WASHINGTON -- A few years ago, after a ceremony in the Rose Garden in recognition and celebration of the Patriots' Super Bowl victory, Troy Brown described the dream-come-true experience as a "once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Little did he know that, like Forrest Gump, the Patriots would be invited to the White House again. And would meet President George Bush again. And again.
"Well, welcome back," President Bush said yesterday on a gorgeous spring afternoon as he began a six-minute speech to honor the Patriots for the third time in his four-year tenure.
New England, which beat Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX Feb. 6, has made the traditional victors' outing so often that linebacker Tedy Bruschi couldn't remember which visit to the White House took place on an extremely hot day. That was last May. The Patriots also visited the White House in April 2002.
"It's always nice to come back to the White House," quarterback Tom Brady said. "You don't know how many times you'll get a chance to do it, so you better take advantage of it."
About 30 players were part of a travel party of more than 100, with seven players joining team owner Robert Kraft in arriving early to visit wounded soldiers at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"To go there and see those wounded troops, and the people that are helping them, makes what we do seem so unimportant," Brady said. "That was the highlight of the trip. It's an honor for us to meet people who risk their lives over there protecting us. They're our heroes."
The White House visit was much lighter in tone. Bush opened his speech by joking that he figured Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was comfortable enough at the White House to sport one of his "designer" sweatshirts.
Belichick, who wore a suit and tie, may have one-upped him, however.
"As the leader of our country and a world leader, we want you to be out front in fashion," Belichick quipped before presenting Bush with one of his signature gray, hooded tops. He also gave Bush a game ball from the Super Bowl.
Kraft gave Bush a white Patriots game jersey, with the No. 1 on it, and said he hoped Bush would wear his third Patriots jersey with pride.
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Bush pointed to Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy, and Representative Marty Meehan, all seated in the front row.
"I'm glad you all are here, but I'm surprised more of the [Massachusetts] delegation [didn't] come, but you know, Red Sox one week, Patriots the next, it's getting to be old hat here," he said.
The Red Sox were at the White House earlier this month in acknowledgment of their World Series victory. But Bush made it a point to credit the Patriots with setting the pace in New England professional sports.
"You inspired the Red Sox," Bush said. "I think the Patriots have also inspired the Celtics. Whatever's happening in New England, it's a pretty strong sports record, anchored by the New England Patriots, champs three out of four years."
Bush congratulated kicker Adam Vinatieri, who didn't make the ceremony because his wife, Valerie, recently gave birth to the couple's second child.
He said it was good to see Bruschi, who suffered a stroke in February, and commended the linebacker for displaying "incredible courage on and off the field."
And the president saluted Larry Izzo, who attended college at Rice University in Houston. Izzo recently returned from a USO trip to Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, where he attended the opening of the Pat Tillman USO Center at Bagram Air Base.
When Bush, who mangled Meehan's last name, mispronounced Larry Izzo's last name -- referring to the linebacker as Eye-zo -- he managed to find an appropriate corrective: humor.
"If you're from Texas, you say Eye-zo; if you're from Massachusso, it's Izzo," the president said. "At least I got Rice right."
Kraft drew laughter when he referred to a conversation he had with Kennedy before the ceremony.
"Next year, if we're blessed to be here, we'll follow Senator Kennedy's advice and bring the cheerleaders," he said.
According to his staff, Kennedy, who brought Patriots fan of the year Noel Texeira to the ceremony, spoke to Kraft about bringing the team's cheerleaders to Washington to visit hospitalized servicemen.
Brady, who last year attended the State of the Union address as the First Lady's guest, was asked if he would one day like to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"We'd all be in trouble if that were ever the case," Brady said.