FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — With Aaron Hernandez’s arrest hovering over the start of training camp, the New England Patriots sent out quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick to shed some light.
Brady spoke for 17 minutes Thursday and said the murder charge against his former tight end is “zero” distraction to him.
Belichick spoke for 22 minutes Wednesday and said the team would learn from the “terrible experience.”
Both spoke with greater patience and candor than they usually do as the Patriots hurried to remove the stain from their reputation — and lower media attention — before their first practice on Friday.
“You talk about the ‘Patriot Way’ and to me that means mental toughness and to me it means dealing with different situations and adversities over the course of a season and offseason,” Brady said, “and how you can put those things behind you and focus on your job.”
The Patriots were happy to get back on the field during conditioning tests Thursday.
Brady was asked about the team’s morale.
“It’s fun. It’s exciting,” he said. “This is a new year for us. Last year didn’t end the way that we would have hoped so we have a chance to go out there and try to do a lot better this year.”
The Patriots lost the AFC championship game to the Baltimore Ravens.
“The fate of our season is going to be determined by the guys in the locker room,” Brady said, “and, hopefully, nothing else.”
Not only must they improve on the field, but, Brady said, the Patriots must work hard to “re-establish what we’re all about” after the arrest of Hernandez.
“It’s been a challenging offseason,” he said. “But we’re going to try to move forward as best we know how.”
Brady talked at length for the first time since Hernandez’s name surfaced in connection with the shooting death of Boston semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd on June 17. Hernandez was arrested on June 26 and cut by the Patriots before he was charged that afternoon. He is being held without bail after pleading not guilty.
“Certainly, it’s a very tragic thing that happened and someone loses their life,” Brady said, “but all those things were out of the players’ control here. We’re not really a part of that situation.”
He declined to answer several questions, saying he had been advised not to. They included whether he had spoken with Hernandez or whether Hernandez had apologized to him after the tight end was linked to the investigation.
During Hernandez’s three seasons since being drafted by the Patriots, he was one of Brady’s top receivers.
Asked if he thought he knew Hernandez, Brady said, “the relationship that you have as a football player, the relationship you have within the walls of (Gillette Stadium) are what they are and then people have their own life.”
Might people not know others as well as they think they do?
“I don’t know if you quantify those things,” Brady said. “How well do you know your kids? You try to do the best you can do, but everyone is ultimately accountable for their own decision making.”
Asked if Hernandez had fit in with his former teammates, Brady said, “I don’t think any of that really matters to me or matters to anything that’s going on with the legal process or anything like that.”
On the day before camp opened, Belichick displayed unusual patience with questioners and gave more detailed answers than usual after making an opening statement while using notes.
On Thursday, it was the turn of the team’s best player.
“It’s a terrible thing that happened,” Brady said. “There’s a very human, compassionate element that we all have and when it’s someone that has been on our team, it’s a very sad thing. So I think that we, as a team, have tried to move forward with better awareness and understanding of these types of things.”
He listed several former teammates — Tedy Bruschi, Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown, Mike Vrabel — who represented the Patriots well on and off the field.
“Everyone who has played here has played a part of what the New England Patriots are all about,” said Brady, wearing a dark blue sweatshirt with the words, “PATRIOTS ESTABLISHED IN 1960″ on the front. “We realize that in light of the recent situation that probably those things get overshadowed and we’ve got to work hard to kind of re-establish what we’re all about.
“And that’s, like we said, to win games and to be the best representatives of this team and organization and representatives for this city that we can possibly be.”
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork also spoke Thursday but didn’t mention Hernandez’s name.
“You’re dealing with a real-life situation, so it’s easy to get caught up in the media or speculations. We’re not here for that,” Wilfork said. “I feel bad for the victim’s family, but we have to move forward as a football team. That’s sad to say, but that’s reality.”
It’s important, he said, to keep off-field issues separate from players’ jobs on the field.
“It’s going to test this team’s chemistry. It’s going to test everyone that’s in this locker room,” Wilfork said. “It’s going to test to see how important football is to us. As a family, you just have to take it day-by-day, move forward day-by-day. At the end of the day, the ball is going to continue to roll and the last thing we want to do is be stuck behind the ball.”
On Wednesday, a probable cause hearing for Hernandez was rescheduled for Aug. 22 to give prosecutors more time to present evidence to a grand jury.
Might Wilfork be distracted from football if he’s called before a grand jury?
“What can I do,” he asked. “The only thing I can do is control what I can control and that’s playing football. Whatever happens in the future, happens. We’ll handle it then.”