Aaron Hernandez’s brain showed the repeated effects of severe head trauma. He’d played football for 19 years by the time he died at age 27, starting as a youth in Bristol, Connecticut.
Scans of his brain, studied by Boston University after his suicide in a Massachusetts prison cell, revealed the astonishing degree of damage; the researchers said it was the worst case of CTE they had ever seen in someone so young.
The final death scene of Aaron Hernandez was bizarre. He’d sketched references to the Illuminati on his prison wall in blood. He scrawled a Bible verse on his forehead. His suicide in a prison cell was a Shakespearean tragedy in and of itself, an athlete of such enormous talent and million-dollar contracts brought to this sad end. He was convicted of homicide and accused of other violent acts, a shocking trajectory for a New England Patriot star.
And then there’s the story of the former Patriots’ star’s brain.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Aaron’s Brain Was Riddled With Stage 3 CTE to a Degree Never Seen by the Researchers in Someone That Young
Boston University conducted the research into Hernandez’s brain after his suicide. The university said in a news release that its expert found that Aaron Hernandez “suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to a degree never before seen by BU researchers in such a young person.”
His brain was “riddled” with stage 3 CTE to a degree “that we’ve never seen…in our 468 brains, except for individuals very much older,” Ann McKee, director of BU’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, told a news conference in 2017. “Individuals with similar gross findings…were at least 46 years old at the time of death.”
Hernandez was 27.
According to Boston University, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma (often athletes), including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms. CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920’s (when it was initially termed punch drunk syndrome or dementia pugilistica)…The repeated brain trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau.”
“Especially in the frontal lobes, which are very important for decision-making, judgment, and cognition, we could see damage to the inner chambers of the brain,” McKee said. “This would be the first case we’ve ever seen of that kind of damage in such a young individual.”
2. Hernandez’s Brain Contained Protein Tau Deposits That Indicated it Had Shrunk
Aaron’s brain showed deposits of the protein tau, which is associated with CTE, and “other evidence of the disease,” including dilated ventricles, which indicates “the brain had shrunk,” and an atrophied fornix, (nerves associated with memory.) This was caused by “repetitive brain trauma,” said McKee, adding that “in every place that we looked, it was classic CTE. This is substantial damage that undoubtedly took years to develop.”
The press release notes that more than 100 former National Hockey League players have sued the NHL, “seeking medical benefits on the grounds that the league should have known about diseases like CTE.”
McKee said she couldn’t “connect the dots” between Aaron’s murder case and his CTE, but she said, “In any individual we can’t take the pathology and explain the behavior. But we can say collectively, in our collective experience, individuals with CTE and CTE of this severity have difficulty with impulse control, decision-making, inhibition of impulses or aggression, often emotional volatility and rage behaviors.”
3. Aaron’s Fiancee Filed a Lawsuit Against the NFL on Behalf of Their Minor Child But It Was Dismissed
The lawsuit that Shayanna Jenkins Hernandez, Aaron’s fiancee and the mother of his child, filed on behalf of their daughter Avielle Hernandez, says that “at the time of his death, Aaron had the most severe case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (‘CTE’) medically seen in the world renowned CTE Center at Boston University in a person of Aaron’s young age.”
The lawsuit says that Aaron had “Stage III CTE usually seen in football players with a median age of death of 67 years.”
The lawsuit was dismissed by a judge on the basis that Hernandez was for all practical purposes retired.
His family sought the brain study. The family “had arranged for Boston University researchers looking at brain trauma in athletes to take possession of Hernandez’s brain following the autopsy,” reports ESPN, quoting the Hernandez’ family attorney, Jose Baez.
According to NBC News, the family wanted Hernandez’ brain studied for CTE, which is “a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to athletes, including football players, who might suffer concussions and head trauma.” It can only be diagnosed after death and can be linked to suicide, reports NBC.
The family wanted the brain to go to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “The center studies a progressive degenerative brain disease found in some athletes who have experienced repetitive brain trauma,” reports People Magazine.
4. The Medical Examiner Released the Body Before the Brain
The Hernandez’ family and the medical examiner’s office appeared at odds over the brain – at least according to a family lawyer’s statement, at least at first.
Aaron Hernandez’s family “wants to donate his brain to science, but Massachusetts officials are refusing to release it despite turning over the rest of his body to a funeral home, the former NFL star’s lawyer said Thursday,” according to ESPN.
According to NBC News, “an attorney for his family accused them of ‘illegally’ withholding it.”
The center later did receive the brain.
The medical examiner’s office insisted it would give back the brain when the investigation is complete, reports ESPN, quoting Public Safety and Security Secretary Dan Bennett as saying: “No one is going to stand in the way of the family’s wishes.”
Authorities insisted that the brain will now be turned over to medical researchers because the death was ruled a suicide.
“Now that the cause and manner of death have been determined, the brain will be released to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center as Mr. Hernandez’s family wishes,” a statement from the district attorney’s office and police said, according to NBC News.
The Boston Herald reports that the brain was turned over several hours after the attorney’s press conference.
5. Hernandez Drew a Bible Verse on His Forehead & Messages About the ‘Illuminati’ on the Wall
The scene of the football player’s suicide contained some bizarre aspects.
For one, Hernandez drew a Bible verse on his forehead.
Hernandez “wrote ‘John 3:16’ on his forehead and left notes to his 4-year-old daughter and his fiancee beside an open Bible in the prison cell where he hanged himself,” reports the Boston Herald.
The verse reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
According to WCVB, that’s not the end of it. Hernandez drew images in blood on his cell, the TV station reports. “One of the drawings was what’s known as the unfinished pyramid and the all-seeing eye of God. The image is similar to what is found on the back of U.S. currency,” reports WCVB, adding that Hernandez wrote “ILLUMINATI” in capital letters below the image.
“The illuminati is a person or group claiming to have religious enlightenment or knowledge. The illuminati has also been the subject of several theories, including one that claims they control of the world,” reports WCVB, which adds, “Above the pyramid, Hernandez drew an oval with rays coming from the edges.”