FOXBOROUGH - Next Sunday, amid all the Super Bowl pomp and ceremony, Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork will share a pregame ritual with owner Robert Kraft. Two kisses. One on each cheek. For the super-sized player and the owner, it will be an emotional moment very different from all that will follow on the field.
“I used to give Myra Kraft a kiss before every game,’’ said Wilfork. “Now, he gets two kisses - one for him and one for Mrs. Kraft. I always do it, before every game.’’
Wilfork added, “Myra Kraft meant more to this than probably any of us that are playing this game. She’s the foundation. Hopefully, we can get it done for her.’’
Talking about Myra Kraft, the 6-foot-2-inch, 325-pound Wilfork makes pointedly direct eye contact. You don’t dare doubt his sincerity.
As constant companion and adviser to her husband, as team matriarch, Myra Kraft was an integral part of the Patriots. She was “the foundation’’ of an organization built by the Kraft family with family values in mind.
Robert Kraft sees the Patriots’ sustained success as a testament and tribute to the spirit and spirituality his wife brought to the organization. Myra Kraft made no organizational decisions, but she helped ensure that the Patriots followed certain core values.
“How do you differentiate a team when everything is built toward parity?’’ said Kraft. “How do you sustain success? You have to create a family environment where people trust you and people fit. It’s about trying to create a family atmosphere that’s genuine. I think my sweetheart’s presence did that. She was a great example with deeds of loving kindness. Her presence.’’
Kraft’s voice trails off and his eyes moisten. It is all coming back to him - how Myra was 19 and Kraft was 20 when she proposed on their first date, how “there was a bonding that happened very fast,’’ how they “grew up together,’’ how Myra passed up law school to devote herself to family and raising four sons, how they “got tighter the last 25 years’’ after all four sons left home, how they were “best pals’’ who discussed everything.
Before the first preseason game, the Patriots dedicated this season to the memory of Myra, who died of cancer July 20, 2011. Players wear an oval patch with her initials, MHK, on their uniforms, above their hearts.
When he scored a touchdown last Sunday in a 23-20 win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship game, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis emphatically pointed to that patch.
“It wasn’t planned,’’ said Green-Ellis. “The spirit just took over me. It was just showing homage.’’
When the game ended with Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missing a 32-yard field goal attempt, thoughts turned again to Myra.
“I believe she was smiling,’’ said Kraft, who tapped a lapel pin with his wife’s initials and pointed skyward upon accepting the AFC championship trophy. “A lot of people think that she helped the wind blow the ball to the left. A lot of people felt her presence.’’
Now, the win-one-more-for-Myra sentiment is gaining greater traction among Patriots fans and garnering national attention. It is a sentiment commonly heard around Gillette Stadium. At the Patriots Pro Shop, sales of $5 pins with Myra’s initials have been brisk. And win-one-more-for-Myra is a refreshing change from the us-against-them mentality of past Patriots Super Bowl appearances.
“I really do think she’s there,’’ said fan Linda Lorman of Johnston, R.I., while buying souvenirs at the Patriots Pro Shop last week. “Her spirit is with all the players. They have that little extra strength you have when you play for something bigger than yourself.’’
A trusted adviser
Sitting behind his desk at the stadium, Kraft starts searching in the pockets of his pinstriped suit jacket. He pulls out a lucky coin with special meaning. It was a gift from one of the victims of Christian Peter, who was a fifth-round pick by the Patriots in the 1996 NFL draft. At the time of his selection, Peter had faced numerous charges of violence against women, and had been twice convicted, including once for third-degree sexual assault. Less than a week after the draft, the Patriots relinquished their rights to Peter. Waiving a drafted player before the start of training camp was an unprecedented move by an NFL team.
Contrary to reports at the time, Myra did not demand the Patriots cut ties with Peter. As the ultimate trusted adviser and confidante, her influence on team matters was much more subtle.
“She asked, ‘Have you done your homework on this guy? Is what I’m reading true?’ ’’ said Kraft. “And I said, ‘No, I trusted.’ We did our own independent research and found out what was told to me was not so.
“I had made clear to the people drafting that I never wanted to bring somebody to New England knowingly who would hurt the family name. I’ve told every one of our coaches, ‘If we need thugs or hoodlums to win, I need to know that because I’m out of the business.’ ’’
Kraft doesn’t operate with the input of a board of directors. He seeks advice from key people in the organization, including his son Jonathan, who serves as team president. He values continuity and long-term relationships. He takes great pride in having hired only two head coaches - Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick - and playing only two starting quarterbacks - Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady - during his time as owner.
“Myra never made any decisions, but she was someone whose judgment I trusted,’’ said Kraft. “She was a wonderful adviser. We were partners.’’
Memories of that partnership fill his office, leaving barely any surface uncovered. Prominently displayed above his desk are photographs of his four sons. A smaller, black-and-white image of a very young Myra is positioned closer to Kraft, propped more discreetly on a countertop behind his desk. The oil painting with Myra’s initials floating above a team huddle with the players pointing skyward, presented to Kraft late in the regular season, rests beside his desk. An entire wall is filled with snapshots of famous friends and family trips.
Kraft singles out pictures of Brady and former Patriots players such as Ben Watson and Richard Seymour standing before the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The photos come from annual trips to Israel that Myra helped coordinate.
“The times that I saw them together, you saw two people who really loved each other and cared for one another,’’ said special teams captain Matthew Slater. “That’s not something that we see often in today’s society. After all those years, they still had a genuine love for each other and just enjoyed each other, like kids almost.
“To lose someone like that, it’s been a strain on him. And I’d say it’s kind of trickled down and become a strain on us. We definitely played with her in mind throughout the season and even more now in the postseason.’’
Passion for philanthropy
Initially, the prospect of owning the Patriots divided the couple. When her husband attended Sunday afternoon home games as a season ticket-holder, Myra went to the theater and watched, as Robert described them, “those artsy movies that I would never go to.’’ Or, she completed the Sunday crossword puzzle and read. She liked her quiet Sunday afternoons. She had no interest in football and certainly no interest in owning the Patriots, especially at the prices being thrown around in 1994.
Kraft originally planned to purchase the Patriots for $115 million. The cost, however, climbed until it reached $172 million, a then-record for an NFL franchise. And this was no ordinary NFL franchise. At the time, the Patriots had a won-lost record of 19-61 over the previous five years. To top it off, the team ranked last in the league in revenue.
“When I overpaid for this team, it was the only time she questioned my financial acumen and what kind of businessman I was,’’ said Kraft. “When I paid $172 million, she thought I was nuts. It was the one time in our marriage when she was really worried.
“Look, my wife had never gone to a game when I bought the team. But I told her, if we ran this well, we would have a greater impact on the community than if we gave away half a million dollars a week.’’
Myra made sure that was true. She worked her philanthropic magic and applied her passion for volunteerism with the Patriots, just as she did with so many organizations throughout Boston and beyond. She worked tirelessly with organizations from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston to the United Way to Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Throughout this season, in honor of Myra, the Patriots recognized the spirit of volunteerism and public service, championing nurses, teachers, veterans, firefighters, and police. Kraft hopes by saluting the spirit of volunteerism his wife’s “presence remains with us.’’
It didn’t take long for Myra to join her husband as a passionate Patriots fan, taking a familiar seat beside Robert in the owner’s suite. When asked if Myra helped give him some perspective after the Patriots lost to the Giants in the 2007 Super Bowl, Kraft smiled and said, “We balanced each other out on certain things, but she didn’t like to lose. And her husband didn’t like it, either.’’
And many believe her competitive spirit will be as present at this year’s Super Bowl as it has been throughout the Patriots season.