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Co-captains share feelings on Hernandez
Reporters and photographers by the dozens waited just outside the blue gates to the Patriots practice fields behind Gillette Stadium, and when those gates were finally opened, after almost 45 minutes, it looked like the start of a road race.
Many media members literally sprinted onto the field to get in position to interview some of the Patriots co-captains for the first time since mini-camp broke six weeks ago.
But the questions, for the most part, had little to do with football.
What the media wanted was reaction to the tragic events involving former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
For example, some reporters wanted to know if Hernandez reached out to Brady, or vice versa, since the case came to light.
"That's a good question but I'm not supposed to comment on any of those things," Brady politely told his questioner.
"What do you tell your children at home? They must know who Aaron is," Wilfork was asked by another media member.
"I know there's a big interest in the story, but I just can't comment on ongoing investigations," replied Wilfork.
Overall, however, the players were forthcoming in expressing their feelings on the terrible situation.
"It's a terrible thing that happened. Look at the city of Boston this year, what happened in the marathon," Brady noted. "Look, these are very terrible things that you wish never happened to anybody. There's a very human, compassionate element that we all have and when it's someone you know has been on our team, it's a very sad thing. I think that we as a team have tried to move forward with better awareness and understanding of these types of things. Hopefully nothing like this ever happens again."
"First and foremost, it's a sad situation for the victim's family. You're not dealing with just football right now. You're dealing with a human being; you're dealing with life. It's sad and disappointing… It's real life," Wilfork remarked.
"I think sometimes we get caught up in doing what we do, whether it's your profession or playing football or whatever it may be, but... You're dealing with someone lost a loved one, someone lost a friend, a son. It's tough, very disappointing and sad to see anybody lose any type of [family] member. It's just a tough situation."
Many observers want to know if it is tough to the point of becoming a distraction for New England as the team prepares to embark on its 2013 season, and, if so, how to prevent it from becoming one.
"I think that's up to our captains, our leaders and different guys on this team to make sure the team stays focused," McCourty asserted. "Something will be a distraction if we let it."
"From my standpoint, zero [distraction] – kind of like most things at this point for me," Brady maintained.
"Do your job. Put the team first. It's going to be tested," acknowledged Wilfork, "it's definitely going to be tested, because like I said, this is real life. 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. Like I 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."
Owner Robert Kraft recently told reporters he felt "duped" by Hernandez, so, Brady was asked at one point if he, too, felt "fooled" by his former teammate.
"I've had great relationships with so many guys. A relationship you have as a football player is a relationship you have within the walls of this building… then people have their own life. I typically have great relationships with all my teammates so I'm hopefully pretty easy to get along with. I think that's pretty much all I have to say."
Did Hernandez "fit in" to the culture of the Patriots locker room during his three seasons in New England?
"I don't think it matters at this point. I don't think any of that matters," Brady insisted, "to me or anything that's going on with the legal process or anything like that."
Brady conceded tacitly that the Hernandez headlines have damaged the "Patriot Way" brand that the organization has worked so hard to construct over the years.
"We have to work hard to kind of reestablish what we're all about. That's, like we said, to win games and be the best representatives of this team and organization and representatives for this city that we can possibly be.
"We realize that in light of the recent situation that people probably, those things get overshadowed."
With training camp set to begin, the focus now, the players hope, can get back to where it belongs for them: on the football field.
"I think it's going to test this team's chemistry," Wilfork stressed. "It's going to test everyone that's in this locker room, individually and as a team. 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. We have to try to stay above it."
"Those were really personal, and I dealt with them," Brady said of his emotions when he learned of the Hernandez case. "At some point you have to move forward and I think we as a team are doing that. The best part is really coming out to start the football season and talk about what the challenges we have ahead of us.
"Certainly it's been a challenging offseason, but we're going to try to move forward as best we know how."