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WASHINGTON – After the glowing praise, the applause, the melodies from the band and the tales from the campaign trail, the president appeared on the White House balcony with his old friends. There stood Donald Trump along with New England Patriots owner and donor Robert Kraft, and head coach Bill Belichick, looking out and down onto the South Lawn. They grinned and waved and chatted. It was so familiar and comfortable, and also so removed.
The sports world woke up to shock on Wednesday morning as former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was found hanged in a jail cell in Massachusetts, according to prison officials. This came only days after he was acquitted in a double-murder case, yet two years after he was convicted of killing Odin Lloyd in 2013. No one could have known Hernandez would turn into a menace – a murderer in the Patriots’ midst – yet his spiral and trial will always be a horrible footnote in the team’s era of glory. It is a sports story but it is also another sorry tale of unnecessary gun violence in a nation that has way too much of it. Hernandez’s death loomed like a cloud over the entire day here, and still you’d never know it being on the White House grounds.
During the daily media briefing, current Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski barged in and asked press secretary Sean Spicer, “Need some help?” Spicer played along, with his shocked-not-shocked face, and the gag got laughs from reporters as well as aide and former “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault, sitting along the wall near the lectern as Gronkowski appeared in front of her. It was funny but also jarring, as questions facing Spicer included the whereabouts of an armada heading toward the Korean Peninsula and a possible confrontation with an unpredictable North Korean dictatorship.
Soon after, the Patriots gathered in the Oval Office to meet privately with the president, and then they all emerged onto the South Lawn to stand by all five Vince Lombardi trophies. Trump appeared to cheers and almost immediately mentioned Joe Cardona, the long snapper who is an officer in the Navy. Cardona, dressed in his military uniform, had to request the weekend off from his duties to attend the Super Bowl in February. His presence always brings a certain sobriety and earnestness, as the decisions the commander in chief makes could impact him and his brethren. Later, Cardona was asked by reporters if he had any thoughts about Hernandez. “I never played with Aaron,” he said, “so no.” It was appropriately curt; Cardona has much bigger things to concern himself with.
Trump mentioned other Patriots, including Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Marcus Cannon and Malcolm Mitchell, who later said he was almost brought to tears by the moment. To many watching, though, the absence of Patriots was just as important. Six players skipped the visit in objection to the president’s policies, comments and/or behavior. Two of the absent, Chris Long and Devin McCourty, took part in a video along with Patriots fans explaining their feelings.
Long flatly said, “I don’t want [my son] to say, ‘Hey, Dad, why’d you go when you knew the right thing was to not go?'” At the end of the video, the fans and the players all say, “Be Patriots.”
About an hour before Trump addressed reporters with the team, Alan Branch, another Patriot who skipped the ceremony, told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that the infamous Trump-Billy Bush conversation influenced his decision to stay home. “For me it was a personal reason,” Branch said. “Like I said, I have three daughters and I never want anyone to think they can do anything, like what he [Trump] said, to them. ”
It’s strong criticism in a world where athletes are often chided for speaking of anything other than their jobs.
Trump didn’t mention any absences, and didn’t even mention Tom Brady, who bowed out of the visit because of family reasons. (His mother has been ill and watched her son play only one game last season – the Super Bowl.) Instead he mentioned Cardona, the Wounded Warriors present, select players and then his friends: Kraft and Belichick.
He said Kraft, who gave $1 million to the president’s inauguration festivities, was “becoming a pretty famous guy for winning.” Trump then borrowed a Belichick phrase when he said, “Whether winning a Super Bowl or rebuilding our country, there are no days off.” He then dove into the story of his winning campaign, which immediately drew a knowing chuckle from some in the gathered media. Trump mentioned a “beautiful letter” Belichick had written – one he wanted to read on the trail. The president said he asked Belichick permission and the coach wanted to submit a different letter. Trump said he figured the new letter would be toned down but it was “toned way up.” Critics will figure it’s another apocryphal story – the golfer-in-chief turning a bogey into a birdie – but among friends it will be the gospel.
Kraft stood behind the presidential seal next, lauding his “very good friend.” He praised Trump for “mental strength and toughness I greatly admire.” It was a stark contrast from the criticism from Long, McCourty, Branch and others, and an unapologetic one. Kraft said Trump was “facing odds almost as long as we faced in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.”
The theme was clear: parallel comebacks. There is truth to it, but in both stories there have been scrapes with authority along the way: deflate-gate in one case, an ongoing FBI investigation in the other. The roadblocks and fissures haven’t mattered, and perhaps never will.
The president and the Patriots both venture on despite those who say they’ve compromised ethics to get where they are. Trump and Kraft and Belichick are winners, though. The objections and criticisms and circumstances only fit into their narrative of perseverance. Whatever goes wrong goes away, and the trophies and podiums speak for themselves.
The praiseworthy thing that can be said about their path is also a slap at them: they stand atop a high perch, looking out at their domain, unimpeded and unscathed by what’s below and behind.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Dan Wetzel: Slight change in Hernandez during his final days
• Rob Gronkowski crashes Sean Spicer’s White House briefing
• Tom Brady skips Patriots White House visit with President Trump
• Prison: Hernandez showed no suicidal signs, left no note