Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Story Behind the Story:
“The Dread Line,” by Bruce DeSilva

(Editor’s note: This is the third piece The Rap Sheet has posted by New Jersey novelist Bruce DeSilva, following backgrounders on two of his previous yarns, Providence Rag [2014] and A Scourge of Vipers [2015]. DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity awards, and he’s been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry awards. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press’ well-respected noir anthologies. DeSilva has critiqued books for The New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and the Associated Press. Prior to his novel-writing success, he spent 40 years as a journalist, most recently as worldwide writing coach for the AP. His new, fifth book, The Dread Line [Forge], will be published on September 6 in hardcover and e-book editions. You can enjoy an excerpt from that novel here.)

In the end, the New England Patriots should consider themselves lucky. What if Aaron Hernandez had felt disrespected at practice one day, stalked out to the parking lot, fetched a handgun, and shot quarterback Tom Brady? Or head coach Bill Belichick? Or maybe both?

After all, he was capable of such violence according to Massachusetts authorities, who will try him later this year for shooting two men to death following a bar brawl in Boston’s South End in 2012. Not that a conviction will change Hernandez’s life all that much. At age 26, the former Patriots tight end is already serving life without parole for the 2013 murder of his wife’s sister’s fiancé, a guy he used to party hearty with.

To the casual football fan, this has been a shocking turn of events in the life of a once goofy, well-liked Bristol, Connecticut, kid who shattered state receiving records in high school, earned All-American honors at the University of Florida, got drafted by the Patriots after his junior year, and promptly formed the most prolific tight-end receiving combination in NFL history with teammate Rob Gronkowski.

It is worth pausing to remember what a remarkable athlete Hernandez was. As a rabid Patriots fan, I spent many a Sunday afternoon marveling at his talent. Sometimes squatting beside an offensive tackle, sometimes splitting out wide, and sometimes even lining up as a running back, he was too fast for linebackers to cover and too powerful for safeties and cornerbacks to handle. And in both the passing and running game, he was a ferocious blocker.

But by the time the Patriots drafted him in 2010, those in the know understood that Hernandez was troubled. That’s why several teams removed him from their draft board, and why, despite being one of the greatest talents available, he fell to the Patriots in the fourth round. Knowing little about Hernandez’s past and a good deal about his abilities, I was initially thrilled by the pick, imagining the havoc Tom Brady would wreak with both him and Gronkowski as targets for his laser-like passes.

(Right) Aaron Hernandez

But surely the Patriots had an inkling about the kind of man they were about to set loose in their locker room. Perhaps they thought that success, money, and being surrounded by “character” players such as Brady, Matt Light, and Logan Mankins would tame Hernandez. If so, they were tragically mistaken.

Hernandez’s story was very much in my mind as I sat at my computer nearly two years ago and began writing The Dread Line, the fifth entry in my New England-based series of crime novels. I considered fictionalizing Hernandez’s story but soon dismissed the idea. There were too many loose ends left, and with the double-murder case yet pending, there still are. Besides, I wanted to write an original tale. So I asked myself, what if?

What if the Patriots, still reeling from the Hernandez saga, decided that their scouting department needed a professional investigator to help them vet a college star they were considering drafting?

So I invented Conner Bowditch, a defensive lineman with the speed of J.J. Watt and the strength of Ndamukong Suh, who had starred at Central High in Providence, Rhode Island, and gone on to disrupt offenses at Boston College. I had the Patriots turn to McCracken & Associates Investigative Services, Providence’s best private detective agency, where the hero of my crime novels, Liam Mulligan, had just started working part-time.

Unlike Bowditch, a Providence son of privilege who was, to all appearances, a choirboy, Hernandez grew up in central Connecticut, where, according to multiple reports, he started hanging out with a bad crowd at age 16 after his father died. At the University of Florida, where Hernandez played for Urban Meyer and with Tim Tebow, there were reports of drug use and a bar fight in which he slugged an employee, puncturing his eardrum. And he was questioned about a 2007 shooting in which two men were wounded outside a Gainesville, Florida, club following an altercation with Hernandez and two of his teammates. Although local police wanted to charge Hernandez, prosecution was deferred after the player settled with the victims out of court.

(Left) Author DeSilva with his dogs, Rondo and Brady.

The Patriots may have figured they were minimizing their risk by giving Hernandez a modest rookie contract. However, after he emerged as a superstar, they rewarded him two years later with a five-year, $40 million deal that included a $12.5 million signing bonus—at the time the largest bonus ever given to a tight end.

But after the first murder charge was filed against him, the team cut him loose, costing him nearly $20 million in salary along with several endorsement deals.

In the aftermath, authorities began re-examining Hernandez’s role in the Gainesville shooting and asking what part, if any, he played in the 2013 Florida shooting of a man named Alexander Bradley, who was suing the player for the loss of his right eye. Last year, Hernandez was indicted for witness intimidation in connection with that incident. Bradley, according to published reports, had been a witness to the 2012 Boston double-murder with which Hernandez is charged.

Compared to Hernandez, the fictional Conner Bowditch seemed to be a great guy—an exceptional scholar and student leader who defended the weak against bullies, was beloved by his coaches, and planned to marry his high-school sweetheart.

At first, my man Mulligan thought of him as Saint Conner, assuming the investigative assignment would be routine. But as soon as Mulligan started asking questions, he got push-back. Bowditch, Mulligan discovered, had something to hide, and someone was willing to kill to make sure it remained secret.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that. To find out what the secret is, what it has to do with a sleazy sports agent named Morris Dunst, and whether the Patriots draft Bowditch anyway, you’ll just have to read the book.

READ MORE:Obituary for the Newspaper Business” (The Cockeyed Pessimist), “An Interview About My New Crime Novel, The Dread Line,” “What’s a Mystery Writer to Do When His Hero Loses His Crime-Fighting Job?” and “How I Made the Transition from Journalist to Crime Novelist,” all by Bruce DeSilva.

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