during his hearing on 22 August 2013 in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. Getty Images

Aaron Hernandez was the second of Terri and Dennis Hernandez's two sons. His older brother Jonathan (known as DJ) and Aaron seemed to have a normal if strict upbringing — their father, a high school and University of Connecticut football star, drilled a love for sports into his children. Both were athletically gifted, but about the time Aaron entered high school, it became evident that his talent on the football field would far surpass that of his father and brother. Many townspeople idolised Dennis Hernandez, still remembering his glory days. And while all knew that he had a quick temper, few may have guessed the extent of domestic violence in the Hernandez home.

When Dennis Hernandez died suddenly, after a routine hernia surgery, 16-year-old Aaron's downward spiral — although not visibly evident at the time — was already in motion. He moved into the home of his older cousin, Tanya Singleton, after his mother Terri began a new relationship (with Tanya's husband) in the wake of Dennis' death. Aaron also gave up his longstanding plan of attending U Conn (where DJ was already enrolled) after high school and chose the University of Florida, wooed by its topnotch football programme.

Florida Gators coach Urban Meyer prevailed on Hernandez's school principal to let him graduate a whole six months earlier than the rest of his class, all so he could get the teen to university earlier and begin training him for the upcoming summer season.

Watching Killer Inside, one gets a sense of how overawed Hernandez might have been — a 17-year-old who should have still been in school, playing in a stadium that held thousands more people than the entire population of his hometown. As the camera pans across The Swamp (as the Gators' stadium is called), you see these crowds cheering wildly for players like Hernandez, holding their arms out to indicate the chomping jaws of an alligator.

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Already, trouble waited in the wings. When an underage Hernandez was involved in a bar brawl, the charges were miraculously dropped. In another incident, a few men who got into a fight with Hernandez and other Gators were targets of a drive-by shooting that same evening. The investigation ultimately didn't pinpoint the shooter.

In effect, the message to be gleaned from these incidents was that for a football star, there were few — if any — repercussions for criminal behaviour.

And Hernandez's bad behaviour continued. After he was benched by coach Meyer for a game, reports swirled that Hernandez had failed a drug test. Meyer perhaps also made clear that Hernandez's increasingly erratic behaviour had no place on the team, so the 20-year-old did the only thing he could: made himself available for the NFL draft. Rumours of his failed drug test and behavioural issues dogged him during the draft, so Hernandez had to wait till the fourth round, until he was picked by the New England Patriots.

Over his time with the Patriots, Hernandez was close to the team owner, Robert Kraft, and seemed to toe coach Bill Belichick's line. But with his teammates — Rob Gronkowski, captain Tom Brady et al — it was a mixed bag. Hernandez seemed to delight in needling his teammates in the locker room; not everyone was a fan of his antics.

Still, he seemed on track for NFL greatness. In his first and only Super Bowl, the lingering image is of Hernandez celebrating his touchdown: He strides to the end of the field, mimics cracking open a safe, removing a wad of currency, and scattering it to the crowds. The Patriots offered him a five-year, $40 million contract. Hernandez bought a mansion, became a father to a baby girl with his fiancée Shayanna Jenkins.

What he kept hidden, especially from the Patriots, was that he was possibly involved in a double homicide, an attempted murder, and the killing for which he was finally apprehended — that of Odin Lloyd.

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The question of why a young man who proverbially "had it all" would resort to hanging out with criminals, stockpile an arsenal of guns, and be involved in multiple murders would be far more difficult to answer than building a case against him for said crimes.

In unravelling the whys, Killer Inside explores a few reasons, including possible sexual abuse Hernandez suffered as a child; speculation about his sexuality and why/if Hernandez chose to keep it hidden; his drug use; the hostile standoff with onetime friend-turned-foe Alexander Bradley which escalated the cycle of violence capped by Lloyd's murder. It also looks at Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head trauma, such as that endured by those who play contact sports — like American football. Wikipedia has a rather extensive list of dead and living NFL players with suspected or confirmed CTE. There's also a list of football players with CTE, who committed suicide. Hernandez had sustained at least two major concussions during his football career, the first in high school. A post-mortem examination of his brain found that it was "the most severe case of CTE ever discovered in a person his age". The head researcher at Boston University's CTE Center noted that "individuals with CTE — and CTE of this severity — have difficulty with impulse control, decision-making, inhibition of impulses for aggression, emotional volatility, rage behaviours".

Unfortunately, Killer Inside doesn't delve into any of these reasons in an entirely satisfactory way. While not absolving Hernandez from his actions, with Gladiator, the Boston Globe Spotlight team was far better able to depict the culpability of Football Inc — the industrial complex that the sport is in the US, both at the college and national level — in not stymieing the violent whirlpool surrounding Hernandez . From the Gators management at Florida, which looked the other way when a teenaged Hernandez acted out, to the New England Patriots who were more concerned about protecting their multi-million dollar investment than Hernandez's mental stability and safety, to all those thousands and thousands of fans who cheer on as their favourite football teams collide brutally, all to entertain them, not caring about the damage being wreaked on the players' bodies and minds — Gladiator showed how several overlapping factors provided the backdrop against which Hernandez's behaviour occurred, or was even encouraged. It joined the dots to indicate that the Hernandez case was yet another symptom, just like the Jerry Sandusky -Penn State scandal or the NFL's apathy to shocking instances of domestic violence involving players, of the rot at the heart of "Football Inc" in America.

Killer Inside tries, but doesn't quite manage to do the same.

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What Geno McDermott's docuseries does deserve kudos for, is the spotlight it casts on the people who ventured into Hernandez's path with such irrevocable consequences. All too often, true crime series focus on the perpetrator, reducing their victim/s to a footnote. Killer Inside ensures that Odin Lloyd, and Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu (the victims in the double homicide case Hernandez was charged with) are also fleshed out as individuals whose lives had worth and meaning beyond their ill-fated intersection with Hernandez's.

There's another aspect that lends Killer Inside greater heft than many other docuseries, and that is in how much it allows Hernandez to 'speak for himself'. His phone conversations from prison, with Shayanna Jenkins and his daughter, with his mother Terri, with friends and former teammates, all present varied facets of the man — facets that sometimes seem to be at such odds with the worst of his actions. [It must be noted here that Odin Lloyd and Hernandez's family declined to participate in McDermot's series, and Hernandez's lawyer — Jose Baez, who did grant an interview — has been critical of the Killer Inside team's inclusion of Hernandez's daughter's photos as also his personal phone conversations.]

Where did it all go wrong for Aaron Hernandez? Killer Inside offers a less holistic look than Gladiator, but it manages nonetheless to highlight the deeply tragic fates of all parties involved — not only Hernandez but also his family, and the families of Odin Lloyd, Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu, and the young men themselves, who all deserved better: to lead rich, full lives that were not cut short by random, senseless violence.

Hernandez killed himself in prison, mere days after being acquitted of the double homicide case that was brought two years after the Odin Lloyd trial. Killer Inside ends with Aaron's words to his baby girl as they wind up a phone call: "Never bye bye, say see you later."

You can only feel a pang of guilt for the thrill you've felt at watching a scrimmage line, when you hear his farewell: "Daddy's never going bye bye".

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2020 09:50:02 IST