FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The TV camera zooms in on the owner’s box. Robert Kraft is inside, surrounded by family and friends. It’s a familiar sight at New England Patriots games.
And Myra was always there, seated beside her husband. He first spotted her at a Boston deli 49 years ago and married her 16 months later. Now another NFL season is starting, but without the “sweetheart” of the man lauded for helping to save football in her final days.
Someone else will be in her seat, Kraft says, perhaps one of his four sons or eight grandchildren. But, for him, she will always be there.
“We thought about leaving it empty, but I think it was collectively felt it would be a downer,” he said. “My sweetheart is with me and forever will be.”
Less than two months after his wife died of cancer, Kraft sits in his office, surrounded by photos from a rich life: dancing with Jackie Kennedy Onassis; posing with former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and the Super Bowl trophy; meeting with then-president Vladimir Putin of Russia in a St. Petersburg palace.
Hanging behind his desk are four black-and-white portraits of each of his sons.
His friends are many and diverse: Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, the Dalai Lama. Elton John performed their wedding song, “Moon River,” in person at the Krafts’ 40th anniversary celebration and, when Myra died, sent a tall white orchid that adorns Kraft’s office. The Patriots boss even likes Albert Haynesworth.
Then there’s Tony, the cleaning man.
“I remember when I was running a plant and I used to stay late at night and the guy who used to clean it. Tony,” said Kraft, who worked for his wealthy father-in-law’s company that made packaging materials. “He had one tooth and he used to sweep the floors and the bathroom.
“He’d always come in and chat and I was just out of Harvard Business School. He didn’t have book smarts, but he was a smart guy. And I used to tell him my problems. And, you know, he gave me good advice. So you can learn from everyone. In our family, we try to treat everyone the same, as long as they’re people of character. I’ve got this thing. You only hang out with good people. You get the turkeys out of your life.”
Kraft’s employees are important to him, whether it’s those in his companies that do business in 91 countries or on his football team in the locker room a few floors below his office. That team begins its season Monday night at the Miami Dolphins.
“If I was on the field stretching before a game he’d always start with, ‘54, how we doing today?’ “ said Tedy Bruschi, a Patriots linebacker for his entire 13-year career. “Whenever you see him talking to guys on the sideline during practice, he always has his arm around the player or the player has his arm around him. That’s just the way the guys feel about Mr. Kraft.”
Now flash back to that big right arm of Jeff Saturday, captured in a picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words moment at the announcement on July 25 that the lockout was over. The 70-year-old Kraft’s wife of 48 years had died just five days earlier at the age of 68.
The Indianapolis Colts center, a key negotiator, put that arm around Kraft, who rested his lowered head on Saturday’s chest.
“Without him, this deal does not get done,” Saturday said. “He’s a man who helped us save football.”
Is Kraft embarrassed by all the praise he’s received?
“Nobody’s perfect,” he said.
He has a simple philosophy — no deal is a good deal if it’s bad for either party.
“We never try to do a deal that isn’t good for both sides,” he said, “because if you do a good deal with people they’ll bring you more deals and things just come your way.”
It’s inevitable in business that feelings get bruised. Richard Seymour was upset that, a few days before the 2009 season, he was traded to Oakland. Bill Parcells took parting shots at Kraft when he resigned as coach after the 1996 season.
But Seymour attended Myra Kraft’s funeral. And Parcells said this year that he regrets the way he departed and would do things differently.
“We’ve tried to create a family environment and atmosphere here,” Kraft said, but “it’s a business so sometimes some members of the environment have to leave.”
Harriet Pantuck Bialkin knew Kraft long before he became one of the NFL’s most influential owners and the winner of three Super Bowls. She met him when both were in eighth grade, before he was wealthy. They were very good friends throughout their time at Brookline High School and stayed in touch when he went on to Columbia.
“He had a lot of friends. He was president of our class so everybody liked him,” she said. “He was just a regular guy. He’s still a regular guy, a decent person. To me, he’s still Bobby.”
Kraft still attends his high-school reunions every five years, she said, the last at the 50-year mark in 2009. But he couldn’t go out for the school’s football team because games were on the Sabbath when Orthodox Jews are not permitted to play. His father was a dressmaker and didn’t own a car. He wanted Robert to be a rabbi.
But Kraft was fascinated by business at an early age and eventually played football as a college freshman. Now the kid who watched a black-and-white Dumont television at home is chairman of the NFL Broadcast Committee. His father-in-law was a noted philanthropist and he and Myra continued that generosity.
The family plans to contribute $2 million to the nearly $4 million already donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston’s Myra Kraft Giving Back Scholarship Fund created after her death.
“It’s true that he married Myra and got into her family business,” Bialkin said, “but he really made it from there. With his brains and his ambition, he really made a go of things.”
Kraft eventually bought out his father-in-law’s company, then started International Forest Products in 1972, a firm involved with packaging and recycling.
His father left him “an ethical will,” Kraft said.
“He told me that the most precious asset you could earn is a good name and try to pass that on,” he said, “but each generation has to earn it on their own. So the mantra of our family and with my kids and my grandkids is we try to teach them to get along with all kinds of people.”
Kraft came to Foxborough as a passionate fan, an owner of Patriots season tickets from their first season there in 1971. For more than a decade he pursued ownership of the team he finally bought in 1994.
Myra thought the $172 million price, a record for an NFL franchise at the time, might hurt the couple’s charitable giving. If he ran the franchise right, he told her, their contributions would increase. The franchise was valued this year at $1.4 billion by Forbes magazine. The giving has grown.
But he’s not as eager to pay lawyers. They even may have held up settlement of the lockout.
“It isn’t always in their interests to have things go smoothly,” Kraft said in his soft-spoken but straight-talking manner. “Their best interests are served by a little turmoil, and their billable hours go up.”
On Oct. 1, Kraft will be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass., an organization started by a group including John Hancock and John Adams — “the original Patriots,” he said.
“The induction is the day before we play (at) Oakland,” he said. “Normally I’d go out there (Saturday), but I won’t be able to go out till Sunday morning.”
For Kraft, there always seems to be a football connection. For the players, their connection to Kraft is special.
“He made me feel a part of the family,” said Chad Ochocinco, a Patriot since being traded July 28 from the Cincinnati Bengals. “One difference I enjoy is having an owner that I can actually talk to. He’s very accessible. It makes you feel wanted.”
Last Saturday, Kraft had his players and coaches with their family members at his home on Cape Cod for a relaxing day. There were magicians and games for the kids.
Kraft also has a personal touch with other owners. On Dec. 28, 2008, after the Patriots’ season-ending 13-0 win at Buffalo, he visited Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who was awaiting a heart transplant,
“After the Patriots had a 1 o’clock game, he flew all the way down to Charlotte to comfort me and encourage me,” said Richardson, who had the transplant on Feb. 2, 2009.
On Thursday night, another NFL season begins when New Orleans visits Green Bay. Kraft’s team plays four days later.
He’s very excited going into his 18th season as an owner, a season he once thought might not be played because of the lockout. He can sit and cheer — with those dear to him all around — in his owner’s box after an offseason that was painful on a professional and personal level.
“Having football this year is sort of like a savior. I was just out at practice. I love these guys down there in the locker room,” he said. “For me, it’s a real treat to be around here and see them. It fills part of my vacuum, so I’m excited about football being back.”