HOUSTON — Robert Kraft was wrapping up the New England Patriots portion of NFL Opening Night on Monday, wearing a sharp three-piece suit and a pair of flashy Nikes. He was smiling and shaking hands and posing for selfies with fans in attendance at Minute Maid Park downtown here. He was relaxed and, he said, “joyous,” attempting to focus solely on good fortune and good times.
And yet the wounds of deflate-gate are never fully healed for Kraft. The impulse to defend the franchise he holds dear is always ready to come out. When asked about his penchant for sticking up for his team, he didn’t hesitate.
“Jealousy and envy are incurable diseases,” the 75-year-old billionaire said.
He paused to let it sink in.
“You should never feel it [of] anyone,” Kraft said. “If you are going to play in that field, it’s nice that people have some reason to look at you. That is the way of the world and we will try to take it and turn it into some kind of an advantage.”
This is the combative Kraft that belies the jovial, deeply religious, family-oriented one who most of his players view as a kindly grandfather.
How much motivation the Patriots’ coaches and players glean from deflate-gate is an open debate. At least 30 players weren’t even on the roster two years ago when the league began investigating the inflation levels of the Patriots footballs in the AFC championship game. “It’s a totally different team,” Bill Belichick noted.
Besides, professional players rarely need external motivation for a game of this magnitude, a Super Bowl matchup against the Atlanta Falcons. Tom Brady battled the NFL in federal court and eventually served a four-game suspension to start this season, yet he says he’s trying to win for his teammates, coaches and family, not out of a sense of revenge. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s partially true.
For Kraft, however, this remains personal and painful. He brought the issue up unprompted after winning the AFC championship again last week, noting to the roaring fans that “for a number of reasons everyone in this stadium understands how big this win was.”
He is still bristling over what he believes were the incurable diseases that pushed the league to come after the Patriots.
That’s him, though. It was exactly two years ago, Monday night of Super Bowl week, when Kraft, troubled by the early days of deflate-gate, staged an impromptu news conference. He delivered a blistering defense of his team while attacking the league office. It was an unprecedented moment in Super Bowl lore.
“I want to make it clear, that I believe unconditionally that the New England Patriots have done nothing inappropriate in this process to be in violation of NFL rules,” Kraft said that night in Arizona. When it was over, he said, “I would expect and hope that the league will apologize to our entire team.”
That apology never came. Despite flimsy evidence and an ignorance of science, the NFL doubled down on the scandal, eventually leveling a $1 million fine and docking the team two draft picks. It also suspended Brady four games. In what Kraft claimed was the interest of the common good, he accepted the team punishment. He soon regretted it as more details of the case came out.
He eventually apologized to Patriots fans for backing down and betraying the fire of that night in Arizona. It was then that he threw the gauntlet down and made himself the focus of the resistance, offering cover to Belichick, Brady and the players who were concentrating on defeating Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX, which they did.
“Everyone wants to protect their family,” Kraft said Monday, recalling his motivation to speak up back then. “I think our family was accused of being involved in something that was mishandled and inappropriate and became a big distraction.
“Leadership is about stepping up when it is the appropriate time and making sure everyone knows that we are on the same page,” he continued. “Sometimes when there are complicated situations in a business, people start pointing fingers. We want to assure everyone that we are all together.
“When tough times come, there is actually something in the Old Testament, where there is nothing bad that happens that doesn’t have good associated with it if you manage it properly. I think in a way that galvanized our whole team.”
It didn’t hurt any. Neither does his constant poking at the NFL these days. Maybe the players don’t need extra juice. The fans certainly appreciate having an owner acting like the season ticket holder he once was. Kraft called this season “sort of … a peaceful year,” but there is always an edge in Foxborough.
Mostly, though, he wants to try to enjoy this. This is his eighth trip to the Super Bowl as Patriots owner (and record ninth for the franchise). The idea that the once bumbling organization would ever ascend past Dallas and Pittsburgh and San Francisco was unthinkable before Kraft took over. Now success is relentless, but not unappreciated.
Kraft, for example, was asked about some of the actions of President Donald Trump. The two are longtime friends. Kraft visited Washington for the inauguration. Yet he had no interest in discussing Trump, in support or otherwise. You don’t waste Super Bowl weeks talking about executive orders.
“There’s appropriate times to talk about that,” Kraft said. “I’m so privileged to be here in this hall, in the Super Bowl city. There are times and place to talk politics. This is a time I’m going to be focused on the joy.
“Just a piece of advice to all of you because life is hard sometimes,” he continued. “I told [Falcons owner] Arthur Blank this. He called and said, ‘Give me some advice.’ I said, ‘Don’t let anyone ruin these two weeks because there will be a lot of things coming on and pressure and anyone who starts piercing the bubble of happiness, get them out of your life.’
“So these two weeks we are just going to focus on how lucky we are to be here and do what we can to help our team win the game.”
A fifth Super Bowl title is on the line and Kraft is enjoying every second of it.
It’s the first since deflate-gate was officially put to rest yet unofficially remains fresh enough that everything about it – including jealousy and envy – still bubbles just below the surface.
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