Three years after Aaron Hernandez was found dead in his prison cell in 2017, those who knew him are still wondering what happened to the football star with seemingly endless potential.
“I think of Aaron almost every day at some point,” says a former teammate from the University of Florida. “He crosses my mind all the time, and I talk about him with other guys from the team. We just can’t figure out what happened. We just can’t wrap our minds around his downfall.”
Hernandez, a former tight end for the New England Patriots, was arrested in 2013 for the murder of Odin Lloyd, a man dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez. As he awaited trial, he was charged in connection with the fatal drive-by shootings of Daniel Jorge Correia de Abreu and Safiro Teixeira Furtado.
He was convicted of Lloyd’s murder and sentenced to life in prison; he was acquitted of the double homicide in April 2017 but days later was found dead in his prison cell after hanging himself with a bedsheet. He was 27.
The former teammate tells PEOPLE that Hernandez was a gifted football player, but displayed a quick temper even back in 2007, when he was a key member of the Florida Gators’ national title team.
At college, Hernandez was allegedly involved in two violent incidents, both in his first year. He was among four players questioned in connection with a drive-by shooting. Just 17 at the time, he fit the description of the man who fired five shots into a car, wounding both passengers. Later that year, he was accused a punching a bouncer at a popular Gainesville establishment while out with former star quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow broke up the fight, but Hernandez allegedly ruptured the victim’s eardrum.
“Everything about Aaron was a struggle,” the teammate says. “He had these really angry outbursts a lot, over insignificant things. And when he started, he couldn’t stop.”
The teammate tells PEOPLE that Hernandez also struggled with his sexuality, despite his long-term relationship with Jenkins. During his life, he had romantic relationships with both men and women.
“He wanted to be the big man on campus who was having sex with a lot of women, but then he’d find guys on the down low,” the teammate says. “The girls were public, the guys were not. It wasn’t his only struggle, but it was a struggle for a guy like Aaron.”
Three years after Hernandez’s death, those who knew him will commemorate the day — while not condoning the behavior that resulted in his prison sentence.
“I look at the things Aaron did and they make me sad,” says the teammate. “He did a lot of things that should not be celebrated in any way. But he was a man who many people loved, and on that level, he should be remembered. Everyone can learn from his mistakes; that’s the way to make sure that his life wasn’t in vain.”