Long before Robert Kraft bought the New England Patriots, when his sole ownership stake was a pair of season tickets in Section 217, Row 25 at Schaefer Stadium, his wife, Myra, used to cherish autumn Sundays.
"Myra never went to a game till we bought the team," Kraft recalled earlier this month, his eyes twinkling at the recollection. "She used to go to the artsy movies I would never go to, or do The New York Times crossword puzzle. Sundays when the Patriots were home, that was her day of peace."
All of that changed in 1994, when the Kraft family purchased a flailing franchise and created a standard of excellence that reshaped the Patriots into one of professional football's model organizations. Though presiding over the Pats was Robert's domain, he consulted with Myra, whom he married a year before she graduated from Brandeis University in 1964, on all major decisions.
That was the case this spring and summer before the owners and players ended a contentious labor stare down and agreed on a new, 10-year collective bargaining agreement that Robert played an instrumental role in forging. And though Myra was terminally ill – she died after a year-and-a-half battle with cancer on July 20, just days before the deal was reached in principle – she nonetheless encouraged her husband to leave her bedside to participate in the negotiating process.
"There were many times when we had meetings and I told her I didn't want to go, but she said, 'No, that's important to America,' " Kraft said during a long, emotional conversation in his Gillette Stadium office hours before the Patriots' Aug. 11 preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. "And she felt I could bring value to the table – not that she was objective."
On a much far significant level, I can relate. Having grown close to Kraft during the last 17 years, I try not to let my personal feelings enter into the equation when I do my annual owner rankings. Yet the fact remains that Kraft has been at the top of the list since 2006, and my admiration for his leadership and integrity has persisted through good times and choppy ones.
In the aftermath of Myra's passing – and in acknowledgment of this very unusual offseason – I'm going to suspend the rankings for 2011 and instead write about an owner who pushed for labor peace amid tumultuous personal circumstances and earned the sympathy and admiration of allies and adversaries alike. As Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian wrote to Kraft in a letter I saw atop his office desk that also offered condolences to a longtime rival: "This CBA, and the great future it provides to the NFL, would not, could not have been done without you. Everyone in the league owes you a debt of gratitude."
Right now, even as he quietly derives satisfaction from the end of the lockout, Kraft is grieving. He's coming to grips with a void that even a fourth Super Bowl championship this February wouldn't come close to filling, and I don't expect him to get over his loss anytime soon, if ever.
"I'm messed up," Kraft said, wiping away tears, a few minutes after I entered his office. "Really messed up. I just can't believe I won't have my sweetheart here with me ever again."
Kraft is fond of telling the story of his first date with Myra, when she was 19 and he was 20: "We went out for a steak. She proposed to me." Yet as assertive and strong-willed as Mrs. Kraft was, she also, as the Boston Herald's front-page headline proclaimed on the day after her death, had a heart of gold.
A tireless philanthropist, Myra has been rightfully memorialized as a "great, great woman," and those closest to her marveled at her capacity for empathy. In March, while she and Robert were on their annual trip to Israel, escorting a group of 80 American Christians and Jews on a tour of the country designed to promote religious tolerance and cultural cooperation, she suspected she had suffered a relapse of the cancer that had been discovered and treated the previous year.
"She knew something wasn't right," Robert recalled. "But she was determined to finish the trip. She ran the whole thing, and we went all over the country. Then she came back and had an operation. The head of partners of Brigham and Women's Mass General Hospital happened to be on the trip with us, and he later told me he couldn't believe that she was able to endure the pain."
It was during that trip that, back in Washington, talks between the owners and NFLPA imploded and each side took dramatic action: the union decertified, and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady(notes) and nine co-plaintiffs filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league; the owners locked out the players and, among other things, canceled their health insurance.
For awhile, the atmosphere was frosty. Then, in early June, Kraft and a handful of owners flew to suburban Chicago and participated in the first of a series of "secret" settlement talks with a small group of player representatives.
Eventually, progress was made, and the foundation for a mutually satisfactory settling of the two sides' differences was formed. Not coincidentally, beginning with a group dinner after a day of negotiations at the Aspen Wye River Conference Center in Maryland (site of the 1995 peace talks brokered by President Clinton between Israel and the Palestine Authority that led to a historic accord), things began to thaw on a personal level, and Kraft's ability to relate to principals on the opposite side of the table was a welcome development.
"To assume that this was ever personal in the sense of there being animosity between the two sides, that would be a mistake," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said last week. "But at the same time, to assume that it was never personal – especially with respect to Robert – that would also be a mistake. Early on, it became clear what he was going through. And we really connected."
Four years ago, Smith's wife, Karen, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has since been given a clean bill of health, but as the union leader and the Patriots' owner began to bond, the feelings of fear and dread were readily accessed.
"While I can't claim to know anything about what he's going through, in some respects it does bring back the things we went through in my family," Smith says of Kraft. "There's a touchstone of commonality. It triggers all of those emotions of love, partnership, your kids, what you do at work and how it fits with what is truly important to you … all of those things start to bubble back.
"The decision that he was going to have a significant presence through the negotiations – just making the decision alone, while those things are going on in your house, to me is the most significant thing. Because no one would have blamed him for sliding out. And I'm not sure I could've made that decision that he did."
Kraft said he was prepared to forego the labor process entirely, but for his wife's encouragement. He flew home most nights to return to her side, often fielding phone calls from Smith, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or other key figures in the settlement talks.
At times during the talks, Kraft concedes, he questioned his participation.
"There were plenty of moments where I thought, 'Why am I here?' " Kraft says. "I'm thinking of my sweetheart, and I wanted to be with her every minute. Really, the only time I wasn't with her was at these meetings, and when we'd get off in minutiae or [talking about] things I thought were irrelevant – they might not have been, but to me they were – I was thinking, 'What am I doing here?'
'Maybe I shouldn't say that, but I was."
Says Smith: "For him to want to commit that amount of time to this under those circumstances, at the end of the day it became clear to me that part of it was just how much love he had for Myra, and the strength of their relationship – to make sure the game and the business that they loved continued."
Kraft wasn't merely pleading the owners' case during those discussions. He helped come up with several innovative suggestions that reconciled his side's desire to reward owners for making capital investments and taking entrepreneurial risks with an acknowledgment that players have limited career spans and a need to maximize short-term revenues.
The result was a deal which, Kraft says, "brought balance. We did a good deal for both sides, and having a 10-year deal allows us in this economic climate to really grow the game. De Smith and the players were smart enough to realize that with this in place we can go out together and go after entertainment dollar. If we grow this sport, they're going to make out great, and so are we as owners. And Roger [Goodell] was just phenomenal in understanding the different agendas."
Whereas Smith and others on the players' side were often skeptical of the owners' motives, they viewed Kraft's insistence upon doing a deal fair to both sides to be genuine, which is one reason they repeatedly requested his presence. (The other owners who were mainstays during the latter stages of negotiations included the Giants' John Mara, the Panthers' Jerry Richardson, the Chargers' Dean Spanos and the Chiefs' Clark Hunt.)
"He's been an owner for a long time, and he's been involved in a lot of different aspects of the league," Brady says of Kraft. "He's a very reasonable person, and he approaches these things very intelligently. It's not emotional.
"He has always told me he wants players to be very happy, and I believe he sincerely wanted to make a deal that worked for everyone. That's why he was so invaluable at the negotiating table. No ego. No rhetoric. Just, how do we take the greatest, most popular sport there is and make it even bigger?"
The Krafts' eldest son, Jonathan, the Patriots' president, said his father was determined to get an agreement done in time to save the 2011 season.
"Throughout the process one of the things Robert would say to me over and over again was, 'We can't let the last 5-10 percent on a business deal impact the realities of millions of people for whom going to the games on weekends is their life,' " Jonathan Kraft says. "He really wasn't thinking about us and our business end and what it would mean if it wasn't solved.
"The deal was talked about in terms of how the fans of the game, nationally and of the Patriots, would be affected. And my mother, I believe, understood that as well. For my mother, my father doing something that was so psychologically important to many Americans who maybe don't have control of every facet of their lives was worthy of his attention. And I think that's what drove my father and gave him the strength to leave her bedside."
If demonstrating empathy toward others was a way of life for Myra, it's fair to say she would have been at least slightly pleased by the degree to which that quality manifested itself at the bargaining table.
"Empathy might be one of the most underappreciated strengths in today's world," Smith says. "I don't think many people in the political or business realms spend a lot of time cultivating and recognizing the strength of empathy. Nobody does. They think for some strange reason it's a weakness, but it's not.
"Robert was creative in coming up with ideas to resolve our differences. Obviously, he is an extremely savvy businessperson, and obviously he's going to always represent his side's interests, and I'm going to represent ours. But there are ways you can have discussions where you're trying to find solutions – and that was the core framework of our working relationship. And the core part of our friendship is recognizing just how difficult this is when you're losing your soul mate."
The outpouring of support and compassion Kraft has received since Myra's death has caught him off guard. "She doesn't know how much she touched people," he said, pointing to two overflowing boxes of letters next to his desk chair. "There are about 5,000 letters per box, and more boxes at home, and most of them I haven't been able to open yet.
'I do it at night, and then I have trouble sleeping. But I've vowed to read every one. I've vowed to read everything. She was the No. 1 topic worldwide on Twitter for three or four hours – I want to read it all."
From celebrities (Matt Lauer, Larry Bird) to moguls (Rupert Murdoch) to dignitaries (Israeli president Shimon Peres wrote a letter which read, in part, "Myra was larger than life and deeply respected by all she touched"), the tributes have been touching. Pointing to an orchid across his office, Kraft said, "That's from Elton [John]. They were very close. I'm not supposed to know, but he's got a construction crew coming to my house to put in a whole garden in her memory."
The day after Myra's death, when Kraft sat shiva with his family (including sons Danny, Josh and David; Jonathan flew to Atlanta to represent the club at an NFL owner meeting ratifying the tentative labor agreement), waves of current and former Patriots players arrived unannounced. Among the guests were wideout Randy Moss(notes), who was shipped out of town last October in an abrupt trade; Drew Bledsoe, Brady's predecessor at quarterback, who flew in from Washington; and Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour(notes), traded by the Pats shortly before the start of the '09 season.
One of the most emotional public reactions came from Colts center and NFLPA executive committee member Jeff Saturday(notes), a mainstay at the bargaining table, who embraced Kraft at the news conference announcing the new CBA five days after Myra's death and said: "A special thanks to Myra Kraft, who even in her weakest moment, allowed Mr. Kraft to come and fight this out. Without him, this deal does not get done. … [He] helped us save football."
Between his new-found friendship with Saturday and his appreciation for Polian's letter, Kraft will have a very hard time working up much enmity for the team in Indianapolis anytime soon.
"That's our archenemy," Kraft said. "I don't know how I can like Peyton [Manning]'s center, but I do. And [now] I like Peyton because of him."
Meanwhile, Manning's chief rival for Player of the Era honors understands what his boss is going through and is driven to make him proud during this difficult time. The Patriots have dedicated their season to Myra's memory and will wear a decal honoring her on their jerseys.
"It's a special year for him," Brady says. "We know that. Every time we run out with those patches on our jersey, that's who we represent, and we'll be thinking of him. Every game will be emotional in that sense, just cause of what it means for him. We always want to represent him well and do our best for him, and especially now.
"He's a wonderful person, and I think family has always been what's most important to him. He gives his life to his family, through and through. And because of that, everyone who knows him understands the loss he's had to endure."
Before I left Kraft's office, he summoned Jonathan to the room, and they discussed how best to honor Myra for that night's game: leave her seat empty, or have one of Robert's eight grandchildren in the chair? They went with the latter option, reasoning that Myra would have wanted it that way.
A few minutes later, Kraft showed me a large, framed photograph of Myra taken on the Gillette Stadium sideline from a few seasons ago. A Patriots fan had presented it to Robert a few hours earlier after having driven to the stadium from Pennsylvania for that purpose. Wearing a stylish, red, custom-designed jacket, Myra looked radiant and happy to be there – a far cry from those absent autumn Sundays of long ago.
"If I look at that picture, I'll break down," Robert said, choking up. "I can't believe that I won't see her again."
And while he knows that nothing that happens this season or beyond can change that circumstance, he's happy that football has returned, and he knows his sweetheart would be, too.
"The love and support of my family and friends has been over the top, and thank God football's back, because there's something every day to keep me occupied," Kraft said. "I'll tell you something: If we would have missed games, we would've done irreparable harm and we would have hurt both owners and players. Especially in these tough economic times, this game has become such an important part of Americana – and my blessed wife understood that."
For that reason, there can still be a measure of peace on Sundays for the partner she left behind.
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• Video: Fantasy football star cements No. 1 status
• Top 10 college football teams' potential "fatal flaw"
• Baseball contenders' playoff chances tied to health