Hernandez: Troubled Under Tough Veneer

Stan Simpson

10:09 AM EDT, July 6, 2013


Whether Aaron Hernandez is affiliated with a gang or was just channeling a Tupac-like thug life is moot. It won't stop the barbershop or water fountain chatter, or the reality that this suburban kid was so enamored of being perceived as "gangsta" that he became a casualty — even as he became rich, famous and a father who was actually going to marry his baby's mama.

That this 23-year-old Bristol native — blessed beyond measure — could put himself in a situation in which he is accused of orchestrating one murder and under investigation for possible involvement in two others is incomprehensible. The Hernandez saga is a case study that will have psychologists and behavior analysts scratching their heads for years. Why couldn't he escape from street life? Was this lifestyle so comforting that he didn't want to leave it, even as he moved into a much more elite tax bracket?

We do know that just about every gang member or wanna be gangsta has one common denominator — the lack of a father or positive male father figure in his life. Close behind is a misguided notion of what it is to be a man. If you want to understand how Hernandez ensnared himself in a predicament in which he may never be free again, it starts here.

The death of his father, Dennis Hernandez, obviously (and reportedly) had a profound influence on young Aaron. It is, however, no excuse for where he finds himself now. Or, for engaging in continuous self-destructive behavior. Hernandez lost his dad, but he didn't have to lose his soul. Hernandez is the father of an 8-month-old girl who, he said, inspired him to mature and leave his reckless lifestyle.

"The single greatest crisis in the country that's foundational to addressing those other (social) issues is the crisis of masculinity," the Rev. Joe Ehrmann told me in 2005. "Forty percent of all children go to bed without their biological dads in the house. You've got all kinds of dads that have just abdicated their roles and responsibilities. Or, you have dads that are in the house, but they're emotionally absent, not invested or connected to their kids."

Ehrmann, a behemoth of a man and a Baltimore Colts defensive tackle in the 1970s. Ehrmann was the assistant football coach at Gilman School, a highly regarded private school in Baltimore. There, Ehrmann created a program that redefined manhood for young boys.

The prevailing definition of manhood for many immature boys in transition is sexual conquests, making money, possessing guns and doing drugs. For many athletes and celebrities that notion becomes more acute as their bank account increases.

Ehrmann's program, which was given a trial run in Connecticut, espoused that manhood could be measured by a man's willingness to love, cultivate and value productive relationships and find a life purpose that helped others. Yes, it does seem counter-culture to the rough-and-tumble rock 'em-sock 'em nature of pro football adn street life. But there are too many cases in which athletes and celebrities respond to slights — real or imagined — with the desire to bust a cap in someone. The gun has become the great equalizer, a comforter for cowards who become more brazen with their brandishings after a few cocktails, sniffs or puffs.

Aaron Hernandez, despite his prowess on the football field and the millions he has in the bank, has an identity problem and a blurred image of manhood. Hence, the tough-guy veneer; the tattoo-laden body, the affinity for guns, drugs and ruthless retaliations when he feels disrespected.

What adds to the intrigue of his story is the undeniable likability of Hernandez. Even though he is accused of a reprehensible crime and gave that blank death stare to a judge at his first arraignment, there is something very vulnerable about this guy; almost like we can see that the WTF countenance masks a very troubled soul.

The late actor James Gandolfini brought that same vulnerability to a lovable, yet brutal, mobster named Tony Soprano. Tony was so conflicted by the nature of his profession, his desire to be a good family man and his profound character flaws that he sought professional counseling.

It's a shame Aaron Hernandez never met Rev. Joe Ehrmann.

Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FOX CT).