The white envelope arrives bearing familiar markings: INDIGENT MAIL from inmate AM2598 at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, Calif. Inside are two pages of black ink on yellow legal paper torn hastily from a notepad, the printing small and tight and slanted gently to the left. The date at the top reads April 19, 2017.
WOW, I just heard Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in his cell. . . . I am really shocked in one aspect and not surprised in another. Prison, or the thought of prison for life, is not a good way to view your future. I’m sure coming from the lifestyle he was used to, prison was not a good place for him.
Eric Naposki composed his letter on the same day Hernandez hung himself at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass., where the former Patriots tight end was serving life in prison for murder. These latest pages get heaped onto a pile of nearly 100 more that have stuffed my mailbox four, five and six envelopes at a time to circumvent prison-imposed page limits.
Naposki, now 52, has developed a sort of kindred fascination with Hernandez. Both men had football roots in Connecticut: Naposki played linebacker at UConn and later made his home in the state; Hernandez starred at Bristol Central High. Both men earned their first football paychecks from the Patriots, who signed Naposki as an undrafted rookie in 1988 and drafted Hernandez in the fourth round in 2010. But their deepest connection is defined by a far more chilling exclusivity. Until the moment Hernandez hung himself, both men were members of the same frightening club: former NFL players and convicted killers who despite their pleas of innocence were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Four years before Hernandez’s trial dominated headlines, California media had obsessed over another grizzly homicide case. This one involved football and sex, a blonde bombshell and a rich older man, gobs of money and a missing gun. Now, from prison, the convicted murderer at the center of that trial was writing about this sinister connection.
I've never viewed suicide as an answer, actually it is counter productive to proving myself innocent. … Prison on the other hand is just a personal issue, meaning it's you against yourself, if you are mentally strong enough to endure the bad parts, then the good parts will come more easily. I don't think Aaron gave himself enough time to adjust and grow mentally stronger, he gave up, something I will never do.
But then there’s this—something Naposki has considered but that maybe Hernandez did not. If time and mental toughness don’t solve Naposki’s problem, or if he doesn’t manage to overturn his conviction through some new bit of evidence, then he has another Hail Mary survival strategy that he will come to share half a year after Hernandez’s death.
Naposki will never admit guilt, he makes that abundantly clear. But maybe he can connect the violence of his football life to the violent act for which he has been convicted.
Eric Naposki’s appreciation for physical contact attracted him to football at an early age. He describes his first tackle, when he was eight and living in the Bronx, as “the best feeling I had ever felt. That was it, I had found my calling.”
His letters from prison are filled with romanticized tales of aggression and fetishized episodes of violence on the football field, where he says a high school collision broke one opponent’s collarbone and where he recalls a jarring hit that dazed Bengals tailback Ickey Woods. He prides himself on having been “a serious linebacker that [would], if nothing else, hit you in the face and knock your ass out.”
Football was stability. Growing up, many of Naposki’s coaches served as role models in the absence of the father he says he never met. These men remained in his life through college and the pros, and Naposki later found time to address their teams whenever he was home. His athletic achievements gave him the confidence to make friends growing up, and years later many of those same people would hold fundraisers to assist with his court fees during trial.
"The image I have in my head—that maybe I’d like to keep—is of a fun-loving kid who loved playing football," says Jim Capalbo, a coach at Tuckahoe (N.Y.) High, the first of three high schools Naposki attended. Says John D’Arco, an assistant at Eastchester High, “He had everything going for him.”
In 1984, Naposki accepted a football scholarship to UConn, where as a junior he thrived as an outside linebacker, right around the time his high school girlfriend gave birth to their first daughter. But then a shoulder injury cost Naposki a game against Northeastern, and he says coach Tom Jackson held him out the next week. And that was it. “F--- him,” says Naposki. “I quit in person and told Tom Jackson he made a big f------ mistake!” Decades later, this impulsive reaction would come up in court. Naposki, the prosecution mused, had earned three varsity letters . . . And then he just walked away? Who does that if not for an anger issue?
Redirecting the raw athleticism of his 6’ 2,” 225-pound frame, Naposki worked the following summer at a camp run by UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun and eventually caught on with the Huskies’ practice team. But again his path zagged, this time having something to do with an ankle injury, the call of a budding family and a pointed conversation with Calhoun. “Coach C told me that although I could play basketball—he liked my toughness—I still had a family and school to take care of,” says Naposki. “He told me that maybe I should try my hand back at football. . . . It was the conversation that changed my life.” (Calhoun, now at D-III Saint Joseph, remembers Naposki as a “world-class athlete” who was “caught in between things in his life.”)
In so many ways, Naposki’s return to football was seemingly too good to be true. Fifteen months removed from his final college game, he says he auditioned for agent Dennis Guidone with a 4.5-second 40-yard dash (which would have tied him for third-fastest among linebackers and edge rushers at the 2018 combine) and traveled with a stable of Guidone’s clients for a tryout with the Patriots. Naposki says his name wasn’t on the tryout list, so he snuck into the event by crawling through a crack in a fence and stealing a number from the registration table. Embellished as that tale may seem (Guidone did not respond to calls about this story), Naposki indisputably signed a two-year contract on July 8, 1988, with a salary of $55,000. Three months later he survived New England’s final cuts. One Patriots scout from that era describes him as having been undersized, friendly and “very obsessed with being successful.”
Naposki appeared in three games that season, mostly on special teams, but the dream was short-lived and he quickly ricocheted around the league while suffering a rash of injuries: camp with the Cowboys and Colts; back with the Pats and the Colts, briefly; camp with the Jets. . . . And then off to the World League of American Football.
Even through these hiccups, Naposki’s career had all the unbelievable beats of a Hollywood drama. The Barcelona Dragons flew him off to Spain, where he bagged seven sacks and returned one interception for a game-winning TD while the Dragons marched to the inaugural World Bowl title game in June 1991. The money was meager—somewhere between $15,000 and $40,000 for 10 games—but there were other rewards. Wrote The New York Times: “The Catalans have taken to Naposki, an outside linebacker from Yonkers and the first one to have a fan club, La Penya Naposki.”
When he walked to practice from his beachfront lodging, children swarmed him for autographs. On game days at Estadio Olímpico de Montjuic, banners bearing his name draped the walls. “My fan club grew to 5,000 and my name—Nuh! Pa! Ski!—was chanted,” he gushes. “It was awesome.”
Until it wasn’t. Nagging groin and foot injuries led him to quit following the 1992 season, and by September he was back stateside in Irvine, Calif., where he rented a studio apartment while finalizing a divorce from his first wife, with whom he’d had a second daughter. Naposki found work as a nightclub security guard and started an exercise program for kids.
Which is how he met Nanette Johnston, a 27-year-old soccer mom who would later be described in court as “top-heavy” and eye-catching for her tight, revealing attire and for her tendency to wear a Rolex. Johnston was living that summer in a luxurious Newport Beach home along with her 52-year-old boyfriend, Bill McLaughlin, who’d made millions of dollars off a few medical inventions. Those two had met when McLaughlin answered a personal ad seeking “wealthy men only . . . you take care of me and I’ll take care of you.” But now Johnston turned her eyes elsewhere.
What Naposki says started as a friendship turned physical in the winter of 1993, when he met Johnston in New York City for a night out. Things went well, and Naposki says Johnston invited him to Washington, D.C., for New Year’s Eve. He accepted, and as ’93 gave way to ’94 the two slept together for the first time. “We did not know what to make of this new thing,” says Naposki, who insists today that Johnston led him to believe McLaughlin was just her business partner. “But we enjoyed each other’s company and the sex was intense.”
When they returned to California, Eric and Nanette began dating. McLaughlin would be murdered within a year.
The beginning of the end for Eric Naposki came in the early morning of Dec. 23, 1994—eight days after McLaughlin was found dead in his home—when authorities stopped the linebacker in Newport Beach and arrested him, ostensibly, for an outstanding traffic warrant.
Detectives had been surveilling one of McLaughlin’s properties, a beach house where Johnston was staying, and Naposki was a frequent visitor. Now police wanted to ask him about his whereabouts on the evening McLaughlin was brutally shot six times in the chest while reading a newspaper in his kitchen. (They had already interviewed Johnston and she’d produced a verifiable alibi.)
With detectives Naposki was equal parts cooperative, combative and confident. “I don’t have a problem with you interrogating the s--- out of me,” he told police as he consented to a search of his residence at a nearby hotel, where detectives found no weapons or ammunition. A friend posted the $343 bail from the traffic warrant, and that was that. There would be a second interview a month later, but nothing came of it.
In the absence of charges, Naposki decided to unretire. He missed football and wanted to distance himself from Johnston. “I was done f------ around in California,” he says. By his recollection, the Rams offered him a contract in the spring of 1995, but the NFL shut it down because of the stink of the investigation. He tried returning to the World League instead and recalls a similar result. His attorney at the time, Julian Bailey, even sent a letter to the Orange County D.A.’s office urging them to “clear Mr. Naposki’s name so he can get on with his life.”
And then, without explanation, something changed. In 1996 the Dragons welcomed Naposki back, and with him Barcelona went on to win the ’97 World Bowl—which would prove to be Naposki’s final game as a professional. A photo of the celebration afterward shows Naposki, a team captain, embraced by coach Jack Bicknell, who recalls someone from the NFL calling earlier that year and suggesting “maybe [Naposki] should come home.” Bicknell, who retired from coaching in 2007, says he raised the subject of McLaughlin’s murder with Naposki. “I said, ‘Eric, what’s that all about?’ ” he recalls. “And he said, ‘Coach, it’s something that happened over there, but believe me, I wasn’t part of it.’ And I didn’t pursue it. I just said, O.K.”
Returning to the U.S., Naposki, then 30, parlayed his playing career into a coaching gig at the University of New Haven (Conn.), a D-II program where he spent one season working with the outside linebackers for a team, coached by Tony Sparano, that reached the national title game. Naposki was, by all accounts, up front about his past. One fellow assistant, Tony Mortali, says Naposki even brought it up himself, several times. “He said something happened and they tried to blame him. But we didn’t think anything of it.”
Naposki remarried at a church back in Barcelona and had two more children, a son and a daughter. He worked for a security company that he says stationed him on ESPN’s Bristol campus for several years. He took classes at UConn, continuing his undergrad degree in general studies, and he opened a gym.
“I had a great wife and a great bunch of clients and friends from the gym,” Naposki says. “Life was good.”
Then the real end came. On May 20, 2009, authorities on opposite coasts set into motion a sting operation to apprehend the two people they believed conspired 15 years earlier to kill Bill McLaughlin for financial gain.
They started with Naposki, arresting the suspected triggerman as he backed his Nissan 350Z convertible out of his driveway in Greenwich, Conn., to run errands. (“I thought it was the IRS,” Naposki says of the police who swarmed him. “I thought I got in trouble for tax evasion.”) The sting concluded later that day when authorities nabbed Johnston, the suspected mastermind, at her home in a wealthy Orange County neighborhood.