The Salem News
---- — FOXBOROUGH — Aaron Hernandez feared the worst.
On the third offensive play of New England’s second game this season, the Patriots tight end was blocking on a short screen pass when his right ankle was rolled up on by a teammate during the ensuing tackle.
Lying on the ground, writhing in pain and clutching his ankle in front of a stunned and silent home crowd, Hernandez believed his once promising season was over before it ever really began.
“Broke,” Hernandez admitted yesterday of the thoughts swirling through his head as he lay on the Gillette Stadium turf a month ago. “But it healed and I’m better now.”
The Patriots and their fans couldn’t be more ecstatic, either.
After missing nearly four full games with what turned out to be a sprained ankle, Hernandez returned to the field Sunday in Seattle, catching six passes for 30 yards and a touchdown in a 24-23 loss to the Seahawks.
“I felt pretty good,” he said during his first session with the media since the injury. “It was good to be back out there and help the team.”
It didn’t take long for quarterback Tom Brady to reincorporate one of his most dangerous weapons back into the offense, connecting with Hernandez for eight yards on the Patriots’ first offensive play of the game.
Welcome back, Aaron.
“When you’re out there on the field, you kind of forget about everything and just hope for the best,” Hernandez said. “Once I caught that first pass, I got back into the game and wanted the ball some more.
“Just happy to be back out there and know that I can get the ball and help them out. It made me happy.”
Of course, hitting the ground running is the only way he knows how to play.
“Maybe I was a step slower,” Hernandez said, “but I’m saying I felt pretty good and I’m looking forward to keep getting better.”
Hernandez was expected to play a large role in the offense this year after a sensational sophomore campaign last season, when he had 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns.
Alongside Pro Bowl standout Rob Gronkowski, the talented third-year tandem quickly became one of the most feared in league history, combining for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns, all NFL records for a pair of tight end teammates.
But just weeks after signing a long-term deal that will keep him in New England (3-3) through 2018, Hernandez’s season was curtailed after just one game.
Watching his teammates from home wasn’t easy.
“Obviously it was tough, especially when you live to play football, been doing it your whole life,” he said. “You want to play, want to help the team. That’s the reason why I came back.”
Hernandez picked a perfect time to return, too, as the rival New York Jets (3-3) travel to town for a pivotal Sunday matchup that will leave the winner atop the AFC East.
“It’s just another game,” he said of the pending showdown.
Hernandez has a strong yet short history with the Jets. In four regular-season games, he has caught 18 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown, helping the Patriots go 3-1.
Yet in a shocking 28-21 loss to New York in the 2010 playoffs, Hernandez was held to just one catch and four yards.
After signing veteran safeties Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry this past offseason in part to defend against the Patriots’ potent pair, the Jets are hoping for a similar result.
“Both of these guys are good football players, they’re physical, they’re tough guys and they’re passionate players,” New York coach Rex Ryan said. “But specifically against Gronk and Hernandez, I don’t necessarily see that. I think on defense, you try to get 11 good football players on the field and that’s what we do.
“When we have those two guys out there, we know we have two really good players with those two.”
Once Hernandez received the news that his ankle was not broken, he knew a swift return was in the cards.
“I know we have a great training staff and they’re going to work hard to get us back, especially under Bill’s supervision,” he joked of coach Bill Belichick. “So, I knew I was going to have a quick recovery and I came back pretty good.”
Despite yearning to return a week earlier than expected against Denver, Hernandez wasn’t ready, he said. But when given the green light by Belichick a week later, he was good to go.
“It’s all about confidence,” he said. “I got more practice time in and gained some more confidence in cutting off the ankle because I cut a lot. So, I gained some confidence and it made me feel comfortable going out and playing a game.”
Still, when he gets tackled from behind, or a teammate lands awkwardly on his right ankle, his heart skips a beat.
“You get nervous at times, but it’s feeling great. So, it’s really nothing really to worry about no more,” Hernandez said. “If it gets hurt, then it’s the man above.
“But I guess I’ll be all right.”