Star quarterback Tom Brady did not join his New England Patriots teammates when the Super Bowl champions visited the White House on Wednesday to accept congratulations from President Donald Trump for another NFL title.
The White House said it was notified that Brady was dealing with a "personal family matter" and will not attend the ceremony.
Brady released a statement saying he was "so happy and excited" that the Patriots are being honored at the White House. He also thanked President Donald Trump for hosting the celebration "and for supporting our team for as long as I can remember."
But Brady said due to some "recent developments," he is unable to be there because he is "attending to some personal family matters." Brady did not elaborate on the family issue. The Boston Herald reported that he was going to spend time with his mother, who has been battling cancer.
Trump has close ties to the Patriots, counting owner Bob Kraft and coach Bill Belichick as friends. One of Trump's signature "Make America Great Again" hats was spotted in Tom Brady's locker in 2015.
The president praised Kraft on Wednesday for "building such an outstanding organization" and for the prolonged success of the franchise.
"No team has been this good for this long," Trump said. "The Patriots are an incredible organization and this Super Bowl victory was a complete team effort. That's the beauty of what they do - they win as a team."
He also heaped praise upon Belichick, thanking him for writing a letter last year in support of his candidacy for president. Trump read the letter aloud during a campaign rally in New Hampshire.
"He's just a very special guy," Trump said. "He's tough, he's smart, and he's got a great heart."
Kraft called it "a true honor" to be at the White House.
"It's a distinct honor for us to celebrate what was unequivocally our sweetest championship with a very good friend and someone whose mental toughness and strength I greatly admire," he said.
Kraft and Belichick presented Trump with a number 45 jersey and a Super Bowl LI helmet.
One player made an impromptu appearance at a White House press before the official ceremony. Tight end Rob Gronkowski stuck his head in the door of the briefing room as Press Secretary Sean Spicer was holding a televised press briefing.
He jokingly asked Spicer whether he needed any help, drawing laughs. Spicer - an avid Patriots fan - responded "I think I got this. But thank you."
Trump's welcome to the team came hours after the news from Massachusetts prisons officials that ex-Patriot tight end Aaron Hernandez hanged himself in his prison cell.
Hernandez, who played for the Patriots from 2010 to 2012, was serving a life sentence for a murder conviction. Days ago, the 27-year-old former tight end was acquitted of a double murder.
A team spokesman said the Patriots were aware of the reports of Hernandez's death but that the club wasn't expected to comment. Several players were asked about Hernandez's death after the White House ceremony, but they declined to answer.
Besides Brady, at least six members of the team were not expected at Wednesday's event.
After the triumphant victory, tight end Martellus Bennett quickly made it clear he was not coming to the White House and other teammates followed. Many noted their differences with the Republican administration.
Defensive back Devin McCourty told Time Magazine that "I don't feel accepted in the White House. With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won't."
Players have turned down White House invites ever since such events began to take off under President Ronald Reagan. That includes Brady in 2015. He cited a "family commitment" at the time, but there was speculation he declined because of some unflattering comments a spokesman for President Barack Obama made about the "Deflategate" scandal.
The team's White House visit capped a dramatic Super Bowl victory. In the first such game to go to overtime, the Patriots pulled off a stunning rally from 25 points down to beat the Atlanta Falcons.