WASHINGTON – On an unseasonably chilly and overcast day in America's capital, sobering news threatened to cast a pall over what was scheduled to be a joyous occasion.
While the Super Bowl XLIX champion New England Patriots were in the air en-route to Washington, President Barack Obama was delivering a difficult statement to the White House press corps – that an American citizen held hostage by al Qaeda terrorists had been accidentally killed during a counterterrorism drone strike along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. A grim-faced Obama took "full responsibility" for ordering the attack, which also claimed the life of an Italian national who was being held captive.
But like the Patriots did in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, the President rallied. By the time the team arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Mr. Obama had regained his smile, his confident strut, and even managed to pull off a few well-timed jokes in his introductory remarks honoring the NFL's reigning champs.
"I usually tell a bunch of jokes at these events," the President began with a straight face, "but with the Patriots in town, I was worried 11 out of 12 of them would fall flat."
He then broke into a smile and turned to face the entire team that was gathered behind him. The obvious reference to the investigation of underinflated footballs used in the AFC Championship Game drew polite laughter and a smattering of good-natured boos from the assembly of invited guests on the South Lawn.
"That whole story got… a little blown out of proportion," the President added with a grin, a pause, and a chuckle at his own joke.
Obama also used his perfect comedic timing to remark about the weather, and how it seemed appropriate that after the historic winter the New England region sustained, such chilly temperatures should accompany the Patriots to D.C.
"There are a lot of Patriots fans among the White House staff… Maybe I need to do a better job of screening," quipped Obama, a Chicago native and unabashed Bears fan.
"I just also want to point out that, despite the fact that he travels probably more than any human on Earth, somehow, my Secretary of State John Kerry [a Massachusetts native and high-profile Patriots fan] found a front-row seat to be here today."
The President singled out tight end Rob Gronkowski for his fun-loving antics off the field – "I told him to keep his shirt on." – and then wide receiver Julian Edelman, defensive end Rob Ninkovich, and cornerback Malcolm Butler for their exploits on the field during the Super Bowl.
"I'm particularly grateful that Coach decided to dress up today," Obama joked. "We had some scissors, if he wanted to cut the sleeves off [his suit]. Formal hoodies are allowed."
Mr. Obama got more serious when he began running through the list of team accomplishments the Patriots have enjoyed over the past decade and a half, since Bill Belichick was hired as head coach. The President acknowledged the longevity and success of the Patriots franchise under the direction of Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft, both of whom joined Obama on the dais during the Commander-in-Chief's remarks.
President Obama concluded by making reference to the team's brief stop before coming to the White House. Kraft, Belichick, and a handful of key players from the Super Bowl roster paid a visit to wounded military personnel who are being treated at nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Following the President's remarks, Kraft presented him with a Super Bowl game ball, a white jersey with the number 44 (signifying Obama's presidency) and the President's name on the back, plus a Patriots helmet signed by each player and coach who attended the ceremony.
"We appreciate your loyal roots to [Chicago], but we think you should have an AFC team," Kraft told Obama. "As the leader of the free world, you truly are the ultimate patriot."
Kraft thanked the President for his hospitality, adding, "We hope we have a chance to come back here next year."
Quarterback Tom Brady was notably absent from the festivities, and the President made not of this in his opening remarks. According to media reports, a prior family commitment kept TB12 away. However, a number of recent defections from the squad returned to join their ex-teammates for the White House visit, including cornerback Darrelle Revis (now with the New York Jets), running backs Stevan Ridley (Jets) and Shane Vereen (New York Giants), and linebacker Jonathan Casillas (Giants).
Before and after the ceremony, players, coaches, and team staff were allowed to roam freely inside the East Wing and outside on the South Lawn. Most posed for pictures and snapped photos of the lovely interior of the most famous residence in the world.
"It doesn't get old," Kraft told reporters outside the West Wing.
Check out behind-the-scenes photos of the New England Patriots traveling to the White House. On the way the team made a stop at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
This was Kraft's fourth official visit to the White House as a Super Bowl champion, but most of his players were there for the first time.
"It was pretty cool," Edelman noted about having his name called by the President. "It's something I'll remember my entire life."
Defensive end Chandler Jones commented on the visit to Walter Reed.
"Those guys are the real heroes. I was surprised how many Patriots fans are there."
Gronkowski echoed Jones' sentiments.
"That was a great experience. Puts everything in perspective."
At the end of the afternoon gathering, Belichick told the press he had an "awesome experience" at his fourth White House visit, the first under Obama.
"Got to shake his hand, talk with him… really makes you feel patriotic," said Belichick. "I'm proud to be an American." PFW