SportStars Magazine

Built Tough

Four Years After The Boston Marathon Bombings Left Him With Severe Leg Injuries, Aaron Hern Is Thriving As Alhambra’s Starting QB •

Story by JAMES G. KANE | Photos by BOB LARSON

The first thing that jumps out to the visitor in Aaron Hern’s bedroom is simply how immaculate it looks. Bed neatly made. No clothes on the floor. Dust absent from the drawers.

Quarterbacks tend to be organized. They think big, too.

“I want to go the Naval Academy,” he says, when asked where he sees himself in a couple of years. The place is dear to his family — his father, Alan, went there, and met Aaron’s mom, Katherine — and he has the grades, the athletic pedigree and all the intangibles needed. Yet, he says it with a self-assuredness and presence that’s disarming.

“Live your best life,” he says. “Right?”

The words carry real power when they come from this set of lips. The 16-year-old speaking them is living and after April 15, 2013, the day bombs burst near the Boston Marathon finish line, that alone is the best.

But there’s far more to it than that.

For one, Hern is rolling toward straight A’s at Alhambra High in Martinez, his dreams squarely aspiring to participation in a future Army-Navy game. For two, he’s starting quarterback for the 3-2 Bulldogs and healthy as the Bulldogs enter Diablo Athletic League-Foothill Conference play by hosting Ygnacio Valley-Concord on Oct. 6..

That puts him ahead of last season, when as a sophomore starter, he suffered a season-ending broken collarbone in Alhambra’s opener against Acalanes-Lafayette.

And no, that hit did not take away his nerve.

“One of my favorite things about football,” he says, “is the physicality of it. I’ve never been opposed to getting hit. Really, I’ll have some jitters before each game, and they last until I get hit for the first time. I love that first hit.”

And, he says, he loves the chaos of it all. Which might seem strange, given the chaos of that day in 2013.

The gory details of the bombing have been well-chronicled, but Hern is more than willing to retrace them — “I still remember looking up, seeing people running and the buildings in the sky and thinking, ‘Wow, I guess this is it.’ I thought I was dead” — with almost a matter-of-fact demeanor. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time when two bombs detonated 12 seconds and 210 yards apart near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people died. Sixteen others lost limbs.

That he wasn’t one of them was no less than a miracle. Aaron and the family acknowledge it, along with occasional posts on a Facebook Page titled “Aaron Hern Recovery.” A banner atop the page reads “Boston Strong.”

“He’s done really well with what has come his way,” Katherine says. “The overwhelming attention from the beginning was a lot. And I don’t want that in any way to be construed as a negative. But it’s a lot. And it was a lot. Here he is, this athletic boy who has been moving around his whole life and he’s having to learn to walk again at 11.

“But you know, you have the process of the athlete. You accept it and you plan to give yourself the best chance possible to deal with what you’re facing. And we just kind of did that the best we could.”

None of the Herns came out of it completely unscathed. Alan Hern says that in the year after the bombing, he lost some of his intensity for coaching and struggled to reconcile the adversity already thrown at his first-born child.

The autumn before the bombing, he suffered a dislocated elbow playing football, a “particularly nasty injury,” Alan Hern says.

“I had a really hard time with the fact that here he was this 11-year-old boy, and he’d already been through all this trauma,” Alan Hern said. “I struggled with that for a long time.”

Mom suffered watching her baby hurt. Words don’t do it justice. The shaking of her head as she turns away does.

The other side of that? Some of the other pain the Herns face now doesn’t strike nearly as deep. But they are there. The Bulldogs, a school with a winning and proud tradition, are far from a perfect team, and Aaron Hern — 5 foot, 11 inches, 160 pounds and possessing an average arm and speed — won’t be on the home page of any recruiting websites.

“In the games I’ve seen when he’s had time to throw, he threw it really well,” said Acalanes-Lafayette coach Floyd Burnsed, a veteran of more than 20 seasons. “He’s good on the seam routes to his wideouts. He would have a long way to go (to be considered elite), but he’s a good high school quarterback.”

Aaron and dad, Alan, talk over a scenario during a late September practice.

Throw into the mix that his dad is the head coach, and hard feelings can fester in a small community. As one Alhambra official put it, “Some parents can be very cruel.”

Hern has more than enough support to cope. He does the teenage socializing thing occasionally but says he prefers a quiet night with his folks and sisters Abby, 14, and Caroline, 4.

Plus, he’s been the coach’s son his entire life, so that brings perspective in a situation that can appear to be wholly unfair. Not that he needed the perspective.

“You know what?” he says. “It’s just noise. You get used to it. People who say those things and participate in it, they really don’t understand all that goes into playing the position I play and all that’s gone into preparation. I don’t skip workouts. I don’t skip film. I don’t skip anything. So it’s just noise.”

Besides, as both he and his father point out, everything can change in an instant. One second, he’s quarterbacking the Bulldogs as a sophomore, the next he’s getting clocked blindsided and his collarbone is broken. One second, he’s standing along the road in Boston, the next …

“You realize,” he says, “that when people say you have to be in the moment, you really do have to be in the moment.

And wow, some of those moments. There was the night during his recovery that he threw out the first pitch at an Oakland A’s game, and that other night he did the same things before the San Francisco Giants played. He has those baseballs — and dozens of others — signed and inside an encased glass box mounted on a shelf along his bedroom wall.

There was the day the Oakland Raiders honored him, and all of them signed a game ball. That’s in Aaron’s room, too.

There are the strangers who tell him he’s an inspiration, that he embodies Boston Strong.

Yet there are other moments, too. Like the ones when Aaron thinks about 8-year-old Martin William Richard, of Boston, who died when the second bomb exploded. Martin and Aaron were mere yards apart.

Survivor Guilt, as Katherine says, “is a very real thing.”

“There’s definitely times, yeah, where I wonder ‘why did an 8-year-old have to die’, and it’s rough,” Aaron says. “But I try not to stay there too long.”

It’s a fine line to walk. A hard line to walk.

“There’s pressure that comes with it,” Katherine says. “He does a good job with it.”

A few minutes later, Alan is showing a video on the family’s desktop computer. It shows Aaron in a rehabilitation room, struggling to walk with the aid of a walker. His legs move rigidly. His eyes reflect despair.

“It breaks my heart, but I keep it and watch it occasionally to remind myself of where he’s been and what he’s overcome,” Alan says. “But it’s also to remind myself and us that you keep moving forward, because sometimes, that’s all you can do.”

Silence follows. Aaron stares intently at the screen. He gives a visitor a glance and comes back to the screen. It’s a deeply intense, deeply personal moment, in the open, for others to see.

“It’s OK,” Aaron says. “It’s who I am. It’s a huge part of my life. But day-to-day now, I don’t see it as defining me, and I don’t feel like it will be all that does define me.”

Because, clearly, there’s much more to Aaron Hern and his life than just that day in Boston.

 

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