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christopher l. gasper

Using the Patriots plane to pick up surgical masks in China was patriotic

N95 masks are loaded onto the Patriots plane in China.
N95 masks are loaded onto the Patriots plane in China.New England Patriots

The Patriots picked up their biggest acquisition of the offseason Wednesday, and it had nothing to do with football. Such is the state of the upside-down, inside-out world we’re living in with the coronavirus disrupting life as we know it.

The Patriots sent one of their two team-owned 767 airplanes halfway across the globe to Shenzen, China, to pick up more than 1.2 million much-needed N95 surgical masks, which have become a precious commodity as the country has been roiled by COVID-19.

We’ve all seen stories showing medical professionals pleading for masks or reusing them. The Patriots are being rightly hailed for obtaining face masks that don’t affix to football helmets

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There's no place in America that more fervently supports its professional sports teams than Massachusetts. Now, it turns out there's no better professional sports team in supporting its community than the Patriots. The Patriots and the Krafts aren't socially distancing themselves from their civic responsibility. Bravo.

Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker was emotional when praising the Krafts for their decision.
Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker was emotional when praising the Krafts for their decision.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Patriots have brought countless moments of joy to New England sports fans over the last 20 years with six Super Bowl wins and nine Super Bowl appearances, but they brought back something much more tangible and important in these unprecedented times.

The errand, initiated by Patriots owner Robert Kraft and son Jonathan, was the best case of the Patriots taking to the air since Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski with a 29-yard pass to set up the winning touchdown in Super Bowl LIII.

Like a lot of his gubernatorial brethren, Governor Charlie Baker has struggled to secure PPE (personal protective equipment) for Massachusetts hospitals. He found some in China, but had no way of shuttling it back. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Baker reached out to a friend, Jonathan Kraft.

The Patriots’ 767s, known as Air Krafts, were purchased in 2017. They are a luxury; the cargo couriered back from China after dodging logistical, bureaucratic, and diplomatic obstacles like Julian Edelman was not. It’s a necessity.

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But this wasn’t just a mercy mission or philanthropy by the Krafts. It was upholding an obligation to aid the health-care professionals on the front lines of the battle against coronavirus.

Jonathan Kraft is the chairman of the board of trustees of Massachusetts General Hospital. He has served on the Mass. General board since 2010 and is passionate about the role. He took over as chairman last October.

So he was aware first-hand of the toll of the equipment shortages. That’s why the Krafts agreed to foot part of the bill for the 1.4 million N95 masks Baker purchased. Robert Kraft personally paid for another 300,000 masks that are earmarked for the state of New York, which has become a hot zone for the contagion.

Without a private plane to transport the masks, their arrival would have been delayed by weeks. In these times, it’s dangerous behavior to not grasp a face mask.

So there was one of the Patriots’ tricked-out aircraft with its trademark “6x CHAMPIONS” and six Lombardi Trophy livery venturing from Ohio to Alaska to Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport. Approximately 1.2 million of the total of 1.7 million masks the Patriots had a hand in procuring and transporting arrived in Boston Thursday. Not all of them could fit on the plane, according to the team.

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Jonathan Kraft was present when the plane landed at the airport. An emotional Baker addressed receiving the shipment, and personally thanked Jonathan Kraft and his family.

Robert Kraft saved football in New England when he purchased the team in 1994 before it could be relocated to St. Louis. Now, he’s using football to help save lives. A source of local pride as seigneurs of NFL success for the last two decades has become a source of salvation.

Even the staunchest critics of the Krafts and haters of the Patriots have to tip their cap or clap their hands. Then very quickly sanitize those same touch surfaces.

Jonathan Kraft walked the tarmac as the Patriots' plane delivered N95 masks from Shenzhen, China to Logan International Airport on Thursday.
Jonathan Kraft walked the tarmac as the Patriots' plane delivered N95 masks from Shenzhen, China to Logan International Airport on Thursday.Maddie Meyer/Getty

“It is an honor for our family to be a part of this humanitarian mission," said Robert Kraft in a statement. "We knew that purchasing greatly-needed N95 masks and providing the Patriots plane to expedite their delivery to local hospitals would immediately help protect our courageous healthcare professionals.

"Multiple organizations across the public and private sectors, all of which were in lockstep with Governor Charlie Baker’s visionary leadership, worked together to execute this mission with the purpose of helping save lives.

“I truly hope that in doing so we can in some way inspire others to find creative ways to give more in support of our doctors, nurses and first responders."

This is a public relations victory for the Patriots. But the real winners are the brave souls treating coronavirus cases in this state and New York, disregarding their own well-being to try to preserve others.

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Of course, it's worth pointing out that the philanthropy the Krafts have engaged in here might not be as desperately needed if the federal government were better equipped to handle this public health crisis.

Coach Bill Belichick is adept at masking deficiencies and talent shortfalls for the Patriots. Now, it’s the Krafts masking — quite literally — the federal government’s weaknesses and operational deficiencies as President Donald Trump has vacillated between saying governors should procure PPE on their own and boasting that the government is providing all they need.

Perhaps Robert Kraft needs to call his longtime friend, President Trump, and give him somepointers on delivering PPE.

The Patriots owner should carry sway with the president. He was one of several NFL owners who donated money to Trump’s inauguration, contributing $1 million. Kraft also famously rode on Air Force One with Trump and dined with the president and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago in 2017. Maybe he can reorient our impetuous presidential wind-up doll in the proper direction.

Cue the fusillade of "stick to sports" emails filling my inbox.

But thank goodness the Krafts didn’t decide to just stick to sports. Instead, they displayed what it truly means to be a Patriot.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.