Hernandez's arrest stunned ex-Gators
Published: Monday, July 1, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 30, 2013 at 10:03 p.m.
OCALA — They both arrived at the University of Florida in 2007 as four-star prospects with dreams of putting personal imprints on one of college football's powerhouse programs.
The Gatorade All-American quarterback, John Brantley, was a soft-spoken kid who grew up 35 minutes south of Gainesville in Ocala and moved into his dorm room that summer. The talented and, at times, moody tight end Aaron Hernandez officially became a Gator six months earlier when he left Bristol, Conn., to enroll in time for the spring semester.
While teammates, they were members of the 2008 BCS national champions and grew to be relatively close.
That's why seeing the former New England Patriots' Pro Bowler now jailed after being arrested in the murder of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd and reportedly investigated in the drive-by killings of two others has Brantley stunned.
"I could not (have ever imagined this)," Brantley said Saturday afternoon during a break at a football camp he hosted at his high school alma mater, Trinity Catholic. "The tattoos and everything and how he acts. ... Fights happen. Whatever.
"But he was always good to me, always a friend to me. I knew I could call him, and he would answer. But I never saw that coming, and it's sad and it's out of his hands now. It's whatever now. It's sad."
Hernandez, 23, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and five counts of weapons possession Wednesday, nine days after Lloyd's body was found riddled with gunshot wounds in an industrial park about one mile from Hernandez's $1.3-million mansion in North Attleboro, Mass.
Less than a year removed from signing a five-year, $40-million contract (which the Patriots voided Wednesday), questions have arisen about the former Gator's past and his longtime associates.
While a 17-year-old juvenile, Hernandez was arrested in 2007 following an incident at The Swamp, a restaurant/bar located not far from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. He deferred prosecution.
Later that year Hernandez and three teammates were questioned, but not charged, in the drive-by shootings of Corey Smith and Justin Glass which occurred hours after a loss to Auburn.
And just four-and-a-half months ago, Hernandez is alleged to have shot and abandoned Alexander Bradley, said to be a friend, near Riviera Beach, after spending time together at Tootsie's, a strip club an hour away in Miami. Bradley says he no longer can see out of his right eye and has lost much of the ability to use his right hand and arm.
Much speculation has centered on whether Hernandez ever removed himself from the influence of childhood friends, who may or may not have helped push him into criminal behavior.
Brantley said he couldn't account for his former classmate at all times, but added "I never really met those guys (from Connecticut). He hung out just with the team a lot back in college. That's about all I knew."
According to former Gator wide receiver Reidel Anthony, who played five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, sometimes the best way to self-preserve is to remove potential troublemakers.
"You've got to pick and choose who has the best intentions for you," said Anthony, a starter on UF's 1996 national championship team. "Everybody that tells you that you are the best thing since sliced bread — they might not mean it in the right way. So, you have to be a better judge of character and the people you have within your circle."
Anthony then used an analogy to further explain his point.
"One thing about a circle, if you draw it on a (sheet of) paper, you want to keep it small and not draw a big one if someone tells you to," Anthony said. "So, if you keep that circle small and don't draw it the way somebody else tells you to draw it, you'll be more successful in life because you'll keep all of those people who aren't there for you with your best interests in mind on the outside of the circle you've drawn for yourself."
Former Florida coach Ron Zook (2002-04) said that during recruiting, he checks with obvious and not-so-obvious sources to discover everything he possibly can about a prospect.
"Don't think just because you've got a great relationship with your high school coach that the college coaches and the NFL guys aren't going to find out about (any issues) because they are," said Zook, an analyst for CBS who spent 1996-2001 as an assistant for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints, respectively. "I talk to everybody. I talk to the teachers, the janitors. We have our staff poke around. I want to know the guy.
"The NFL does the same thing now. They go on campuses. They hire retired FBI guys to do background searches and the sort.
"If (teams) are going to give somebody an awful lot of money, they're going to want to know what they're getting. So, there's not a lot of things you can hide nowadays."
While digging into Hernandez's history — one he admitted at the NFL Combine included failed drug tests at Florida — dropped him from a potential first- or second-round selection to a fourth-rounder in 2010, it didn't eliminate the opportunity he had to become a productive pro.
And in catching 175 passes for 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first three seasons with the Patriots, Hernandez was a vital cog in one of the league's most consistently prolific offenses.
Still, much like with O.J. Simpson and Rae Carruth, football could end up a short chapter instead of the narrative in Hernandez's life story.
"You hate to see it for the game, for sports and for him," Zook said. "I don't know Aaron. I don't know anything about him. I know he was a good football player.
"You hate to see that kind of stuff go on, and while he has much bigger things to deal with now, there's no doubt he probably won't ever play again."
Anthony said he'd like to believe none of the accusations are true about someone who, like him, is a former Gator. Still, he acknowledges it takes personal accountability and confidence to stay out of potentially harmful situations.
"There's not too much you can say about it. (Hernandez) is a grown man, he makes his own decisions," Anthony said. "My parents taught me one bad decision can ruin your life, so you try to avoid that decision, and I don't know if he did or he didn't. I don't want to speculate on that or pass judgment on anybody.
"I never hung around with a bad crowd. I don't want to say my parents were too strict (to allow that), but I had too much respect for them to try to be something that I'm not. I know I was raised to try to do this, do that and this is my life plan. I wasn't about trying to go out and hang with people to be cool. People were trying to hang with me. So, I was a leader, not a follower.
"The followers get caught up in doing the wrong things. Leaders lead."