FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are set to host their kickoff gala on Tuesday night, an annual gathering when the team’s charitable foundation will name its latest winner of the Ron Burton Community Service Award.
Yet, the event also served as an anniversary the Patriots would rather forget. Hours before their kickoff gala last season, news emerged that former tight end Aaron Hernandez had signed a five-year, $40 million contract extension. Both Hernandez and Patriots owner Robert Kraft spoke emotionally about the moment, with Hernandez calling it a “blessing” in his life.
Hernandez’s tenure with the Patriots, and presumably his NFL career, ended abruptly in June when he was charged with first-degree murder.
On Tuesday night, Kraft said that the tumultuous offseason has appeared to fortify what he noted is one of the NFL’s youngest teams.
“Every year there is some kind of surprise that you can’t anticipate and sometimes the difficult things help to bring a team together,” he said. “I’m actually pretty excited about this team. They seem to be coming together pretty well. I’m excited about this season and the next few seasons.”
Kraft responded to a grievance filed Monday by the NFL Players Association on behalf of Hernandez, seeking to recoup $82,000 in workout bonuses that the Patriots did not pay Hernandez.
“Simple: You can look at our history. We honor all of our contracts, and we expect the people who sign them to honor their part of their contract,” Kraft said, declining further comment.
Kraft also reflected back on the decision to sign Hernandez to an extension, admitting that it was hard to predict the developments with Hernandez.
“In 20 years, we’ve probably had over 2,000 people playing here. I think by and large, we’ve done a pretty good job,” he said, adding that the team did not have any off-field incidents in the previous four years. “We’re as diligent as we can be. We know what we want to achieve, yet when people go outside of this building, it’s like those of you who have children. Once they get to a certain age, you can’t control their activities.”
Hernandez’s extension and his later arrest have caused the Patriots to review the way they conduct business, Kraft said.
“Every year, in all of our businesses, we re-calibrate what we’re doing to make sure we’re staying fresh and on top of things. Once you stop doing that, you’ll perish,” he said. “This is a business that is the most competitive business I’ve ever been involved in. We’ve reviewed everything. We’ve been very diligent in the way we look at things. We’ll try to do things as best as we can to achieve the results we want.”
However, Kraft said that it remains up to players to control their behavior off the field.
“In the end, we have a business and a company we’re running here. We have 61 young men, most of whom are in their early 20s. It’s a microcosm of the world. There’s all kinds of things that are going to happen,” he said. “We do our best to hope that they understand they’re in a unique place. Playing in the NFL is a privilege. We hope that they’re wise and mature enough to make sure they know how to take advantage of that.”