FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – On the eve of his 14th NFL season, with a former teammate jailed on murder charges, his franchise's reputation dragged through the mud, the very essence of what it means to play here – the so-called Patriot Way turned on its head and mocked – quarterback Tom Brady stood in the end zone of a practice field Thursday and drew a line in the grass.
It isn't in Brady's nature to raise his voice or shake his fist. He's calm and collected – always. And with Aaron Hernandez charged with one murder and possibly to be indicted on two more, the greatest New England Patriot of them all knew there was no moral high ground to claim. He was respectful of the severity of the crimes and the potential victims involved.
Yet he also recalls the good men who have come before him and set the tone of how a franchise, how an athlete, how a man should operate. The Tedy Bruschis and Kevin Faulks and Troy Browns and Willie McGinests and Larry Izzos and Mike Vrabels and so on and so on and so on. He sees a locker room again coming together with Vince Wilfork and Chandler Jones and Devin McCourty and so many others he'd still swear by.
Aaron Hernandez or no Aaron Hernandez, these are still the Patriots. The rest of the NFL may want to collectively roll eyes, but to Tom Brady that still very much means something, both who defined the past and who will write the future. He wasn't backing down on the topic.
[Wetzel on DPS: Situation involving Aaron Hernandez is unprecedented]
Do you still think the Patriot Way exists?
"To win football games and represent the community?" Brady asked back. "No question."
What's morale like?
"It's fun, it's exciting, this is a new year for us," he said. "Last year didn't end the way we would've hoped, so we have a chance to do better this year."
How much of a distraction has this been to you personally?
Brady wasn't minimizing anything. There is no lack of embarrassment for everyone here.
However, that doesn't mean the two-time NFL MVP was going to let it overwhelm everything. Other than depth at tight end, Hernandez isn't going to hang over this team, he said. That was the past. Camp starts now.
"How long ago was it?" Brady said when asked his emotions of hearing about Hernandez's arrest in connection to the homicide of Odin Lloyd. "Four, six weeks ago?"
This is the proud quarterback of a proud franchise that very much needed a bit of the positivity and normalcy that Brady – not to mention defensive captain Vince Wilfork – delivered under a slate gray morning sky out here behind Gillette Stadium. If owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick needed to supply contrition and introspection in previous statements, then the players needed to offer a reminder that not everything has been lost.
Camp is a time of excitement, a new season, a new team, a bunch of new challenges. Ninety players will be trying to make the roster, earn a starting role, refine their skills and point, as always around here, at winning a fourth Super Bowl.
Whatever Hernandez is doing at the Bristol County House of Corrections has no bearing on anything. It's business as usual here.
"Just excited to be here," Brady said. "It's a fresh start for all of us. I know the last six weeks have been distracting for a lot of people but as a team we are focused on what we have to do and our job to win football games.
"Certainly it's a very tragic thing that happened, someone losing their life, but all of those things were out of the players' control. We're really not part of that situation, so I don't think it does a lot for us to get too much involved in that."
Brady couldn't talk in detail about Hernandez, he said, per team orders. He did keep naming names though. From Drew Bledsoe, who taught him how to be a pro, straight up through to his current teammates that he says show up like professionals. That's why this works, season after season.
"You talk about the Patriot Way and to me it means mental toughness," he said. "To me it means dealing with different situations and adversities over the course of a season, and an offseason, and how you can put those behind you and focus on your job."
If the Patriot Way has been blasted as a phony bit of snootiness outside this complex, well, it still means something to the quarterback. This is the ethos of his pro career. He's watched too many "guys who have worn the uniform and worn it really well" come through here for it to be cast aside, no matter how grave the current situation feels.
"We realize that in light of the recent situation people probably think those things get overshadowed and we have to work hard to reestablish what we are all about," Brady said. "And like I said, that's to win games and to be the best representative of this team and this organization and this city that we can be."
Brady isn't a passionate speaker. He is purposeful however. And this felt like more than just trying to rush through a Hernandez dominated news conference. It went for more than 17 minutes, the quarterback surrounded by a crush of cameras and reporters. He kept talking and talking. He seemed to relish the chance to speak for the organization.
These are still the Patriots, he was saying.
The Patriots of Vrabel and McGinest and Faulk and Bledsoe and Bruschi and Wilfork.
And Tom Brady.
And not Aaron Hernandez.
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