FOXBOROUGH - A season that has come with great personal loss has nearly reached the professional pinnacle, creating a bond between team owner Robert Kraft and this group of Patriots that has been timely, touching, and extra tight.
With his team set to host the AFC Championship game against the Ravens, Kraft hopes the dedicated season to his late wife, Myra, has two more weeks and one more game after tomorrow’s. If they can get past the Ravens, the Patriots will give Kraft the best on-field gift he could ask for: a trip to Super Bowl XLVI. Only then would it come close to matching how important the team has been to its owner this season away from the field.
“This team has been my savior. I’ve had my four sons and eight grandchildren, and this team has been like an extended family,’’ Kraft said yesterday, during a wide-ranging, 30-minute news conference in which he tackled a number of topics, including coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady, helping end the lockout, and the team returning to London for a game next season. “I pinch myself that I have the privilege of owning this franchise. We have such a great group of young men and they’ve been great to me, really great.’’
Since buying the team from James Busch Orthwein for $175 million in 1994, Kraft, who witnessed just one home playoff game in the 34 years he sat in the stands as a fan, is about to watch over his teams’ 15th home playoff game with him as owner, and seventh AFC Championship game. Win tomorrow, and he’ll make his sixth trip to the Super Bowl.
It would be the first since Myra Kraft died July 20, losing his beloved “sweetheart’’ after a long battle with cancer. Since then, “MHK’’ patches on Patriots uniforms and pins worn by coaches and team staff have been unavoidable visible reminders of the impact she made on the organization. The commissioned painting given a few weeks ago by the team to Kraft - showing a huddle of uniformed Patriot players pointing up to Myra’s initials - continues to occupy a spot in the middle of the locker room after games.
“I’m a great believer in spirituality, so I’m pretty pleased and excited that we have the privilege of playing in this game at home. We hope to have a lot of fun this Sunday at 3 o’clock,’’ Kraft said. “I really like this team a lot this year. We have a very good locker room. Sometimes, a few of them come through and they touch the patch and say, ‘That one was for mama.’ I hope we keep it going.’’
Kraft was asked a number of questions about his team’s coach and star quarterback, what makes their partnership so successful, and where he thinks they rank among the league’s all-time greats. He deflected a few questions about whether he’s thought about what it will be like when neither Brady nor Belichick are part of the Patriots anymore.
When he was considering hiring Belichick - which ultimately happened on Jan. 27, 2000 - Kraft said he received phone calls from network television heads suggesting that the frequently dour, occasionally irascible coach might not be the best choice. Clips of Belichick news conferences also were sent Kraft’s way. Kraft ignored the advice and selected Belichick, who has rewarded his boss by going 153-58 overall, 15-6 in the playoffs, winning the AFC East in nine of his 12 seasons here, getting to the Super Bowl four times, and winning three.
“I think Bill has evolved and grown, and I think he’ll go down as the greatest coach in the history of the NFL,’’ Kraft said. “I think Bill’s brilliance is understanding what fits for our team. The key to life, whether it’s the partner you pick or the business you run, is that you try to see things that other people can’t see. We’re privileged to have him.’’
When asked about Brady, Kraft said he still remembers the first time he met the quarterback, who was then a rookie sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan.
“I still have the image of Tom coming down the old Foxboro Stadium steps with that pizza box under his arm, the skinny beanpole,’’ Kraft said. “When he introduced himself to me, I said, ‘I know who you are, you’re Tom Brady, you’re our sixth-round draft choice.’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.’ It looks like he could be right, although hiring Bill Belichick, I think, also has been a pretty good decision.
“I’m really happy that we have him as our quarterback. I hope we have the best coach and quarterback in the history of the game.’’
Kraft also said he’s excited about having the Patriots play in London for a second time, next season against the Rams. Although Kraft said the league approached the Patriots about a long-term commitment of games there (St. Louis will play in London each of the next three seasons), he said they weren’t willing to give up a home game.
But he praised the support that the team has received from fans in the United Kingdom - “We are the New England Patriots,’’ he noted - and said he would expect a good number of fans from the United States to make the trip for the Oct. 28 game at Wembley Stadium.
Many pointed to Kraft as one of the key reasons why NFL owners and the players’ association were able to find labor peace last summer, ending a 136-day lockout. The deal was reached days after Myra’s death, with Kraft shuttling between spending time with his wife of 48 years in her final hours to sitting down at the bargaining table in New York to help hammer out a deal.
“I’m pretty proud that we have a labor agreement that goes for 10 years,’’ Kraft said. “I think the No. 1 sport in America has stability over the next decade and there will be ways for us to build upon that.’’
None of that is lost on the players, who have rallied around their owner in his time of sorrow.
“The things that have happened here, we don’t need to talk about. It’s very evident, starting with Miss Myra,’’ receiver Deion Branch said. “He knows that we truly love him and that we’re here for him.
“We all know what we’re playing for. It’s a bigger picture than just playing football. We’re very thankful he gave us the opportunity.’’
Kraft might have provided the opportunity, but his team now finds itself in position to return the favor in a most meaningful way. Motivation? The Patriots have had it all season. So close to the Super Bowl, it’s never been stronger than right now.
“I just went through an experience this past year that . . . I’m trying to enjoy every day as it comes and appreciate the blessings that we have,’’ Kraft said. “We’re in the AFC Championship game, competing to go to the Super Bowl, and I’m excited about that.’’