Madkour: The journey of Robert Kraft

Ever since he purchased the New England Patriots in 1994, Robert Kraft has been accessible and accountable. After buying the team, he would walk the halls, dressed in jeans, and get to know staffers. In his early years, Kraft jumped on a golf cart on game days to meet tailgaters. He wanted to show appreciation for them, but also to show that he was one of them, and that he understood their desire to win. It all traces back to his days sitting on the metal bleachers at Foxboro Stadium when he was a Patriots season-ticket holder.

“Having gone all those years, having sat in the stands, having dreamt about it, I thought about what I would do different,” Kraft told me and colleague Ben Fischer. “What it taught me is that sometimes ownership doesn’t respect the value of fans. When we bought the team, fan support was not on the balance sheet. It’s zero. But fan support in the history of our family’s ownership has been invaluable.”

Robert Kraft, the hometown fan from Brookline, Mass., had made good, and he was ready to prove it. It was understandable if he had stardust in his eyes.

Throughout his life, Kraft has worked to bring people together and build relationships. It’s at the core of his success in sports and business, and it’s been a central theme of his career that now includes being named our Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. But let’s not mistake a Lifetime Achievement Award for sainthood. Robert Kraft is not a saint, and he knows it. He’s had human frailties, and he’s made mistakes. He’s experienced great disappointments, frustrations and loss. His deep loyalty to New England and his organization has at times rankled fellow owners and league officials. But, as our package of stories shows, he’s also used the power of sports to help the less fortunate, been a leader across multiple leagues and industries and of course achieved unparalleled success.

When we first expressed our interest in honoring him with this award, Kraft was uncomfortable and politely declined. Perhaps because of our persistence, he agreed, yet initially did not get too involved. Once he became more comfortable with the process, he was open, gracious and available in sharing the story of his remarkable life and career.

What has struck me about Kraft is how he has matured as an owner. Yes, the team played in the Super Bowl after the 1996 season, but his early years included the difficult divorce with Bill Parcells and the disappointing years under Pete Carroll. He went through a bruising battle with local and state leaders when government aid on a new stadium dissolved. Kraft eventually received one of the most generous deals ever to relocate to Hartford, but he knew it didn’t feel right, and instead he worked to make the best of a privately funded stadium option while receiving among the least amount of public support of any market in the history of the NFL.

The common thread throughout his journey has been family. We must not forget the impact his late wife, Myra, had on his success. While incredulous at the $172 million price tag he paid for the Patriots, she was the family rock, and set the tone and the mission for the franchise — from the team’s vast philanthropic efforts to stressing that the players be solid, contributing members of the community.

Kraft is not the same owner or person he was when he purchased the team. He is a far more public figure. There has been admirable and rare continuity among the Patriots staff, and those who have been around him for a long time say he is more comfortable listening, understanding an issue and getting all points of view. In meetings, he may wander on tangents, but he welcomes pushback and insists on input. He may not agree with you but he wants to hear from you. But longtime staffers also note that some things haven’t changed about Kraft’s style. He will tolerate mistakes but he doesn’t accept excuses, not from staff, colleagues or the league office.

Kraft’s greatest asset is connecting with people. Some feel he would have made an excellent diplomat or political leader because of his genuine interest in those he interacts with and the ability he has to make them feel important. He always seems to have a way — sports, travel, history, business — to find common ground. That explains the bonds he has forged not just with fellow executives but to the fan in Foxboro.

He understands the passions, frustrations and desires of being a fan who wants to win. He’s been a risk taker who has committed his vast resources to the same area he grew up in. He’s been a builder of infrastructure and a driver of industries. And he’s been one of the most successful team owners ever. His legacy will carry on for generations to come.

Abraham Madkour can be reached at

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