FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Like most people in New England, Bob Kraft is a true believer in all things Patriots. Usually that would be a good thing, but on the day Aaron Hernandez was handcuffed and then charged with first-degree murder, it was anything but.
“If this stuff is true, I’ve been duped, and our whole organization has been duped,” a sad-faced Kraft said Monday, his first day back in Foxborough following a European vacation, during which Hernandez was arrested in North Attleboro for the murder of Odin Lloyd.
“Here we have a guy who, man, it looks like had the world by the tail. He said to me he wanted to be a role model to the Hispanic community.”
Hernandez presented Kraft with a check for $50,000 for the team’s charitable foundation after being given a $40 million contract extension last August.
“He was kind enough to give a check for my beloved wife’s memorial charity,” Kraft said. “He said we’d given him a second chance, and I believed him. He was the most likable young man. This is all sad to me. Very sad.”
Speaking publicly for the first time against the advice of his attorneys, Kraft said he felt the need for the public to hear from the organization, and frankly, he is the organization. Say what you want about Coach Bill Belichick or anyone else, but when push comes to shove, one voice dominates all others.
The team still is here because he kept it here, and it will be here long after Belichick and Tom Brady are gone. And so on his first day back in his office, he spoke from the heart.
Reading from a prepared text before taking questions, Kraft said, “I want to establish up front that I have to be limited in what I talk about today as there is an ongoing criminal investigation as well as other potential civil proceedings.
“In regards to that, I have been advised by my general counsel to limit the subject matter of our discussion today. That being said, I do think it is important that our fan base hear directly from our organization.
“Following Aaron’s arrest, I read a number of different accounts of how things transpired in our organization. Let me be clear. We decided the week prior to Aaron’s arrest that if Aaron was arrested in connection with the Lloyd murder case that we would cut him immediately after.
“The rationale behind that decision was that if any member of the New England Patriots’ organization is close enough to a murder investigation to actually get arrested – whether it be for obstruction of justice or the crime itself – it is too close to an unthinkable act for that person to be part of this organization going forward.”
A MATTER OF TRUST
Kraft then began a 40-minute discussion of the matter. Included was a letter signed by Hernandez and sent to the Patriots by his agent’s company – David Dunn’s Athletes First.
It was dated April 16, 2010, and it addressed concerns many NFL teams had about what Hernandez called “my alleged use of marijuana” before the draft.
In the letter, Hernandez offered to “submit to a bi-weekly drug test” throughout his rookie season (eight drug tests during the 2010 regular season) and said he would tie “any guaranteed portion of my 2010 compensation to these drug tests and reimburse the team a pro-rata amount for any failed drug test.”
The letter went on to say: “My point is simple – if I fail a drug test, I do not deserve that portion of the money. I realize that this offer is somewhat unorthodox, but it is also the only way I could think of to let you know how serious I am about reaching my potential in the NFL.
“In closing,” Hernandez continued, “I ask you to trust me when I say you have absolutely nothing to worry about when it comes to me and the use of recreational drugs.”
Kraft admittedly was impressed with the letter and grew to like Hernandez personally as well as professionally. He claimed the tight end showed no sign of disrespect toward him or the organization while in Foxborough. And according to Belichick, Hernandez had his best training camp following the $40 million extension. He already had received $9.5 million of his $12.5 million signing bonus in cash.
“I remember some players we gave some money to and they dogged it for a year or two,” Kraft said.
“He had the best camp of any player. We made a business decision. We paid for performance. Obviously it wasn’t the correct decision. We’re just sorry for what the Lloyd family has to go through. They lost a son, a brother. It’s sad. I don’t understand why things happen like that. I got duped, to be honest. He knew how to push my buttons.”
Kraft claimed he had no knowledge of allegations from some quarters that Hernandez ran with a rough crowd that included alleged gang members, convicted dope dealers and gun-toting thugs.
“When he was in our building, we never saw anything where he was not polite,” Kraft said. “He was always respectful, always polite, but I only know what goes on inside the building. We don’t put private eyes on people. We set up guidelines.”
Whatever safety net the Pats had in place did not caution them about Hernandez, Kraft admitted. The owner added that Hernandez remains innocent until proven guilty, but he also conceded he would have to review how the team vets its players in the future.
“You can be sure we’ll be looking at all our procedures and auditing how we do things,” Kraft said. “I feel bad someone in our organization could potentially be tied to this. If it’s true, I’m just shocked.”
Kraft insisted his organization did not know what charges would be leveled at Hernandez and said “to the best of my knowledge” he was unaware of Hernandez being on any kind of short leash from Belichick.
“By and large, our organization has done a pretty good job,” he said. “But if this is true, it’s horrible.”
Kraft said the decision to release Hernandez immediately would bring about a $7.5 million cap hit in 2014. That wasn’t a factor in his decision because “sometimes principle is more important than money.”
Case in point was the decision to run a two-day jersey exchange in which fans could swap their Hernandez game shirts for other players’ at the Gillette Stadium pro shop.
Kraft said that decision cost the team more than $250,000 but was an effort to allow parents to deal positively with the questions children who once looked up to Hernandez might have. He said the jerseys collected would be recycled in some way, but there will be no effort to ban anyone from the stadium who might wear one next season, according to a team spokesman.
“This is the last thing we want,” Kraft said of the entire situation. “Everything we don’t want has happened. We made a mistake. We’re facing it head on. Obviously it wasn’t the correct decision. It’s sad. Very sad.”