ATLANTA - Money does not buy happiness. Mothers and journalism professors always tell their pupils to avoid cliches. But that was never more true for Robert Kraft after his wife Myra died in 2011. Kraft experienced depression like we all do when experiencing the loss of a loved one. Other than attending team games, the normally social Kraft rarely went out. Who could blame him? He had lost his wife of nearly 50 years. Myra never was a football fan until her husband bought the Patriots. Robert joked that if he was going to be in the football business Myra realized that she had to learn about the business too. Suddenly, an unlikely Pats fans was born.
When he bought the Pats, Kraft was a neophyte in the football business. He inherited a coach Bill Parcells, who was the best in the league, but expected to do things his way. Parcells had won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants and the previous Pats owner James Busch Orthwein lived in St. Louis so he was an absentee owner. In other words, Parcells could run the show without being questioned.
Kraft likely made one of the boldest decision in American business history just to buy the team. Orthwein offered him $75 million to get out of the lease. Kraft owned the land around the stadium. Myra told him to take the offer because he bought the land for around $25 million in bankruptcy court. He would have roughly tripled his investment. Instead, Kraft bought the Patriots for $172 million mostly with debt. It would not have been a stretch to say the bank owned the team more than Kraft at the beginning.
Kraft had always said his management philosophy is to give a lot of autonomy once he is comfortable. Kraft, though, had to be worried. He had just paid $172 million (the highest ever paid for any franchise at the time) for a team that played in a terrible stadium and was at or near last in the league in revenue. Sure, he owned an NFL team, but this was a far different business than the paper and packaging business in which he earned his wealth to buy the team. Despite popular belief, Kraft did not make his money from Kraft Foods.
There were players, agents and the costs of maintaining a stadium. Kraft knew that the Pats needed a new stadium and it would not be an easy task. Massachusetts, unlike many states, is reluctant to to provide public money for private stadiums. When Kraft bought the Pats, Parcells called him at home on a landline (yes people under 30 there are such things) and said he needed to sign left tackle Bruce Armstrong to a big contract. The commitment was around $10 million.
Kraft joked that he wanted to sound like a big-shot.
"Sure Bill," Kraft told Parcells and he hung up the phone.
Myra's response "Is the summer house in my name."
Kraft was worried about Parcells and his long-term commitment. Parcells often told Kraft he did not know how much longer he wanted to coach. Kraft wanted more commitment because of the debt that he had. The situation wasn't meant to last and in 1996 the two parted ways. Kraft has learned the old biblical phrase - that who is a wise man - he who makes friends with his enemies. Years later, Kraft endorsed Parcells' candidacy for the Hall of Fame. Parcells admitted that he could have been more understanding of the situation Kraft inherited.
What Kraft has developed over the past 25 years is a willingness to ask questions. Kraft likely will never become an expert on the 3-4 defense or the intricacies of the bunch formation. He likes giving a lot of autonomy because that means he is comfortable. He once asked what is the value of Damien Woody - given his trouble with shotgun snaps. Kraft has learned the business and now has become likely the most known NFL owner. This week he was on many national television shows. Before heading to Atlanta, he attended the Celtics-Warriors game. He had Jon Bon Jovi in the owners box in the playoff game against the Chargers. He has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated - once joking that to imagine a kid who grew up in Brookline would end up the cover of Sports Illustrated was really something.
His dream of owning NFL team has taken him to where he even thought was never possible. 10 Super Bowl appearances, five Super Bowl victories and a QB Tom Brady who looks at father time and says walk in the other direction. Kraft said Wednesday that he is thankful that the Pats have made three straight Super Bowls and would be open to an extension for Brady whose contract expires after the 2019 season. There are various accounts of the friction last year within the Pats.
But the friction showed one thing - Kraft loves Brady both as a player and person. Kraft can relate to Brady's underdog story and how improbable it was that he became probably the greatest player in NFL history. He learned the football business to know that great quarterbacks don't come around every day. Gene Upsahw once said "I am slipping, but from a high place." Brady might have slippage, but he is still likely the best QB in football.
For a Patriots team that was a perennial cellar-dweller until 1993, Kraft has even embraced that most of America is rooting against the Pats Sunday. He remembers being a season ticket-holder and the goal was just to win one Super Bowl. Every year (just about) - the Pats season ended around Christmas. Kraft said he didn't appreciate the way the team was being run. He finally did something about in 1994 when he bought the team. The competitive side wants him to win Sunday. Kraft has often said the pain of losing is far greater than the thrill of winning. He even joked with Michael Strahan that he took a Super Bowl from him.
When the Pats won the 2011 AFC Championship game after Billy Cundiff missed a kick at the last second. Kraft looked up to the sky with tears in his eyes. He thought likely maybe Myra had pushed that kick wide-right. He broke down an emotional interview with Trey Wingo a week later before the second Pats-Giants Super Bowl. Since that time, the Pats have won two Super Bowls and surely he wishes Myra was there. Families, after all, are never the same when they miss their matriarch.
But he has found a purpose when eight years ago, it might have not seemed possible: Put the Pats in a position to win and make the world a little better place.
His father, a man of modest financial means, had a phrase he would often tell his children at night. "Make sure when you go to bed at night - the people who you have touched that day are richer for having met you."
Kraft might have more money than anyone could spend, but he knows his father would be more proud of his charity work or receiving an honorary degree from Yeshiva several years ago than Super Bowl rings or the amount of material possessions he has acquired in his 77 years on this earth.
Kraft often cites a biblical phrase - who is a wise man - he who is content with what he has.
Surely, he wishes Myra was by his side on Sunday - but he is learning to appreciate every day. He often said that he expected Myra to outlive him by a long shot. She was the picture of perfect health. All of a sudden a cancer diagnosis and then she passed away.
Life happens quickly.
Kraft does not want to miss any snap shots.