Former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, left, is charged with the first-degree murder of Odin Lloyd.
An emotional New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft broke his silence Monday on Aaron Hernandez to say candidly if the murder charge sticks “I’ve been duped and our whole organization has been duped.”
Kraft returned home Saturday from an overseas vacation that began before Hernandez -- now a former Patriots tight end -- was arrested and charged with the June 17 murder of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd. Hernandez is also under investigation for possible connection to a 2012 double murder in Boston.
In a press conference at the team’s headquarters in Foxboro, Mass., Kraft spoke publicly for the first time since the homicide. Veteran reporters on the scene told The Sports Xchange that Kraft spoke against the advice of his attorneys, but with obvious emotion as well as the candor that makes him one of the most respected executives in the NFL.
He opened by saying the public needed to hear from the organization.
“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,” Kraft said, referring to Hernandez, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “He was kind enough to give a check (for $50,000 when he signed a $39.8 million extension last August) for my beloved wife’s memorial charity. He said we’d given him a second chance and I believed him. He was the most likeable young man. This is all sad to me. Very sad.”
Reading from a prepared statement, Kraft said:
“I want to thank each of you for coming here today. Today is my first business day back in the country since Aaron’s arrest; I arrived back in the country on Saturday. 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. Also, out of respect to each of you and the organizations you represent, I wanted to do this face to face and not over the phone from Europe.
“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.”
After reciting the prepared text, Kraft then produced a letter signed by Hernandez, sent from the player’s agent -- David Dunn of Athlete’s First -- that was dated April 16, 2010, which would have been well before the draft began that year on April 22 and even further in advance of when the Patriots selected Hernandez in the fourth round on April 24.
In the letter, Hernandez offered to; “submit to a bi-weekly drug test throughout my rookie season (eight drug tests during the 2010 regular season). 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.”
The letter also indicates that if such an arrangement is prevented by the NFL Players Association, he agents were authorized to be creative in finding a way to accomplish that goal. The letter mentioned the team’s choice of charities and, in summary, said “”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, 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 said he was impressed by the direct nature of the letter and said that over time he became fond of Hernandez off the field. Meanwhile, on the field, after Hernandez signed a $39.8 million, five-year extension last August (including $9 million up front against the $12.5 signing bonus), that coach Bill Belichick told Kraft that Hernandez had his best training camp.
“I remember some players we gave some money to and they dogged it for a year or two,” Kraft admitted. “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 said he knew nothing of various allegations that Hernandez ran with gang-like characters from his old Connecticut neighborhood or that he was involved with drug dealers or anything involving weapons.
“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.”
And after this there may be even more guidelines.
“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. … By and large our organization has done a pretty good job,” he said. “But if this is true it’s horrible.”
Kraft confirmed that by releasing Hernandez the team would be hit with a $7.5 million charge on its cap next year, but dismissed the importance of money in his decision, saying “sometimes principle is more important than money.”
Speaking of money, Kraft also confirmed that the decision to exchange Hernandez jerseys for those of another player at the stadium gift shop could cost the team $250,000. Kraft said it was more important to give parents the ability to have an alternative with children who once looked at Hernandez as a hero.
Kraft was visibly shaken by the entire incident, but made it clear he thought it was important to deal with it as directly as possible on all fronts.
“Everything we don’t want has happened,” he said. “We made a mistake. We’re facing it head on. Obviously it wasn’t the correct decision. It’s sad. Very sad.”