JERUSALEM — Standing last week on the finest piece of artificial grass in Israel’s capital, Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, raised this year’s Super Bowl trophy in his right hand and took an ancient oath.
“If I forget you, oh Jerusalem,” he declared, “may my right hand wither.”
Fresh off his team’s third NFL championship in four years, the Patriots’ owner was in Israel to attend the unveiling of the new and improved Kraft Family Stadium. The facility was donated in 1999 by Kraft to a local league, American Football in Israel, and refurbished last week with state-of-the-art turf.
“What we had here five, six years ago was an uneven field of stones,” league president Steve Leibowitz said. “Now we have a field of dreams.”
In 1998, an AFI player recognized Kraft in the lobby of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Endowed with adequate chutzpah, the player told the dapper millionaire that he and his buddies played organized football in Israel — on crooked and overcrowded fields. Kraft asked the player to have the league president give him a call. One meeting later, Leibowitz left Kraft’s office with a contract promising $200,000 for a new field.
Kraft’s support for the Jerusalem-based league is no surprise to the head coach of the Patriots, Bill Belichick.
“Locally, for Patriots fans and New England communities; nationally, for the future of the NFL and even worldwide, Robert and his family have certainly made a difference in bettering people’s lives,” the coach said.
Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, described Kraft as “a real mensch” before listing a few of the causes that he has backed: cancer research, Jewish-Christian dialogue, Israeli tourism. Kraft also donated the bulk of the funds for the Jewish student center at Columbia University that bears his name.
Kraft has credited his father for his philanthropic streak. “My father was the greatest person in my life,” he wrote in 2002. “He said to me, ‘When you go to bed at night, make sure the people who have touched you that day are richer for having known you.’ I try to live by that, but I don’t do it nearly as well as he did.”
The underlying philosophy of Kraft’s philanthropy and his approach to owning the Patriots is based on a commitment to community building, he and his associates say.
Kraft told the Forward that when he hired Belichick in 2000 — an unpopular decision in New England at the time — he gave him control over personnel decisions, but laid down clear guidelines. “I told the coach when I hired him that the character of the individuals on our team represent our family name and brand,” Kraft recalled. “If we need thugs and hoodlums to win, then we’re out of the business.”
All the team’s players sign a contract obligating them to participate in a minimum of 10 charitable events per year, and an annual award is given to the player who does the most community service. The owner was recently dubbed “Santa Kraft” by Sports Illustrated for the amount of tickets he regularly doles out to fans.
The ideal of a community-oriented team has faced challenges. In 1996, two days after the NFL’s collegiate draft, Kraft realized that one of the players they had picked, Christian Peter, had pleaded no-contest to a third-degree sexual-assault charge. Kraft dropped the player immediately and refused compensation from the team that picked him up.
In the five seasons before Kraft bought the team in 1994, the Patriots won only 19 games, while losing 61 times. Since then, the team has posted a 119-73 record, won three Super Bowls, played in another and set a league record by winning 21 consecutive games.
During their current run, the Patriots have relied on a team-oriented formula that eschews a heavy emphasis on star players. At $77 million, the franchise’s payroll is the 24th largest in a 32-team league; players take pay cuts regularly n order to stay on the roster.
The Patriots are a well-rounded team that plays smart and wins in bad weather. And, in a direct reflection on their no-nonsense coach and owner, the players generally lack flash, and refrain from performing elaborate touchdown dances.
Kraft was a football fan well before he was an owner. He grew up in Brookline, Mass., a few blocks from where the old Boston Braves used to play; the night the team left town, in 1952, he cried himself to sleep.
He had season tickets to the Patriots long before he owned any part of the club. From Section 217, Row 23, Kraft watched the Patriots play their first game in Foxboro Stadium, 35 miles south of Boston. In 1985 he bought the land surrounding the field; in 1988 he bought the stadium itself; in 1994, Kraft, the man who hadn’t been allowed to play organized football as a kid because the games were on the Sabbath, paid $172 million for the Patriots — at the time, the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise.
The local fans immediately rewarded him by gobbling up all remaining tickets. Their team had been on the verge of being sold off to St. Louis, and Kraft had saved the day.
The love affair was brief.
At the end of 1998, about two years after the Patriots lost to the Packers in the Super Bowl, Kraft announced that he and John Rowland, Connecticut’s governor, had come to a deal valued at an estimated $1 billion that would move the Patriots to Hartford. Kraft wrote a lengthy apology in the Boston papers later that week, saying the state had left him no choice but to relocate. His son, Jonathon, told The Boston Globe that the family’s negotiations — to try and secure a site for a new stadium — with the residents of South Boston had fallen through because of “anti-Semitism, anti-Kraftism or anti-footballism.” Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran vetoed a $70 million measure that would have kept the Patriots in town, calling Kraft “a whiney millionaire.”
In December 1998, Kraft canceled the move. Rowland couldn’t guarantee that the stadium would be ready for the start of the season.
Since then, there have been three Super Bowl parades in Boston. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said to Kraft, while handing him the 2004 championship trophy, “I suspect Vince Lombardi would have a deep admiration of how your team played in these three Super Bowl championships.”
In Jerusalem last week, Kraft said, “My mother and father would’ve been proud of our Super Bowl wins, but much more of the work we’ve done in Israel.”