It was supposed to be a party.
Instead, the triumphal visit of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots to the White House on Wednesday turned into a more subdued affair, overshadowed by player boycotts, a last-minute cancellation by star quarterback Tom Brady and the apparent suicide of former tight end Aaron Hernandez, convicted of murder in 2015.
The Patriots were the first championship professional sports team that President Donald Trump welcomed to the White House, continuing a longstanding tradition. Trump is close to the team’s owner, Robert Kraft, a political supporter and friend who flew back to Washington with the president on Air Force One after a recent weekend visit to Mar-a-Lago.
Trump saluted Patriots head coach Bill Belichick for supporting him during the election, and praised the team for its win.
“Whether you’re trying to win a Super Bowl or rebuild our country, as Coach Belichick would say, there are no days off,” Trump said. He stood in front of the team on the White House lawn before he was presented with a Patriots jersey and helmet.
“This year’s championship was achieved after falling behind by 25 points, a deficit so great that in the 97-year history of the NFL, over 20,000 games, that deficit had only been overcome seven times,” Kraft said during his turn at the microphone.
“In that same year, a very good friend of mine for over 25 years, a man who is as mentally tough and hardworking as anybody I know, launched a campaign for the presidency against 16 career politicians facing odds almost as long as we faced in the fourth quarter [of Super Bowl LI],” Kraft continued. “He persevered to become the 45th president of the United States.”
At least six members of the team said ahead of time they planned to boycott the ceremony for political reasons. Brady’s cancellation came as a surprise; he said Wednesday morning, a few hours before the event, that he would be absent “attending to some personal family matters.”
Brady skipped a White House visit in 2015, when Barack Obama was president. The quarterback, who visited the White House when Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in office, said going to the White House “never was a political thing.”
Brady, who didn’t formally endorse Trump but has described him as a “good friend,” thanked the president in a statement. “Hopefully, if we accomplish the goal of winning a championship in the future years, we will [be] back on the South Lawn again soon,” Brady wrote. “Have a great day!”
The friendly relationship Trump enjoys with some members of the Patriots has been the subject of conversation in both the political and sports worlds. Kraft, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, has been spotted with Trump several times since, including having dinner at Mar-a-Lago with the president and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Belichick, another friend of the president, wrote a letter to Trump to show his support for his presidential run, which Trump read aloud to a crowd in New Hampshire during the campaign.
Kraft and Belichick posed with Trump in the Oval Office on Wednesday.
The Patriots’ visit briefly interrupted the daily White House press briefing. Rob Gronkowski, a tight end for the Patriots, peeked his head into Wednesday afternoon’s briefing, offering to help a delighted press secretary Sean Spicer.
Spicer, a Patriots fan, was visibly flustered after Gronkowski dipped back out, asking to have a second as a reporter tried to ask a question.
No mention was made of Hernandez during the public White House events. The 27-year-old was found hanged in the prison cell where he was serving a life sentence for the murder of another football player.
The Associated Press reported that the Patriots declined comment.
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