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Patriots Star Jailed for Murder Had Severe Case of Brain Disease

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Aaron Hernandez, the former NFL tight end, at his murder trial at the Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River, Mass., April 15, 2015. - DOMINICK REUTER/POOL VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Dominick Reuter/Pool via The New York Times
  • Aaron Hernandez, the former NFL tight end, at his murder trial at the Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River, Mass., April 15, 2015.

By KEN BELSON
© 2017 New York Times News Service

The brain scan came as a surprise even to researchers who for years have been studying the relationship between brain disease and deaths of professional football players.

Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end and a convicted murderer, was 27 when he killed himself in April. Yet a posthumous examination of his brain showed he had such a severe form of the degenerative brain disease CTE that the damage was akin to that of players well into their 60s.

It was, a lawyer for his family said, in announcing the findings Thursday, “the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron’s age.”

CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, has been found in more than 100 former NFL players, some of whom took their own lives, according to researchers at Boston University.

Yet the results of the study of Hernandez’s brain is adding another dimension to his meteoric rise and fall that could raise questions about the root of his erratic, violent behavior and lead to a potentially tangled legal fight with the NFL.

Just 10 months after he signed a $40 million contract with the Patriots in 2013, with the promise of becoming a superstar, the body of a friend who had been shot multiple times was discovered. Hernandez was convicted of the friend’s murder, and later accused in two other killings from 2012. Just days after an acquittal in that case, he hanged himself with a bedsheet in his prison cell.

The researchers did not make a direct link between Hernandez’s violence and his disease. But CTE is often marked by problems with controlling aggression and impulses, and some degree of dementia, as well as mood swings, lapses in judgment and a disorganized manner.

Hernandez’s estate filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the NFL and the Patriots seeking damages to compensate his 4-year-old daughter for the loss of her father. The suit alleges that the league and the team knew that repeated head hits could lead to brain disease, yet did not do enough to protect Hernandez from those hits.

The NFL did not comment on the medical finding, and it declined to comment on the suit. The Patriots declined to comment.