O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend in 1994. Ray Carruth was convicted of conspiring to kill his pregnant wife in 2001. Ray Rice was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault for punching out his then-fiancée in an Atlantic City casino elevator in 2014. And Darren Sharper was found guilty of multiple rape charges in 2016 and sentenced to 20 years in jail.
Yet in the annals of NFL infamy, no player is quite as notorious as Aaron Hernandez, the star tight end for the New England Patriots who was condemned to life in prison after he was found guilty in 2015 of murdering Odin Lloyd—one of three violent crimes he allegedly perpetrated that decade.
For a young man who had the world in the palm of his hand (replete with a brand new $40 million contract), only to throw it away in a hail of gunfire, Hernandez’s conviction was a catastrophic fall from grace. Moreover, in light of his celebrity status and blindingly bright future, it was an almost unimaginable turn of events—the sort of thing that, no matter which way you looked at it, made little sense.
Premiering at DOC NYC on Nov. 14, My Perfect World: The Aaron Hernandez Story attempts to get inside its subject’s head in order to comprehend why a successful sports icon would do something as monstrous as murder his friend in cold blood. In that regard, Geno McDermott’s documentary (produced by Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel and New York Daily News’ Kevin Armstrong) falls a bit short. It dispenses considerable persuasive conjecture about the multiple reasons that might have led Hernandez down this dark path, which ended in suicide (possibly instigated by use of synthetic marijuana K2) on April 19, 2017, shortly after he was acquitted in a separate double-homicide case involving a 2012 shooting. But it offers few definitive conclusions.
That said, one gets a sense from this compelling (albeit slight) documentary that there might be no single answer to its central question. Instead, it proffers the chilling idea that some puzzles are unsolvable, and that some hearts of darkness are, in the end, unknowable.
My Perfect World’s most significant shortcoming is one of access. It features scant NFL game footage from Hernandez’s career, and what is seen—such as his touchdown catch in Super Bowl XLVI—comes via fans’ cell phone camera video. Dramatic recreations and aerial landscape imagery substitute for on-the-ground material. No one close to Hernandez during his later years or his case participates, which leaves his childhood buddy Stephen Ziogas, family friend Kristen St. John, and Wetzel and Armstrong to afford a window into his mind and murder trials. The only family member who speaks to McDermott is Hernandez’s half-sister Sara Vasquez (who was fathered by Hernandez’s dad Dennis during his wilder days), and she has very little to contribute other than telling us that Hernandez always wanted to feel “that he wasn’t alone.” Consequently, the film often operates at a significant remove from the man, as if trying to dissect him from 50 yards away.
Despite that distance, however, McDermott provides a clear timeline of Hernandez’s life, as well as insight into the tumultuous events that helped shape him into a budding superstar—and, also, a killer. Born in Bristol, CT into a clan with football in its veins, Hernandez quickly established himself as a receiving threat of uncanny speed and agility for his size. Though both his beloved father Dennis and older brother DJ attended the University of Connecticut, Hernandez, in the wake of his father’s untimely death during a routine hernia operation, opted instead to flee his hometown and head to the University of Florida. Having already begun hanging with the wrong crowd in Bristol, Hernandez found himself at a school known for questionable player behavior. He became an All-American at Florida, but misconduct and multiple drug violations caused him to drop to the fourth round of the NFL draft, where he was selected by the New England Patriots.
As Ziogas opines, that was probably the worst landing spot for him, since despite the Patriots’ strict winning culture (led by quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick), being in New England meant proximity to the unsavory types Hernandez had fallen in with years earlier. What followed was bad news all around. In 2012, Hernandez supposedly got into an altercation over a spilled drink with Daniel de Abreu at a Boston nightclub, and responded by shooting up de Abreu’s car at a traffic stop, killing him and Safiro Furtado (and wounding three others). While he’d eventually be found innocent of those charges, My Perfect World contends that paranoia about being arrested for that drive-by soon consumed Hernandez, leading him to shoot drug- and gun-dealing best friend Alexander Bradley in the face in 2013 (resulting in Barkley losing an eye and part of a finger). And it also drove him, in 2013, to lure Lloyd—the boyfriend of Shaneah Jenkins, who was the sister of Hernandez’s fiancée Shayanna (whom he later married)—out to an abandoned industrial park with two accomplices, and put multiple fatal bullets in him.
Were these crimes the byproduct of Hernandez’s anger over his father’s death? The negative influence of the nasty company he kept? An American athletic culture that coddled talented prospects to the point of making them entitled man-children without any sense of responsibility? The CTE-causing head injuries that so many NFL players suffer? Or was it, simply, that Hernandez was a tough guy who thought himself a gangster, and thought he could get away with anything—a notion further suggested by the fact that prison guards and officials report that, upon being incarcerated in Souza-Baranowski Correctional Facility, Hernandez immediately took to prison life, replete with tattoos that suggested he was a member of the Bloods? McDermott’s film ultimately argues that it was all of those things, even as it leaves the impression that Hernandez’s true motivations may never quite be understood.
After watching My Perfect World’s trial clips, news reports and newly recorded interviews, that inconclusive assessment may frustrate some viewers. Yet in the end, it also feels close to the most honest answer available. And, because of that, it leaves one with far more unsettling notions to ponder—that fame and fortune aren’t cures for inner torment; that death can strike at any moment, from any random direction; and that even the most high-profile people in the world are ultimately mysteries to us and, perhaps, to those closest to them as well.