The NFL season began on time largely because of Robert Kraft and John Mara. So there’s no more fitting way to end it than the two of them facing off for the game’s biggest prize.
The owners of the New England Patriots and New York Giants were instrumental in ending a long labor war that threatened to cancel what turned out to be, by nearly every measure, the NFL’s most successful season. Both men have also held the Super Bowl trophy aloft; Kraft three times and Mara once, in 2007, at the expense of his fellow owner. But the similarities between the two pretty much begin and end there.
When Kraft begins a story, it’s liable to end up anywhere. When Mara does, he gets straight to the point.
Almost two decades after buying the Patriots and transforming them into one of the most successful franchises in any sport, many of the things about the life of an owner — especially the celebrity — still seem fresh to the 70-year-old Kraft. So when a reporter from London asks about the growing popularity of his team overseas, Kraft notes that America’s original “patriots” were transplanted Englishmen, offers a few suggestions how to widen the fan base over there and then ends with this little gem: “And one of my favorite friends, Sir Elton John, is very excited about us being back in the Super Bowl.”
For Mara, 57, a man of many fewer words, the job seems second nature. Small wonder. He was groomed for the role since birth and inherited it when his father, Wellington, died in 2005. The family’s roots stretch back to the founding of the franchise in 1925, when his grandfather, Tim, a New York bookmaker, plunked down somewhere between $500 and $2,500 and gambled on the viability of the then-5-year-old NFL.
“I’m not necessarily happy to be playing Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, I’ll tell you that,” Mara said. “But yeah, I’m very happy for Bob. He put his heart and soul into those negotiations during a very difficult time. The success they’ve had is well-deserved.”
A “difficult time” doesn’t tell the half of it. Agreement on a new 10-year labor deal came barely a week after Kraft buried his wife of 48 years, Myra, after a battle with cancer. For much of that time, Kraft shuttled back and forth between her hospital bed and the bargaining table, largely because, like Mara, he was one of the few owners the players felt they could trust.
“They saved me,” Kraft said, gesturing back over his shoulder at the Patriots players on every side of him. “I never understood what the word heartbroken meant. It’s hard for anyone to relate to it. My wife was 19 and I was 20 when she proposed to me. We had five kids right away. Then they left and we became best pals for 25 years. She was 98 pounds, read four books a week and was healthy.
“I thought she would outlive me for 30 years. “This horrible cancer came and it’s wrecked my life. Having this team,” he said finally, “has been a savior for me.”
The close relationship between the short, silver-haired, always-nattily attired owner and his XXL-sized players makes for some interesting scenes. After games, Kraft takes a tour of the locker room, a broad smile creasing his features and hand extended in congratulations. But he rarely gets from one end to the other without disappearing in one massive bear hug or another from a few of the veterans.
“They’re pretty sweaty,” Kraft laughed, “and if you’ve seen pictures, my feet usually aren’t touching the ground.”
“That’s for sure,” chuckled Vince Wilfork, a massive nose tackle who’s one of the longest-serving Patriots. “He still has his kids, but we’re probably his second family. We see a lot more of him since Mrs. Kraft passed on, and you can see how hard he’s hurting. So we have some fun, do things to try and take his mind off of that.
“And Sunday,” he added, “we’ve got the chance to do a little more.”
Mara was around football teams from the time he was just a lad. The family’s internship policy practically required it: Begin as a ballboy, get out to every corner of the organization and learn every phase of the operation from ticket sales to salary-cap. Then, and only after reaching the top, does the reigning Mara have the luxury of getting back down to the field.
“I still remember Wellington Mara coming out to watch us work when I first got here,” recalled offensive line coach Pat Flaherty, who arrived in 2004, a year before the elder Mara died at age 89. “He got a kick out of it, because he knew his stuff. But it also sent a message to our guys. It let them know their work was important.
“When John Mara took over, he continued … that kind of loyalty. It’s almost like a blood transfusion,” Flaherty added. “It let our people know that even with the change at the top, nothing really changed — not the expectations, not the attention to detail, not what it means to play for the Giants.”
Mara is tall and angular, still looking very much like the lawyer he was for a few years before rejoining the Giants in 1991.
“I tried law for a while,” he said, “but even while I was practicing, I knew I’d be back here. It was hard to imagine I’d wind up doing anything else.”
His look is softened this week by polo shirts and team sweaters. But like his father, John Mara is reserved and his even temperament, inherited or not, serves him well as the CEO of a business where the emotional swings of a season like this one can take a severe toll.
“In this business, it’s week by week. You’re on top of the world one week and you lose a couple games and you’re at the bottom. But you can’t let that affect your decision-making. You have to let the season play itself out because a lot of crazy things can happen,” he said.
More than once during his tenure, the back page of the New York tabloids called for coach Tom Coughlin’s scalp, and each time Mara stood firm. He has resisted the urge to say “I told you so,” recalling how a similarly rocky season was rewarded with that improbable Super Bowl win in 2008.
“As long as you believe in the coaching staff, which we do, you have to have the faith to let them do their jobs. Fortunately,” he said, “it’s worked out for us.”
The Patriots only rough patch this season came after consecutive losses to the Steelers and Giants — only the second time New England lost two straight in the last nine years. Like Mara, Kraft views his role as providing stability at the top and over the long term.. He prides himself on being able to identify talent at every level of the organization, then building the kind of relationships that enables those who work for him to take risks.
“You get good people with you, you set the tone, and you encourage them to be bold,” he said. “When they take risks that are in the best interests of the team and they don’t work out, you back them.”
Plenty of that loyalty and more than a little of the love Kraft invested has flowed back in his direction during these tough times. He can barely discuss the “MHK” jersey patches is players donned in tribute to Myra without choking back tears.
Kraft remains first and foremost a businessman, but he concedes it’s never been more difficult than during this season to keep his heart from overruling his head.
“People use the word “family.” In a family, you don’t cut players. The unfortunate part is that you can’t keep everyone that you want. We try to differentiate by creating a family environment. … This team is very special to me,” he continued. “There isn’t one person on this team I wouldn’t have at my dinner table. They’ve shown me, personally, great love, respect and support.
“They helped me get through the hardest period of my life.”