The late Myra Kraft understood the “Patriot Way” better than anyone else connected to the football franchise. With one crucial call, she invented it.
Kraft, the wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, died in July 2011. A key part of her legacy — and the Patriots’ now-tarnished brand after the murder charge against tight end Aaron Hernandez — is connected to what happened in 1996, after the Patriots drafted defensive tackle Christian Peter.
Peter was headed to Foxborough from the University of Nebraska with ugly baggage that included sexual assault convictions and charges. The Patriots’ brass said they didn’t know the extent of his legal problems. Besides, as then-coach Bill Parcells breezily mused, the NFL “isn’t all choirboys.”
Myra Kraft wasn’t satisfied. She took her concerns to her husband. He looked into them, and the Patriots cut Peter loose. It was the first time a drafted player was waived before the start of training camp. “I don’t want thugs and hoodlums here,” Kraft reportedly told Parcells. But Myra Kraft was the first to take a stand on the issue.
Valuing character over performance is a rarity in professional sports, but Myra Kraft believed in that quaint notion. Given the Hernandez story, the Patriots would be wise to embrace it once again.
Over the years, Myra Kraft marveled over the perspective, or lack of it, that pervades the professional sports world. In a January 1997 interview — given as the Patriots prepared to face the Green Bay Packers in what was ultimately a Super Bowl loss — she told the Globe’s Joseph P. Kahn, “I’m glad for the players; they’re a great bunch of guys. But it’s . . . a football game. I mean, God knows what else is going on in the world.”
Describing a Super Bowl showdown as just “a football game” is heresy for anyone connected to the NFL, and it’s certainly not considered the path to victory.
Patriots fans know the rest of the story. Bill Belichick took over as coach in 2000. The team played in five Super Bowls and won three. During the Belichick era, the Patriots were disciplined for videotaping the New York Jets defensive coach’s signals and several players were also suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Gradually, the Patriots took on players with more checkered pasts, leading to a growing disconnect between reputation and reality.
Acquiring Corey Dillon was one of the first breaks with the Patriots’ purported brand. Dillon, charged in 2000 with assaulting his wife, was traded to the Patriots in 2003.
As the Globe’s Bob Hohler recently recounted, the Patriots began taking on even higher-risk players. The team drafted safety Willie Andrews in 2006, despite a previous gun possession conviction. Shortly after the 2008 Super Bowl, he was arrested for marijuana possession. Five months later, the Patriots let him go after his arrest for drawing a gun on his girlfriend.
The team drafted Hernandez in the fourth round in 2010, despite a failed drug test at the University of Florida and a scouting report citing aggression problems. He was arrested last week and charged with the murder of an acquaintance, Odin Lloyd.
In 2011 — shortly after Myra Kraft died — the team acquired Albert Haynesworth, who at the time was facing a trial date for a sexual assault charge and had other criminal charges on his resume. He left the Patriots after four months.
Then, in 2012, came Alfonzo Dennard, who allegedly punched a police officer in Nebraska right before the Patriots selected him and was later convicted of assault; Donte Stallworth, who was involved in a drunk driving incident in 2009 that left a man dead; and Aqib Talib, who faced charges of assaulting a taxi driver in 2009 (in an incident that resulted in a civil settlement) and firing a gun at his sister’s boyfriend in 2011 (in a case in which the charge was later dropped).
Of course, the Patriots are not alone in gambling on players with troubled histories. What sets them apart is their ability to sell a myth for as long as they did. It took a bullet-riddled body, left on the grounds of an industrial park and ultimately connected to Hernandez, to reveal the truth.
The “Patriot Way” was a play called by Myra Kraft 17 years ago — and has been out of favor for a long time.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.