FOXBOROUGH — Two days after returning from a vacation in Europe and Israel, Patriots owner Robert Kraft finally broke his silence Monday about Aaron Hernandez’s arrest on a murder charge and subsequent release from the team.
“No one in our organization was aware of any of these kind of connections. If it’s true, I’m just shocked,” Kraft said in his office at Gillette Stadium. “Our whole organization has been duped.”
Kraft, who has owned the Patriots since 1994, said he was “limited” in what he could discuss because of “an ongoing criminal investigation, as well as other potential civil proceedings,” yet spoke to reporters despite being advised not to by his attorneys. It is unclear if the family of Odin Lloyd, the victim in Hernandez’s murder case, will attempt to sue the Patriots.
But Kraft said it “is important that our fan base hear directly from our organization.” Kraft said the team knew Hernandez was “immature,” but didn’t think his off-field activities ever would lead to a murder charge.
In fact, the Patriots were willing to draft Hernandez because they believed he had owned up to his past. Kraft disclosed a letter Monday that Hernandez sent to the Patriots on April 16, 2010, six days before the NFL draft.
In the letter, addressed to Patriots player personnel director Nick Caserio and written with help from Hernandez’s agents at Athletes First, Hernandez admitted to recreational drug use while at the University of Florida and said he would “willfully” submit to biweekly drug testing during his rookie season if the Patriots were willing to draft him. Hernandez also offered to make a monetary atonement stemming from his $200,000 rookie signing bonus for any failed drug test.
“In addition, I will 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,” Hernandez wrote.
“My point is simple — if I fail a drug test, I do not deserve that portion of the money. I realize 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.”
A Patriots spokesman said he could not say whether the team took Hernandez up on his offer. Most NFL players are drug tested twice per year — once between August and April, and again between April and August — but the Globe reported in 2010 that Hernandez would face additional testing from the league because of marijuana issues he had at Florida.
Several media outlets, including the Globe, have reported that Hernandez failed multiple drug tests during his three seasons at Florida. But before the 2010 draft, Hernandez told teams he had failed just one, and a Florida spokesman told the Globe Monday that “we do not dispute his claims in this regard.”
Kraft said the Patriots felt comfortable drafting Hernandez in the fourth round after receiving this letter, and did not believe he had any other major off-field issues.
“Here’s a guy writing a letter, taking responsibility,” Kraft said. “The only thing I ever heard on Aaron Hernandez was he was very young, immature, and potentially had problems presented in this letter. Never saw signs of anything else.”
Kraft said Hernandez “knew how to push my buttons.” Hernandez, a native of Bristol, Conn., told Kraft after being drafted that the first jersey he owned was a Drew Bledsoe Patriots jersey.
“He was a New England kid who was a Patriot. I thought it was cool,” Kraft said.
Hernandez often greeted Kraft with a kiss on the cheek, and donated $50,000 to the Myra Kraft Giving Back Fund after signing a contract extension before the 2012 season that paid him $16 million guaranteed, with a maximum value of $40 million.
Kraft said he tried to give Hernandez the $50,000 back, but Hernandez insisted that the foundation keep it.
“He wanted to be a role model for the Hispanic community. He said that when he signed his contract,” Kraft said. “He said, ‘You gave me a second chance,’ and I believed him.”
Kraft said all he knew about Hernandez is what happened inside the practice facility at Gillette Stadium, and that for three years Hernandez was a model football player. He noted that coach Bill Belichick said that Hernandez had the best training camp of any Patriots player last August, after Hernandez had signed his contract extension.
“I only know what goes on inside this building. We don’t put private eyes on people,” Kraft said. “When he was in this building, I was never exposed to anything where he was not positive. He was always polite, respectful.”
Kraft didn’t say whether the team will be less willing in the future to take on players with character risks, but “you can be sure we’ll be looking at our procedures and auditing how we do things.”
Kraft certainly wishes he had done more research on Hernandez’s off-field activities before giving him the extension last August, but he felt at the time that signing Hernandez to a long-term deal was the best move for the team. Hernandez’s rookie contract was supposed to run through the 2013 season, and the Patriots felt like they could get better value if they had signed him to a long-term deal before he reached free agency.
“If you let the best players go to free agency or get to the last year, you usually pay more,” Kraft said. “It was a business decision. We were paying for performance. He was undervalued his first two years, then we wanted to get him in range.”
“We can look back, obviously it wasn’t the correct decision. When something isn’t right, we try to correct it.”
Kraft reiterated that he and other top members of the organization had decided a week before Hernandez’s arrest that they would cut him if he was arrested in any way in connection with the murder investigation, even if it were for a charge like obstruction of justice.
“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,” he said.
Kraft said the incident has cast a pall over the organization over the past two weeks, and he worries that it could be a big distraction during training camp, which begins on July 25.
“Everything we don’t want is happening,” he said.
Cutting Hernandez also has saddled the Patriots with a couple of large salary cap hits — $2.5 million this year and $7.5 million next year — but Kraft said that cutting Hernandez was the only option the team had.
“It was principle, over money or cap or anything else,” Kraft said.
Principle is also why the Patriots were willing to take a $250,000 hit over the weekend when nearly 2,000 fans exchanged their Hernandez jerseys for another player’s at the Patriots ProShop. Kraft said the team plans to destroy the jerseys by grinding them up and donating the material for recycling purposes.
Kraft expressed extreme regret that a member of his organization appears to be involved in a homicide.
“The most sad thing is the Lloyd family lost a son, a brother,” Kraft said. “I’m really sorry, and my heart goes out to the Lloyd family.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin