While some players stayed away in protest, the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on Wednesday made the traditional visit to the White House where team owner Robert Kraft lauded his longtime friend, President Donald Trump, and likened his long-shot victory to the Patriots' own.
While other players had suggested political reasons for not attending, quarterback Tom Brady, the game's most valuable player, said family matters kept him away. He posted a wedding photo of his parents on Instagram and wished them a happy anniversary.
The White House celebrations were overshadowed by the suicide of the Patriots former star Aaron Hernandez, who hanged himself on Wednesday in a prison cell where he was serving a life sentence for murder, prison officials said.
The Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime in February to be crowned National Football League champions.
Players who stayed away included Martellus Bennett, LeGarrette Blount, Devin McCourty and Chris Long. They had suggested directly or indirectly that they were not fans of Trump, whose national approval rating hovers around 43 percent in the latest Reuters/Ipsos polling.
Kraft compared the Patriots' victory to Trump's win in the November 2016 election and handed him a jersey with number 45 on it representing the 45th president of the United States.
"This year's championship was achieved after falling behind by 25 points," Kraft said. "In that same year a very good friend of mine for over 25 years, a man who is mentally tough and hard-working as anybody I know launched a campaign for the presidency against 16 career politicians facing odds almost as long as we faced in the fourth quarter.
"He persevered to become the 45th president of the United States."
With the Patriots lined up behind him, Trump said: "No team has been this good for this long."
"You pulled off the greatest Super Bowl victory of all-time."
Elsewhere at the White House, the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski interrupted press secretary Sean Spicer's daily briefing with reporters, opening a door behind the spokesman to ask amid laughter: "You need some help?"
"I think I got this, but thank you," the spokesman replied.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Howard Goller)