The death of Kobe Bryant and eight others — including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna — in a helicopter crash in California last Sunday sent shockwaves throughout not just the basketball community, but the entire sports world. In the aftermath of the tragedy, athletes, companions, celebrities and fans shared their thoughts and personal anecdotes about the long-time Los Angeles Laker, who was just 41 at the time of his passing.
Among those honoring Bryant also were numerous members of the New England Patriots. While some took to social media to express their condolences and emotions, others recounted the time he visited Foxborough in the spring of 2018 to hold a speech in front of the team — one that had a lasting impact on those in attendance, some of which would eventually would go on to earn the franchise its sixth championship nine month later.
“In my 45 years in the NFL, I have never witnessed a group as captivated as the day Kobe addressed our team two years ago,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who invited Bryant to speak to his men two years ago, in a recent statement. “The respect and reverence he commanded far exceeded him being a legendary player. He was a special person with an unmatched passion, intensity and mentality toward achieving his goals.”
Bryant visited Gillette Stadium in May 2018, while the Patriots were holding their organized team activities. Then two years into his retirement from professional basket, he was present for the team’s practice session that day and also spent time with the players and coaches in a meeting room. As Belichick pointed out in his statement, his time in New England was a special one for those involved — something also pointed out by his players.
“One thing he said to me that really stuck out about that day was, hey, when you’re at work and you’re working on your craft, you’ve got to give everything you have. You’ve got to be disciplined. You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice everything,” special teams captain Matthew Slater told The Athletic. “But when you go home, you’ve got to bring the same energy and passion and focus to the time you spend with your family.”
“That really stuck with me. That was the one thing he said that stuck with me. Because sometimes that’s hard to do as an athlete. You come home. You’re tired. Your kids want to run around. Man, you’ve just got to hold onto these moments that you have,” Slater continued. “He lived a full life. You hate to see it come to an end. But I’m certainly thankful for the many moments of joy he provided me as a fan and as a supporter of sports.”
“I really got to know him,” added cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who like Slater was at the Pro Bowl when he learned of Bryant’s death. “It was a great time. He talked to me individually. I learned a lot from him, just talked the game, life. It’s just sad. It’s sad. I didn’t believe it at first. He worked for everything he had. He was very talented, but his work ethic really stood out to me and his mentality, going into each and every game, how he prepared. That’s one thing that stuck out to me.”
Naturally, Bryant’s passing also was and still is a topic at the Super Bowl in Miami. While the Patriots will not participate in the game for the first time since the 2015 season, one man who was with the team back in 2018 looked back fondly on the basketball superstar visited Gillette Stadium. Jordan Matthews, who spent that offseason in New England and is now playing for the San Francisco 49ers, spoke about Bryan’t visit to Foxborough on Monday.
“The impact was crazy,” Matthews said via NESN.com. “When Kobe came, I still remember the fact that he talked about for the first few years — 20 years — so for the first probably half his career, it was all about him being the best. And you could tell by how he modeled his game after [Michael] Jordan. That was what he was striving for. And he told us that one thing he realized was a lot of his idols [...] were amazing basketball players, but their home lives weren’t anything to want to be compared to or want to strive for.”
“I remember specifically him saying, ‘I got to a point where I said I want to be the best basketball player in the world, and by the time I got home, I wanted to be the best jungle gym in the world,’ because he knew his daughters like to climb on him,” Matthews continued. “This was a guy in, like, his 18th, 19th, 20th year. He’s probably sore when he gets home, but he’s like, ‘I don’t care. I want to make sure my daughters know that I’m present, that I love them and that I want to be there for them.’”
“For me, a new father, that really impacted me, because I had just gone through some adversity, and I realized the fragility of my football career. I’d been cut, I’d been released, I’d been traded — every single thing — so I know this isn’t all there is,” added the 27-year-old. “So for somebody to realize that there’s more out there than basketball in the midst of being the greatest in the game at that time, that shows a high level of awareness, a high level of humility and perspective.”
Matthews was eventually released by the Patriots two months after Bryant came to talk to the team, but his memories of the visit still are fresh in his mind — not just because his son was born on August 24, “Kobe Day” as the wide receiver called it: “We got that little slice of a moment with Kobe Bryant, and I think we’ll cherish that forever.”