President Trump was a few minutes away from beginning his story about Bill Belichick’s letter of encouragement — “This beautiful letter,” Trump would say — when he began listing a few of his favorite memories from Super Bowl LI.
“With your backs against the wall, and the pundits — good old pundits,” Trump said. “Boy, they’re wrong a lot, aren’t they? Saying: ‘You couldn’t do it. The game was over.’”
The flashbacks came and went, players and moments of the finest comeback in Super Bowl history relived on the White House’s South Lawn. There were a few omissions, though, including this big one: Trump made no mention of the New England players absent for the day’s celebration, including quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots’ most famous and important player — and the most valuable player of the very game they were here to celebrate.
It was a strange moment in a highly unusual day surrounding the NFL’s most successful franchise. Brady was one of eight players who skipped the team’s visit to the White House, seven of whom Trump ignored, a short time after tight end Rob Gronkowski interrupted Sean Spicer’s daily press briefing, sticking his head in and prompting laughter from the assembled media and a surprised look from the press secretary.
“Need some help?” the Patriots’ famously lighthearted tight end asked.
That was a far lighter moment than the one revealed hours earlier, after news circulated that back in Massachusetts, former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez had hanged himself early Wednesday in a prison cell. Hernandez, who played tight end alongside Gronkowski, became a young star during three seasons with New England and played in the Super Bowl following the 2011 season. He was convicted two years ago of first-degree murder following the shooting death of Odin Lloyd, a former friend of Hernandez’s.
Neither the Patriots nor the White House commented on the death of Hernandez, who five days earlier had been acquitted in downtown Boston — a few hundred yards from where about a million New England fans gathered for the Patriots’ Super Bowl parade — for double murder in a different case.
Brady, who once threw passes to Hernandez, announced Wednesday morning he would not be with his team when it visited the White House. The quarterback cited family matters, and later he posted an old photograph from his parents’ wedding, mentioning the couple’s 48 years together. An NFL Network reporter suggested Wednesday was the wedding anniversary of Tom Sr. and Galynn Brady, the quarterback’s mother who has been battling cancer. Her health concerns made Brady tear up during remarks before and after the Super Bowl.
Regardless of the reason, Brady, who during the 2015 season stashed a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker — was not among those Trump mentioned Wednesday as being important to the Patriots’ most recent championship. Neither were six current and former New England players who announced ahead of time they would forgo the proceedings ostensibly for political reasons: safety Devin McCourty, running back LeGarrette Blount, defensive end Chris Long, tight end Martellus Bennett, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive tackle Alan Branch. Wide receiver Danny Amendola also was not there Wednesday.
“Basic reason for me is I don’t feel accepted in the White House,” McCourty, a two-time Pro Bowler, told Time Magazine in an interview published in February. “With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices, I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won’t.”
Trump did mention Amendola’s fourth-down conversion in the Super Bowl, but the president did not appear to know Amendola was missing.
“Where’s Danny?” Trump said, looking at the players gathered behind him. “Way to go, Danny.”
Amendola was a late scratch because, he posted in a tweet that he’d later delete, he had a funeral to attend; the receiver later tweeted a photo from what appeared to be a gym.
In all, 68 players were invited to the ceremony, and 34 attended, according to a count by CSN New England. When the team visited the White House in 2005, 27 players attended, with 36 showing up in 2004.
Brady’s omission was the most noticeable, and the quarterback wasn’t even mentioned by Belichick or Robert Kraft, the team’s owner. Both are known among Trump’s friends, and Kraft dined with the president and the Japanese prime minister in February at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida before traveling to Washington for a brief visit to the White House.
In remarks Wednesday, Kraft discussed what 2016 meant to him and how this was the Patriots’ “sweetest championship.” These kinds of visits are old hat to Kraft and the Patriots by now, and the well-known team owner took stock Wednesday on the South Lawn.
If New England’s first championship following the 2001 season was special because it came a few months after 9/11, Kraft said, this latest one was memorable because the Patriots at one point trailed the Falcons 28-3.
It was an unusual comparison to make, but that’s what kind of day this was. Now here Kraft stood with his friend the president, looking back on a year he said was meaningful for both of them.
“A man who, as mentally tough and hard-working as anybody I know,” Kraft said of Trump, “launched a campaign for the presidency against 16 career politicians, facing odds almost as long as we faced in the fourth quarter.”
Trump seemed to like that, never shy about mentioning his climb to the presidency, the foes he bested to reach the Republican nomination and the Oval Office, or boasting about the states he unexpectedly won in the general election. The president also seemed to take particular delight in welcoming Kraft and Belichick, another friend, for his first championship salute.
“Whether you’re trying to win a Super Bowl or rebuild our country, as Coach Belichick would say: There are no days off,” said Trump, who has taken heat recently for playing 14 rounds of golf in his first 90 days in office.
That prepared line led seamlessly into Trump’s story about Belichick, who last fall had written the then-Republican nominee a letter of encouragement. Trump said he called the Patriots coach to ask if he could share what Belichick had written, and the coach — who like his friend Trump is famously curt with reporters — said he’d rather the candidate not make his words public.
At least not until Belichick could send him a different letter, and when Trump received the updated note, it was even better. Somehow more encouraging, more pointed, more inspiring than the original. And here Trump had expected Belichick, who was barely audible during his remarks Wednesday, to tone down what he had originally written.
“You know what he did? He toned it way up!” Trump said of a note he read in New Hampshire during a rally the day before Election Day. “It was much better. It was much better. He made that the greatest letter.”
As Belichick and Kraft looked on — Gronkowski grinning in the back row alongside his teammates, Brady and McCourty and Amendola spending their day elsewhere, the details of Hernandez’s final moments beginning to trickle out — a strange day continued to unfold. Trump, meanwhile, ambled toward his story’s conclusion — a mention of the Patriots’ latest victory incomplete, of course, without a reminder of his own.
“And I did very well in that state,” he said. “Thank you, Coach, that was very good.”