FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick came up big Wednesday. Facing the media for the first time since his tight end, Aaron Hernandez, was charged with murder June 26, the legendary Patriots football coach was fair, measured, empathic, remorseful, dignified, ever-secretive, and best of all, human.
This was necessary. The Hernandez case is nothing like Spygate, Tebowing, Fourth and 2, or hating on Eric Mangini. A young man is dead, an ex-Patriot is in jail, and the hard-earned brand of the local football team is forever tarnished.
There were still some toady Patriots fans who felt that their beloved coach (“In Bill We Trust”) could stay in the bunker forever, but Belichick put that nonsense to rest in his opening statement when he said, “I’m primarily responsible for the people we bring into the football operation . . . most of those decisions have worked out but some don’t. Overall, I’m proud of the hundreds of players that have come through this program but I’m personally disappointed and hurt in a situation like this.’’
Perfect. The coach knew that this was not the day to play the “stupid game,’’ that’s worked so well in Foxborough over the last 13 seasons. Belichick has demonstrated uncommon disdain for disclosure and public relations during his tenure with the Patriots. Ask him about tight end Rob Gronkowski’s status two days after a surgery and the coach might say, “I haven’t talked to the doctor yet.” Ask him if today is Thursday and he’ll deadpan, “Traditionally, Thursday is the day that follows Wednesday.’’
Not this time. Belichick knew this was not the day to be intentionally obtuse.
‘This certainly goes way beyond football issues.’— Bill Belichick, Patriots head coach
This was unquestionably the most wildly anticipated preseason news conference in local sports history. Belichick was out of the country when Hernandez was arrested and the only comment from any Patriots official came when owner Robert Kraft hand-picked three reporters for a soul-baring interview in which he said he’d been “duped” by Hernandez. On the eve of training camp, local sports talk stations devoted hours of programming to speculation about how Belichick would handle his first availability with the media.
Would he give the press the finger? Would he dig in and state, “I’m only going to talk about players who are on our football team?’’ Would he say Hernandez’s name? Would he address the elephant in the room? Would he take questions? What would he wear?
At 1:51 p.m., just six minutes behind schedule, Belichick — wearing a blue Patriots windbreaker, shorts, and sneakers — came out of the elevator and walked toward a podium set up against a back wall. Facing at least 24 television cameras and more than 50 reporters (ESPN and all local stations aired the news conference live), Belichick read from a prepared statement, then took questions. The entire session lasted approximately 20 minutes.
He did things that surprised many of us. He said Hernandez’s name (once). He admitted failure. He said “these are fair questions to be asked,’’ and “I’m not trying to make the story disappear.’’ He said, “This certainly goes way beyond football issues,’’ and “we try to learn from mistakes we’ve made along the way which there have been — plenty.’’
He said he was shocked and disappointed and that “It’s a sad day, a really sad day on so many levels.’’ He told us he agreed “100 percent” with comments Kraft made. That means he also feels he was “duped” by Hernandez.
Understandably, Belichick would not go into much detail about the pending trial, but he stated the Patriots knew nothing about the double homicide in Boston in 2012 — a case that appears to be closing in around Hernandez. He also said the team knew nothing of Hernandez’s involvement in a strange February shooting in Miami Gardens that resulted in a man losing one of his eyeballs. He said the folks in the NFL have been talking about player gun issues since he first came into the league in 1975. He said the Patriots would be revisiting their policies on “risk” when it comes to player procurement.
The coach would not tell us if he’s spoken with Hernandez since Odin Lloyd’s murder, but he admitted the Patriots have looked into the Franklin “flophouse,’’ where Hernandez kept guns and led his double life. The Patriots have concerns that other players may have known about, or visited, Hernandez’s second local residence, and Belichick said, “We have absolutely done as much work as we can on finding out things like that and we’ll try to get all the information that we can as that would apply to any current situation, which I can’t talk about, but we absolutely are trying to do that, yes.’’
Perhaps we have set the bar too low and any shred of accountability and courtesy from the coach is enlarged beyond reasonable proportions. So be it. By Belichickian standards, this was a rare raft of candor and admission.
These are dark days in Foxborough. The Patriots never will be the same. But their Hall of Fame coach gave them what they needed Wednesday. And he gave us what we needed. He made it possible for the Patriots to get back to the business of football. On this day, the great Bill Belichick was just like every fan in the stands. He was shocked and saddened.
He was just like us.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com.