FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 6: Aaron Hernandez #81 of the New England Patriots scores against the defense of Kenny Phillips #21 of the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium in the second half on November 6, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)2011 Getty Images
New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) hangs on to the ball as New York Jets inside linebacker David Harris (52) takes off his helmet on a hit during the first half of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)AP2011
If the last meeting between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots is any indication, there’s a good chance a University of Florida alum could come up big in Saturday’s playoff game between the two teams– and his name is not Tim Tebow.
Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, Tebow’s teammate on the Gators from 2007 to 2009, has had a breakout year, one he’s looking to extend with a win over the Broncos at Gillette Stadium.
Considered a secondary option for his rookie season and even earlier this campaign, Hernandez has emerged as a serious threat on an offense that was ranked No. 2 in the NFL during the regular season.
The young tight end has proven a reliable option on a loaded Patriots offense that includes standouts Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski.
As New England opens its postseason with a much-anticipated rematch against Denver, Hernandez is certainly at the forefront of any discussions. After all, the 22-year-old from Bristol, Conn., had a career day when the two teams met in Week 15, posting nine catches to lead his team with 129 yards and a touchdown.
"Aaron's a heck of a player,” Welker said after that game. “He's tough to cover one-on-one, and doing different things out there. He's a big mismatch for a lot of defenses, so getting him involved and him making the plays he did is huge for us. I'm sure he'll continue to do that."
The Broncos are preparing for that possibility heading into this weekend’s game.
"I don't think Aaron Hernandez gets the credit he deserves,” Denver cornerback Champ Bailey told the media ahead of Saturday’s game. “Gronkowski has the numbers. Welker has the numbers, but Hernandez, when you watch him on tape, he runs routes just as well as any tight end in the game. He's a guy that definitely deserves more credit than he gets."
But Hernandez’s contributions and impact have the potential to reach far beyond a single game or his native New England.
Last season, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport put the number of Latinos in the NFL at just 13 (or at less than 1 percent) in its annual Race and Gender Report Card. Other reports have the number of players with Hispanic heritage as high as 30. Either way, Latinos represent a disproportionately tiny fraction of players in the United States’ most popular sport.
Hernandez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has become a minority within the minority, joining the incredibly short list of notable active Latino players in the league: New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, who also has made a name for himself this season.
Now, Hernandez is on the even shorter list of players whose seasons are still going strong in January.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz
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