Long journey to Foxboro for Hernandez

by: Christopher Price on Tue, 09/28/2010 - 11:34pm

Aaron Hernandez has done the impossible — he’s made Bob DeSantis a Patriots fan.

DeSantis, the longtime athletic coordinator at Bristol Central High in Connecticut, was a lifelong Giants fan before the Patriots took Hernandez in the fourth round of the 2009 draft out of Florida. Now, DeSantis is taping every Patriots game, following the young man who he once taught in gym class.

“I would never watch Patriots games before, but that’s what I watch now,” said DeSantis, who said he was one of the happiest men in New England after Super Bowl XLII. “You know what’s amazing to me? I taught him in gym class. It’s amazing to me to see him on TV playing in the pros.”

Through three games as a professional, Hernandez — the youngest player in the league on opening weekend at age 20 — certainly hasn’t shocked the people back in Bristol. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound rookie tight end, who grew up a Patriots fan, has 13 catches (second on the Patriots) and a team-high 211 receiving yards, bringing a dynamic new look to the New England offense. His six catches for 65 yards and 1 rush for 13 yards in the Patriots’ 38-30 win over the Bills on Sunday landed him a nomination for the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week Award.

But it has been a long journey to Foxboro for Hernandez, a journey that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the people back in Bristol.

“It was the beginning of the learning process for me,” Hernandez recalled of his high school years. “When you get to high school, that’s when you start learning about defenses and the more important things about the game. So I’d say that was the start to everything. That got me going. Since then, you just learn more and more.

“But that was the starting point.”

“The possibility for him to make it was there,” DeSantis said of Hernandez as a high schooler. “He had the gift, but so much had to line up right for that to happen.”

For Hernandez, that all started lining up when he was a freshman football player at Bristol Central. According to former Bristol Central coach Doug Pina, he was one of the only players who played varsity football as a freshman. Pina said Hernandez had grown up fast, having played against his brother D.J., who would go on to play at UConn.

“When he came to me as a freshman, he was head and shoulders above a lot of the kids, even as a freshman,” said Pina, who was the head coach at Bristol Central for eight years. “He was the only freshman that I ever took to the varsity who I didn’t leave with the freshmen. There was no sense in him playing freshman football. It wouldn’t have been challenging enough for him.”

Pina’s assessment was an accurate one — Hernandez was a football prodigy. He would go on to set numerous high school records. As a senior, he would finish with 67 receptions for 1,807 yards and 24 touchdowns on offense. He also set the state record for receiving yards in a game with 376, which was the seventh-best total in national high school history. He also set a national high school record for yards receiving per game with 180.7.

Hernandez said much of the reason behind his high school success was Pina, an old-school coach.

“He was just hard on us. He was hard on us then,” Hernandez recalled. “He got us ready — because he played at Syracuse — he got us ready for coaches in college and the NFL being hard on us. He definitely set the tone for me and let me realize what it’s like in the real world. So I was ready for it.”

The numbers drew a small army of college coaches to Bristol, and Hernandez, who initially said he would go to UConn, ultimately decided on Florida. But it was a tough time off the field for Hernandez — in his senior year, his father passed away. That same year, Hernandez decided to jump at the chance to leave high school early so he could get a head start on his collegiate career with the Gators.

While his performance on the field drew raves — in three seasons at Florida, Hernandez started 27 of 40 games, catching 111 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns — Hernandez stumbled off the field, failing at least one drug test with the Gators. Hernandez maintains that it was just one failed test, and later said he was candid with teams at the combine who asked him about it.

“He’s not a druggie,” DeSantis said. “He made a very bad decision. He said to me, ‘Coach, I messed up.’ The guys at Florida, they laid it on the line to him. They told him, ‘If this is the course you’re going to go, we don’t want you here.’”

Hernandez was able to make it work. A consensus All-American and unanimous All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection, he became the first player in SEC history to receive the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end. However, he dropped in the draft, falling into the fourth round because of what some believed were character issues. There was the drug test, as well as the tattoos that cover most of his body.

“I got calls from coaches before the draft wondering about the tattoos,” DeSantis said. “You know what I told them? Eighty-five percent of them have to do with his dad and his family.”

Hernandez was taken by the Patriots in the fourth round with the 113th overall pick, and has already far exceeded the expectations that were placed on him when he first arrived in Foxboro. In a Week 2 loss to the Jets, Hernandez had a breakout game, catching six passes for 101 yards. Combined with fellow rookie Rob Gronkowski, they have transformed the New England passing game, making them key players just months into their arrival in Foxboro. Through three games, the two have combined for 18 catches, 269 yards and two touchdowns.

“These young tight ends were expected to play right out of the box,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “When they first got here, it was like, ‘All right guys, let’s get ready to go.’ We’ve been hard on them since the first day they got here. They’ve really taken to that role, and accepted the role, and really been coachable, they are confident kids. Both Gronkowski and Hernandez have done a great job, and it’s really added a lot to this offense.”

“If you know Aaron, he likes to be a part of the family, and a few of the guys have taken him under their wing, guys like [Randy] Moss and Brady and [Wes] Welker,” said DeSantis, who still stays in touch with Hernandez. “The older receivers have really helped him along.”

Hernandez is now an integral part of the New England offense, but that doesn’t mean Pina is going to change his old-school approach when it comes to dealing with him.

“I think he needs to run and use the whole field and stop cutting back,” Pina said with a laugh. “I’ve been telling him that since he was a freshman. He doesn’t trust his speed as much as he should.”

In the end, it’s clear that with a lot of help from the people back in Bristol, things have lined up pretty nicely for Hernandez.

“I think New England did themselves some justice by getting him on their team,” Pina said. “I’m happy that coach Belichick recognized the kind of ballplayer they were getting. He’s a solid citizen, and I’m glad that New England realized that.”