D.J. Hernandez forced to start over as Jonathan
Published on Monday, 8/1/16, at 5:45 p.m. Eastern.
I’ve often wondered what it’s been like to walk in the shoes of D.J. Hernandez over the last three-plus years.
Thanks to the spectacular work of SI.com’s Michael Rosenberg in this riveting piece, we have all been given a glimpse into what D.J. has been through since his younger brother Aaron threw a life of stardom and millionaire mansions in for a life in prison with small cells and zero possibility of parole.
Before going any further, I highly recommend you simply read Rosenberg’s outstanding work. If you decide to click it, get started and feel like it’s too long, then I suggest you print it out and get to it when you can. If neither of those scenarios work right now, then feel free to keep reading me as I highlight some of the more interesting parts of the story.
As Rosenberg explains, D.J. understands all sides and angles of this senseless and horrifying tale. And he’s not looking for sympathy from anyone.
To my knowledge, this is the first time he has spoken to the media. Since it’s my job to know sports and I’m a life-long Gator, I knew D.J.’s story. He was three years older than Aaron, played QB at UConn and Bristol Central High, where he threw TDs to Aaron as a senior when his younger brother was only a freshman.
Aaron was initially a verbal commit to the Huskies, but then-Florida head coach Urban Meyer and his staff were able to flip him and he became a Gator.
In June of 2013, D.J. was a grad assistant at Iowa. Here’s how Rosenberg explains he became aware of Odin Lloyd’s death in a phone call from Aaron:
Aaron says Odin is dead.
There is more.
“I just want you to know,” Aaron says, “because you’re my brother and I love you: He was found, and they’re trying to investigate, and my name is being thrown around.”
A murder? D.J. sits at his desk, “frozen,” he later says, “within my own body.” Aaron promises he is innocent: “D, I swear on everything. . . .” And D.J. believes him.
But still. . . . Murder? D.J. does not press his brother for details. Before he can process the news privately it becomes public, streamed across the bottom of his TV as casually as CELTICS 62 76ERS 59. Police are investigating Aaron Hernandez in connection to a possible homicide. . . A nation is shocked. . . Odin Lloyd has been found shot to death in an industrial park near Aaron’s house. D.J. wants to hug him.
Forget the machismo of football. The Hernandezes love each other and don’t care who knows it. When D.J. attends Patriots games, Aaron stands on the field before kickoff and blows his brother a kiss.
Now D.J. wants to go straight to North Attleboro again and hold his 6’ 1″, 245-pound brother . . . but he doesn’t. He thinks of his budding coaching career. He pictures himself on TV, walking onto the site of a murder investigation, and how that would look to potential employers.
After Aaron’s conviction, D.J. quickly realized that getting a full-time coaching gig was going to be impossible. He looked exactly like a convicted murderer and had the same last name. Whether or not he had all the makings of a great coach had become irrelevant.
At this point, he knew a fresh start was mandatory. In fact, a new name was the only way to escape the stigma of his younger brother’s actions. So D.J. started going by his middle name, Jonathan. He moved to the Dallas area for a roofing job and began a new life.
Rosenberg meets up with Jonathan at a Starbucks in Bristol this past June at 5:30 a.m. They visit Bristol Central High, where all signs of Aaron’s 157 catches for 3,437 yards and 45 touchdowns are gone. Likewise, Aaron’s accomplishments at Florida have been removed.
Here’s how Rosenberg explains the topic of Aaron’s guilt or innocence:
D.J. acknowledges: Aaron was, at the very least, “involved.” And there is no defense for that. He wonders about Aaron’s almost magnetic pull toward the wrong crowd. He thinks Aaron ended up in this situation because of “drugs and people who don’t have the best intentions for you.” But he knows that pinning this on [Carlos] Ortiz or [Bo] Wallace or anybody else is a cop-out. “I don’t blame them at all. They’re just influences.”
Rosenberg also points out that Jonathan has never pressed his brother for information about the night of the murders.
When Aaron is convicted on April 15 of 2015, Rosenberg offers this:
In court the mother of the murderer and the murdered both cry. On the computer screen back in Iowa, D.J. sees Aaron’s tongue roll around the inside of his mouth, and where others see a fragment of emotion, D.J. recognizes: That’s Aaron’s look of complete devastation. D.J. bursts into tears and drops his head in his hands. Fellow graduate assistant Chris Polizzi puts his hand on D.J.’s shoulder. D.J. goes home, destroyed.
What about Jonathan’s current relationship with Shayanna Jenkins, the mother of Aaron’ three-year-old daughter and his (still current?) fiancee? They are no longer on speaking terms, which was a “mutual” decision. Jonathan tells Rosenberg that they were never close to begin with.
By all accounts, Aaron’s life took a turn for the worse when his father Dennis died suddenly at the age of 49 due to complications from a routine hernia surgery.
Jonathan explains to Rosenberg how the brothers dealt with the loss differently:
Jonathan thinks back to the receiving line at the funeral. At 19, he was a hot mess; Aaron, 16, was a cold one. He was bawling; Aaron was not. Even in the moment, when he could have been lost in his own sadness, the older brother noticed. Another snowflake.
“I saw a kid who was devastated,” he says. “I think he was confused. He was lost. He cried, but [only] at moments. Crying is not always the answer, but being an emotional family, for him to put up a wall during the services. . . it was shocking to me. He was holding everything in. Our bodies just reacted differently.”
Rosenberg writes about Jonathan’s second visit to see Aaron since his conviction this past May:
How is Aaron doing? You might not care. Perhaps you just see a famous athlete who committed an unspeakable crime and who does not deserve a teaspoon of your concern. Understandable. He is not your brother.
But Jonathan is pleased that Aaron, at a solid 255 pounds, still looks like an NFL tight end. Aaron organizes workouts for his fellow prisoners: pull-ups, dips, push-ups—whatever it takes, although he tries not to bench-press much himself because he does not want to reinjure his left shoulder.
Before concluding the story by explaining that Jonathan found the love of his life in Iowa and they’re expecting a baby soon, there’s this:
“Whether Aaron did or did not do it, I don’t know,” he says. “And honestly, it’s irrelevant. It really is. He’s in a situation because he decided to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong people.”
He clarifies: Of course it is relevant to the Lloyd family, and to the families of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado too. He understands. But, Jonathan says, “I’m done with it. My days are too busy to stay at home and watch trials. We’ll talk. I still love him. That’s not going to change. If I see him out here one day, the first thing I’m going to do is give him a hug and a kiss, just like we used to do with my father.”
Jonathan didn’t do anything wrong. He’s just one of the many victims of Aaron Hernandez, who will live out the rest of his days at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Mass.
In three seasons with the New England Patriots, Aaron recorded 175 receptions for 1,956 yards and 18 TDs. He is only 26 today, more than three years after his arrest.
In other words, he could’ve been catching passes from Tom Brady while defenses were keying on Rob Gronkowski the last three years. Where would those numbers stand now?
What a waste. What an unfathomable waste.