FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – 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 Thursday 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 could not 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 threats back into the offense, connecting with Hernandez for 8 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 one catch.
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.
When Hernandez 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 to worry about no more,” Hernandez said.