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Lasting impressions

Patriots won hearts in year of great loss

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / February 7, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - On a personally and professionally painful day, Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick took a few moments to reflect on a Patriots’ season that was at a crossroads at the midway point but ended with the team as AFC champions, and a crushing Super Bowl defeat.

Fresh off the team bus after flying home from Indianapolis yesterday, Kraft and Belichick were somber as they discussed a season that began with a death in the family and ended with a different kind of heartbreak.

“When we dedicated this season to my sweetheart [wife Myra] I met with the players and coaches and asked them to do everything they could do to make this season special in her honor,’’ Kraft said. “The fact that we had I believe it was 18 undrafted free agents and we’re changing the team and we started out 5-3 . . . I think our fans were just terrific the way they stayed with us.

“I must tell you that the strength of spirit that I saw with this team is unlike any other team I’ve seen in my 18 years in the NFL. I think that that sense of spirit was ignited by our fans - the way they supported our team and also the way they supported our family. That’s something I’m forever going to be grateful for because I think this was a memorable season and one that I won’t forget for a long time.’’

Kraft said last week in Indianapolis he had grown especially close to many members of the team because he spent more time in the locker room, admittedly looking for solace as he mourned the loss of his wife. Yesterday, he took a moment to thank each player for his effort during the course of the season.

He also got an outpouring of support from fans for playing a leading role in the resolution of the NFL’s labor dispute as he dealt with Myra’s illness.

“We’re all disappointed in what happened . . . I’m very proud of this team and what they accomplished this year. I will forever remember the special effort that the fans have given and the support they have given to my family and to this team,’’ Kraft said.

When the team returned to Gillette Stadium, a couple hundred fans gathered to show their support and thank the players and staff for their efforts.

Belichick appreciated the gesture.

“It was great to see our fans out there that were here when the buses pulled up,’’ he said. “It says a lot about those people and the fan base we have here. It’s much, much appreciated by all of us.’’

Over the last several weeks, Belichick frequently praised the team and the effort it gave throughout the season. Despite Sunday’s loss in Super Bowl XLVI, he did not waver yesterday.

“Real proud of them,’’ he said. “I thought they worked hard all year, they competed well all season. We won a lot of games and even the ones we didn’t win, we fought right to the end and played very competitively. We did that last night, just came up a little bit short.

“I have all the respect in the world for the team and all the players and what they’ve done for over six months. It’s not about one game or one play or anything, it’s the whole body of work. I really, really enjoyed coaching this team and have a lot of respect for them.’’

Belichick was asked what he’ll remember most about the season. Based on his response, it was the way the Patriots righted the ship after back-to-back losses midway through the season.

“It’s hard to win games in this league so all the games that we won,’’ he said. “I certainly remember all the ones that we didn’t. We made a lot of good plays over the course of the year. I don’t want to single anybody out or single out any one particular thing.

“I’ve talked about the Pittsburgh game. I thought that was a big step for us; to come back off those two losses against Pittsburgh and the Giants, to go down and beat New York in New York, beat the Jets, that was a big game for us where things might have started to go the other way but they didn’t. Then it was nine straight after that. The Denver games, those were both big games for us; didn’t go perfectly but in the end we got things straightened out out there and played well here in the playoffs. There are a lot of good memories this year.’’

Belichick also acknowledged that Josh McDaniels will succeed Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator.

There were few players in the locker room; Aaron Hernandez cleaned out his stall but declined to comment, though defensive backs James Ihedigbo and Antwaun Molden did stop for a few minutes.

Molden said the flight home wasn’t all doom and gloom.

“[Sunday] night, it was pretty rough,’’ he said. “But today is a new day, a brighter day. Just move forward . . . I’m definitely proud of my teammates, to see where we’ve come from to get to this point. Definitely a journey, a struggle, we had our ups and downs, but we pulled together.’’

Although Molden said yesterday was a brighter day, the sting of the loss lingers and won’t go away any time soon.

Ihedigbo, the Massachusetts native who was signed during training camp after he was released by the Jets, defended teammate Wes Welker, who was targeted by many for failing to pull in an off-target fourth-quarter pass.

“You can never point fingers at anyone,’’ Ihedigbo said. “You look at the plays [Welker] made all year long, how hard he played that game and how hard he prepared. We wanted it just as bad as [the Giants] did. They just made some key plays at the end and came out on top, so hats off to them.’’

Globe correspondent Seth Lakso contributed to this report. Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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