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Robert Kraft: The Connector

Robert Kraft has built his empire through business acumen, an unmatched roster of personal relationships and a rich amount of ‘psychic income.’

courtesy of the new england patriots
By Ben Fischer

On a sunny, early April afternoon in Massachusetts, Robert Kraft welcomes a pair of visitors to his spacious office at Gillette Stadium. Accompanied by his oldest son and longtime right-hand man Jonathan, the New England Patriots owner, wearing an untucked, monogrammed dress shirt, offers a warm greeting and a quick apology for the mess, by which he means the stack of unframed photos awaiting their place on his office walls

Those walls are already overflowing with an endless parade of famous faces. There is Kraft with seven U.S. presidents — Ford, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton, Obama and Trump. There is Kraft dancing with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. There is Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. 

Kraft has frequently rubbed shoulders with world leaders like late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.getty images

There’s also Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin, rap star Meek Mill, billionaire investor Robert Smith and even, wearing a red Patriots hat, the Dalai Lama.

Naturally, there is no shortage of images from Kraft’s 28 years in professional football. Pictures of triumphant Patriots but also, across the room, there are photos signed by rivals, one of which shows Tom Brady getting hit in the back by an Oakland Raider in the infamous “Tuck Rule” game from January 2002. It’s signed by then-Raiders coach Jon Gruden: “It was a fumble,” he wrote. 

Each image represents not just a moment but a snapshot of the way Kraft, 80, has lived his life. Born into a lower-middle class family outside Boston on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War II, Kraft rose quickly into becoming a titan of American business before age 35, then built an unmatched football empire that has helped him accumulate a net worth estimated by Bloomberg at $6.7 billion. Along the way he has raised four children, helped secure the NFL’s dominance of the American sports landscape, assisted in changing the discussion about criminal justice reform and become one of the country’s leading philanthropists.

Lifetime Achievement:
Previous honorees

2021 Paul Fireman
2020 Larry Tanenbaum
2019 Tim Finchem
2018 Michael Eisner
2017 Jerry Jones
2016 Bud Selig
2015 Dick Ebersol
2014 Dan Rooney
2013 Jerry Reinsdorf
2012 Paul Tagliabue
2011 Billie Jean King
2009 Peter Ueberroth

But what stands out when assessing Kraft’s legacy is not just how, time and again, those who know him call him a true friend. It’s how often those friends often stop themselves mid-sentence to insist they really mean it. They point to his sincere interest in each person he meets, his uncanny ability to make connections and turn his relationships into value — in both the form of financial gain and, to use one of his favorite terms, “psychic income.”

In a world where the toughest decisions and most-fraught deals rise and fall on the strength of personal relationships, Robert Kraft has better and more diverse friendships than almost anybody in professional sports. Those connections both transcend and benefit his business. He is intertwined at the highest levels of media, entertainment, culture and politics.

His friendships help him, too — they keep Kraft on the cutting edge of the culture despite his advancing age and help him spot trends sooner than most. 

“Our friendship is much deeper than the media relationship we have with the NFL,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “If I was in a jam, and Robert could be of assistance, he’d do whatever he could do. And he’d do it without a second thought. He’s exhibited that in public and privately, his entire life.”

Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, whose father Lamar helped found MLS with Kraft, says, “He cares about the people involved in his business ventures as much as he cares about those businesses.”

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Harry Kraft was a lay leader at the Modern Orthodox Jewish congregation Kehillath Israel. “I had a father who was saintly,” said Robert. “Every night he would study the Bible for two or three hours, and never watched TV. When he passed, he left an ethical will. He said, ‘When you go to bed at night, make sure the people you’ve touched that day are richer and better having known you and interacted with you.’”

Robert Kraft

Founder, chairman and CEO
Kraft Group

Holdings include: New England Patriots, New England Revolution, Gillette Stadium, Overwatch League Boston Uprising, not-yet-named Call of Duty League franchise, International Forest Products, Rand-Whitney Group, Rand-Whitney Containerboard, multiple venture and private-equity investments
Born: June 5, 1941 (Brookline, Mass.)
Family: Wife Myra (married 1963; died 2011); sons Jonathan (president, Kraft Group); Josh (president, Kraft Family Philanthropies); Daniel (president and CEO of Kraft Group International, a trading branch of the company); David (a former Kraft Group director)

Those were the lessons, more than the limited material success, that mattered most in the Kraft house. Born June 5, 1941, in Brookline, Mass., Robert Kraft is a product of a culture where achievement was expected. There were lots of future doctors, lawyers and business leaders in his neighborhood. Harry was a dress manufacturer and his mother, Sarah, raised Robert and his brother and sister. Always intelligent and driven, it wasn’t until Kraft was in his early 20s that he started to separate himself, as friends realized that he was able to accomplish more tasks better, faster and smarter than they could. “At an early age, we understood or recognized how extraordinary he was,” said childhood friend Steven Comen, who went on to be a prominent Boston litigator, “but I’m not sure we ever fully appreciated how truly extraordinary he is.”

Kraft was moving quickly. He graduated from Columbia in the spring of 1963, married Myra Hiatt that June, started at Harvard Business School that fall and had his first child, a son, in March 1964.

The day after Jonathan was born, Robert returned to Professor Ted Levitt’s marketing class at HBS. Levitt was tough — “used to throw chalk at the board, was rough in marketing,” Robert recalls — but he’d written “Jonathan” and his weight and length on the chalkboard. The class applauded as Kraft walked in.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (left) frequently relies on Kraft’s perspective.getty images

Kraft and Myra had a second son before he graduated from HBS in 1965 and went to work at Rand-Whitney, a regional paper and packaging company owned by his father-in-law. In 1968 he purchased half of the company through a leveraged buyout. Four years later he founded International Forest Products. Over time those companies would grow and be joined by others now under the Kraft Group, which today is the largest privately held player in the industry and also counts properties such as the New England Patriots, New England Revolution and Gillette Stadium among its holdings.

“From his days attending games with his family, Robert has turned his lifelong passion for the Patriots and the NFL into a labor of love and success.

Robert has been a winner on the field and played a key role in the NFL’s growth for nearly 30 years. Everyone in the NFL has benefited from his business acumen.

“Robert has transformed the Patriots’ organization into one of the most successful and revered entities in professional sports. The Patriots’ sustained success — which includes more wins and playoff and Super Bowl appearances than any other franchise during his tenure as owner — is remarkable.

“Robert’s commitment to the success of the NFL includes serving on 15 different league committees. As the chair of the Media Committee, he has worked tirelessly to understand where the media landscape is headed, what is best for our fans and our partners and has helped point the league in the right direction for years to come.

— Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner

The paper and packaging business shaped Kraft’s thinking in three key ways that would later be evident in his stewardship of the Patriots: It’s a commodity. It’s capital intensive. And it’s international.

“Growing up, my father would always say when you’re in a commodity business, the only way you differentiate yourself is by serving the customer better than the competitor, because this guy’s box is the same as this guy’s box,” said Jonathan Kraft, president of the Kraft Group. “So, even though in football you technically have a monopoly on football in your market, certainly pro football, we brought that mentality. We’re going to bring the corrugated box mentality.”

Kraft learned the value of true win-win deals in the politically charged world of international business.

“We don’t ever want someone to do a deal, having a relationship with us, that hasn’t worked out well for the other side,” Kraft said. “That’s very important to us, because especially in the international side, it comes back to you in ways you don’t see.”

In fact, it was unforeseen international consequences that helped turbocharge Kraft’s personal wealth. In 1973 he placed a bid to have his company be the sales agent for a new paper factory in rural Newfoundland, Canada. Kraft personally guaranteed a minimum sales figure for the plant, a bold move that could have bankrupted him.

Just weeks later, President Richard Nixon imposed price controls that made American paper undesirable on the export market, which eliminated a glut that had driven prices down. Canadian paper immediately became the favored product overseas. “[Nixon] made that gold,” Kraft remembers. “I have people from Korea, Iran, England coming to see me — I was a little kid — to buy paper.”

He was on his way, and he soon turned his business ambitions to the sports world. In 1975, Kraft and a group of investors acquired World TeamTennis’ Philadelphia franchise, moved it to Boston and resurrected the name of the already defunct Boston Lobsters. Kraft’s first pro sports team lasted four years before folding.

■ ■ ■ ■ 

Well before buying the Lobsters, Kraft had his eye on the local pro team he really wanted: the New England Patriots. As a season-ticket holder since 1971, Kraft would sit in the stands with his family watching bad football and thinking big. The franchise had been owned since its founding in 1960 by the Sullivan family, which also owned Foxboro Stadium but leased the land that housed the stadium’s parking lots. When he got serious about purchasing the franchise in the 1980s, Kraft saw that owning the team meant little as long as someone else owned the parking lot, the stadium and the stadium’s onerous lease terms for the team. In 1985 Kraft bought the land for the stadium’s parking lots for $27 million and three years later bought the dilapidated stadium out of bankruptcy for $25 million.

It took nearly a decade for Kraft to gain control of his favorite team, but he finally did so, buying the Patriots from James Orthwein for a then-NFL record $172 million in 1994.Courtesy of the New England Patriots

Through the latter purchase, Kraft inherited a remarkably landlord-friendly lease with the Patriots, which steered most game-day revenue to the stadium owner and also prohibited the team from leaving the venue until 2001. Those dual terms gave Kraft extraordinary leverage over any current and future team owner. When the team went on the market again in 1993, that lease greatly complicated the path for buyers who intended to move the franchise out of New England.

For years, Kraft had experienced the foibles of the stadium as a season-ticket holder and fan, seeing firsthand how the franchise and venue had underperformed as national interest in the NFL exploded. Yes, there was the emotional appeal of buying his favorite team. But there was also clearly extraordinary value to be unlocked with proper management. Kraft bought the team for a then-NFL record $172 million in 1994.

“It was the American dream, in my hometown,” he remembers.

Kraft’s first NFL owners meeting was at an Orlando airport hotel in 1994. There was no ceremony of any kind. Kraft simply took his seat among his new colleagues. It wouldn’t be long before he found his voice with them too.

Then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue recalls being impressed by Kraft from the start. “An important feature of Robert’s is his ability to be an innovator, to look at the future and anticipate technology, anticipate international opportunities, and different business models,” said Tagliabue. “It was his ability to have fresh thinking out of the box, if you will, on all the things important to the league.”

“It clearly has been a goal of his to help people, and make the world a better place, but it takes a powerful business engine and a powerfully successful team to do that. He loves to win, in both business and not, but he understands that enables him to do even more outside of it. It’s profits and purpose — he wants to do more.”

— Brian Moynihan, CEO, Bank of America

Traditionally, most NFL owners spend a few years quietly learning before they take on leadership roles at the league level. Some expected that of Kraft. But Tagliabue saw in him an asset, and Kraft spoke up often.

A seminal moment for Kraft’s influence at the league level came during his first negotiations for the league’s media rights package. In December 1993, just weeks before Kraft’s purchase of the Patriots was official, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network shocked the sports world by paying $1.6 billion for a four-year deal, knocking longtime NFL rights holder CBS out of the mix.

Four years later, Kraft was on the broadcast committee. He knew how badly CBS needed back in and that the network’s eagerness gave the NFL a chance to earn a big fee and shape the relationship in a substantive way. McManus was charged with developing a pitch that would go far beyond money, one that would give the league good reason to drop NBC, which at the time had rights to AFC games.

“He really counseled me to make our presentation one that would be good for the NFL and good for the AFC, long term,” McManus said.

Kraft understood that CBS and the NFL would have to be in lockstep agreement on areas such as shoulder programming, production quality, marketing and communication.

“Robert was very clear in saying to me those would be important priorities,” McManus said. “Maybe not as much as monthly fees, but certainly very, very important. It was clear that if we had just put in a financial bid, I’m not sure how successful we would have been. So we spent a lot of time and creativity to create an all-inclusive package.”

Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue recognized Kraft’s vast skill as a forward thinker.getty images

CBS secured the rights with an eight-year deal worth $500 million per year, more than twice NBC’s annual fee. CBS hasn’t been without NFL games since.

In 2020, many of the same people were back at the negotiating table, trying to figure out the next generation of NFL rights deals. The numbers alone made the 1990s seem quaint. But the digital media evolution had made the deals exponentially more complicated, and the raging COVID-19 pandemic hampered even the most basic business communications.

“I think his legacy will be probably threefold: Success at the team level and success and major contributions at the league level, and thirdly, [doing it] over a period of years, which is going to be decades upon decades when he’s done. He was an innovator in business models, whether it was labor relations, television, stadium construction, fan service … he was a thoughtful innovator, and the innovations which he contributed to have been sustainable for decades.”

— Paul Tagliabue, retired NFL commissioner

Kraft leaned into the details, using the benefit of the doubt he’d established with the networks and his fellow owners to push ahead. Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks never doubted he would get to the finish line, in part because of where he’d have to go to negotiate.

“That showed you how involved Robert was, the fact that for a good chunk of the negotiations, Foxborough was one of the key meeting points,” Shanks said. “When Robert is spending that much time on it, and involved in it that personally, you just kind of know something’s going to get done.”

During those negotiations, outside experts debated who had the edge. With the numbers growing so large, the NFL was unable to develop a surplus of bidders, generally a bad sign for fee escalations. But with scripted television viewership falling dramatically, Kraft and the NFL correctly bet the networks couldn’t live without the sport.

The NFL got its sizable increases, $110 billion in total from Amazon, CBS, Disney, Fox and NBC. The deals each carried unique details that fit with each broadcaster’s streaming strategies, and walked the careful line of balancing the future of digital streaming with the importance of the linear broadcast networks.

Those deals couldn’t have happened without the personal connections Kraft had built. “There’s this feeling I get that Robert always has Fox Sports’ best interests at heart,” Shanks said.

Those on the other side of contentious negotiations often feel the same way. In 2011, Kraft played a starring role in another pivotal moment in NFL history, the collective-bargaining agreement that ended an offseason lockout, the league’s first work stoppage since the 1987 strike.

Owners thought the status quo was tilted too far toward the players, and proposed holding back large sums of revenue before calculating the players’ payroll share. The NFLPA had no interest in that.

With Kraft putting in extra effort to keep the sides talking even as his wife gradually succumbed to ovarian cancer that summer, the two sides came to terms shortly before training camp. Most observers considered it a big win for the owners, who scored a 10-year deal with no opt-outs, a temporary halt to the growth of the salary cap, and changes to the revenue-sharing structure that players could live with.

Jeff Saturday, then a center and union rep for the Indianapolis Colts who was a key negotiator, hugged Kraft at the press conference celebrating the deal. He famously called Kraft, “A man who helped us save football.”

Kraft said his involvement in league matters came from a place of necessity, not power-grabbing.

“I wanted to take care of our franchise, but then I realized the NFL is really a socialist environment,” said Kraft. “You know, you compete for three hours on Sunday with some [teams], but other than that you’re basically partners.”

Colts center Jeff Saturday embraced Kraft after the contentious NFL lockout of 2011 ended.getty images

What was good for the league was good for the Patriots, Kraft saw early on. That, plus his devotion to the bigger strategic picture, contributes to the feeling throughout the industry that Kraft’s friendships can survive fierce disagreements.

“I realized, once we went through the learning curve and saw how it’s split and everything like that, we probably could make some contributions,” Kraft said. “We weren’t trying to do it to get an edge. I was trying to protect my investment, right?”

His influence has since expanded to a point that Kraft’s voice is now a significant part of every major piece of league business. He’s chairman of the committee overseeing the league’s largest revenue stream — media rights — and the committee overseeing the terms and conditions of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s employment. And he’s a member of the finance committee and the management council executive committee, which handle the most important policy matters facing the league.

Perhaps in keeping with the personality of man who has a small card in his wallet that says simply, “Humility and self-confidence are not incompatible,” Kraft is not shy about trusting himself. That may be one reason he has often seemed a half-step ahead of his competition.

“It’s just an instinct, you know, when to step up,” Kraft said. “It’s a sixth sense.”

■ ■ ■ ■ 

Friends say Kraft’s “sixth sense” is cultivated in part by his relationships. What might appear to be instinct is actually a reflection of his sincere interest and insights into the people he meets.

In 2003, Kraft cold-called Brian Moynihan, who was the highest-ranking Boston-area executive for Bank of America. BofA had recently acquired Moynihan’s bank, FleetBoston, which earlier had acquired Bank of Boston, the primary lender to Kraft on the Patriots sale. They would be in business together now, Kraft reasoned, so they should know each other. They toured the stadium and developed a friendship between their families. “He took an interest in me, almost like a big brother, and wanted to know: What do you do and how do you do it?” Moynihan recalls.

“We deeply value our longtime relationship and partnership with the NFL, which Robert Kraft has played a huge role in throughout the years. He is a consummate professional and a great American.”

— Lachlan Murdoch, CEO, Fox Corporation

“He’s so contemporary in thought,” Moynihan later added. “He understands people. It probably has a lot to do with being around players. He’s got a constant group of 20-to-40-year-olds around him, and he takes a deep interest in who they are.”

Such was the case with two players who predate the Patriots’ dynasty years. Drew Bledsoe led the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXI and made three Pro Bowls during Kraft’s early years with the franchise. His tenure in New England effectively ended the moment he suffered a life-threatening injury on a hit by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis in September 2001. The quarterback job fell to a former sixth-round draft pick by the name of Tom Brady. The following February, Brady guided the Patriots to a Super Bowl upset of the St. Louis Rams and Bledsoe never suited up for New England again.

This past February Kraft flew across the country to Bledsoe’s winery in Walla Walla, Wash. Kraft toured the estate, spoke to the employees, and then brought Bledsoe and his wife to the Super Bowl in Los Angeles as his guest.

The chance to show off his post-football success fulfilled a longtime dream for Bledsoe. He and Kraft had developed a friendship that transcended the difficult decisions of roster management, and Bledsoe the entrepreneur thinks often of Kraft’s business lessons: Compete on every detail of the business, learn as much as you can and treat people well enough that they don’t want to leave.

“In a lot of ways we’ve tried to model it after how he built the Patriots franchise,” Bledsoe said of his winery. “So I really wanted him to get out there, and I wanted the team to meet him, because I’ve talked about him so much.”

Another player from those years, running back Curtis Martin, said Kraft earned his respect during a contract dispute. It was 1997, and Martin wanted a better deal after starting his career with a pair of Pro Bowl seasons. The Patriots, however, still had his rights for at least two more years, three if they used a franchise tag, and were under no obligation to meet his demands.

Kraft invited Martin to tour a company-owned cardboard box factory, and on the 30-minute ride from the stadium in the owner’s Lexus, Kraft explained his position. “I love you,” Martin recalls Kraft saying, “but as an owner, it doesn’t make sense to pay you top dollar when I still have you for three more years at basically minimum wage for the NFL.”

Today, Martin says, “I respected that.” One year later, Martin bolted for the rival Jets, but when the two crossed paths before New England’s first Super Bowl title a few years later, Kraft approached Martin and asked for a big hug. Martin appreciated Kraft’s interest in him so much that he subsequently made it his mission to meet as many owners as he could, hoping to copy his gift of networking and learning by building and cultivating relationships.

The trio of Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady led the Patriots to six Super Bowl titles.getty images

The reverence Bledsoe and Martin had for Kraft highlights what many consider the owner’s greatest trait: managing people through relationships. Many Patriots have considered themselves the “fifth son” to Kraft, and key employees under Kraft measure their tenure in decades.

“There is an art form to what he does, which is have a relationship with these players knowing it’s a tough business,” said Moynihan, who oversees 200,000 employees at Bank of America. “It’s a marvelous thing. It’s a business lesson that goes far beyond football.”

The Brady-Bill Belichick era would have been one of sports’ greatest dynasties even if it had ended after the Patriots won the Lombardi Trophy three times between the 2001 and 2004 seasons. What elevates the Patriots’ run is the second trio of Super Bowl wins from the 2014 to 2018 seasons, long after the complications of life and and scandals started to interfere.

“A lot of times coaches and players of that caliber have strong personalities, and it’s one thing to get them to work well together for four or five years,” said the Chiefs’ Hunt. “But to get it to last as long as it did in New England is a statement about Robert’s leadership.”

■ ■ ■ ■ 

One thing friends of Robert Kraft notice is how many other friends he has. Not just volume, but variety. “He has the most diverse group of friends of anyone I can think of,” said Bledsoe. “He’s buddies with Donald Trump, Elton John, Meek Mill, [Benjamin] Netanyahu. … He crosses all boundaries. It’s pretty amazing.”

Kraft’s political connections paved the way for the United States’ successful bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The U.S. bid was economically and logistically superior to that of the only other rival, Morocco, but there was a big political problem among the FIFA membership: Then-President Donald Trump and his isolationist and racist rhetoric.

When FIFA President Gianni Infantino wanted to impress upon the U.S. bid team that the U.S. would lose the vote if it were just a reflection of American power, he turned to Kraft, knowing that Kraft could reach and reason with the president.

“Fox and Robert Kraft both began our partnerships with the NFL the same year nearly three decades ago. Since that time, Robert has been a valued and trusted partner and a great friend.”

— Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO, News Corp.

Kraft called Trump — a social, not political, friend, he emphasizes — and appealed to the president’s ego. A three-country “North American” bid would allow Trump to claim a mantle of international cooperation. It worked, and the Trump White House enthusiastically backed the bid, providing assurances that it would facilitate the tournament in every necessary way.

Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel first introduced himself to Kraft while they were both vacationing in the same beach resort over the December holidays. They quickly became good friends and did business together on MLS rights, and Kraft advised Emanual on Endeavor’s $4.3 billion acquisition of UFC in 2018.

To Emanuel, what makes Kraft stand out is that his desire to become friends is not limited to his peers — anybody at all levels of the economic hierarchy gets the same level of respect.

“I see people coming up to him regularly at football games, and he just pays attention to the conversation,” Emanuel said. “He’s not looking over anybody’s shoulder. He’s just in it at all times. He’s just a very humble guy who sits there and likes people, and is curious and interested in what they do. From that, a lot of relationships start.”

Those relationships can lead to substantial career advancement too. Don Garber was 41 and running the NFL’s international division when Kraft approached him at an owners’ meeting in 1999, proposing that Garber become the next MLS commissioner. Garber knew little about soccer, but Kraft believed in him.

“Without a doubt Robert’s probably been the most influential person in my career,” said Garber, who is still in the same job 23 years later.

The fraternity of NFL owners likewise has relationships that go beyond the field. Take, for instance, Los Angeles Chargers owner Dean Spanos, who says he considers Kraft an honorary older brother.

In 2010, the Patriots were in San Diego to play the Chargers. The day before the game, Spanos and his wife, Susie, hosted Robert and Myra Kraft at the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. Myra was sick with the ovarian cancer that would take her life the following summer, but she enjoyed herself immensely, taking particular joy at a special exhibit of pandas on loan from the Far East.

“After that visit, Bob contributed to the zoo, and to my knowledge, he continues to this day to make contributions to the zoo. I know he’s never been back,” Spanos said. “It’s a small thing, but to me, that shows how special Bob is.”

Outside of sports, one of Kraft’s confidants is rock star Jon Bon Jovi, who met Kraft through Belichick. Bon Jovi recalls with special fondness spending the night at Kraft’s house before the 2017 AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh. The next morning, they ate eggs from Kraft’s chicken coop and stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts before heading to Gillette Stadium.

“RKK priorities are family, faith, philanthropy … and football,” Bon Jovi wrote in an email. “That’s what we have in common. But, it’s RKK’s curiosity, open-mindedness and joy for life that remains an inspiration to me.”

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Robert Kraft’s celebrity friendships are about more than just business or sports. He became unlikely friends with rapper Meek Mill through Fanatics Chairman and co-founder Michael Rubin, both of whom are Philadelphia natives. By the time Mill was sentenced to 2-4 years in prison for a minor parole violation in late 2017, Kraft and Mill were already close, having previously shared a long discussion about life on a flight to Florida aboard Kraft’s plane.

From Mill, Kraft heard about the plight of poor Black children who felt they had no future. He heard of Mill’s father, killed when he was a young child, and his mother, who worked two jobs to support him. He thought more and more about how Mill had become a job creator and economic engine in his own right through his music career.

While Mill was in prison, Kraft spoke with him regularly at Rubin’s doing. On a flight back from a vacation together to Turks and Caicos, Kraft asked Rubin to arrange a visit to the Pennsylvania penitentiary to see Mill. In early April, Kraft met Mill in a tiny visitation room and then gave an impromptu press conference outside. “He shouldn’t be in here,” Kraft said.

Two weeks later, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed.

Along with Jay-Z (left) and others, Kraft is a founding partner of the Reform Alliance. getty images

“Robert speaking on Meek’s behalf had a huge influence,” Rubin said. “I’ll just be blunt. It was one thing for a basketball player like James Harden or a comedian like Kevin Hart — people said, here’s a Black person sticking up for a Black person, it didn’t carry as much weight. You have a white billionaire as powerful as Robert Kraft speaking on Meek’s behalf, it was next level of importance. It made a huge difference. It’s sad that’s the case, but it did.”

In Kraft’s eyes, Mill was not just a friend of a friend who happened to be in a bad situation. He was emblematic of a larger problem in American law, where once people are in the system, it’s difficult to escape.

Kraft became a founding partner of the Reform Alliance, the nonprofit created by Mill, Rubin, Jay Z and others to push for criminal justice reform. “Now my eyes have been opened, how it’s a system that is not right,” Kraft said in his office. “It’s not good for people, anyone in America, to feel they’re not being treated fairly and don’t have the chance at the American dream. So our family’s going to do everything we can in our philanthropy and what we do to try to level it out for everyone.”

■ ■ ■ ■ 

In April 2020, just weeks after the pandemic shut down the country, Kraft sent the Patriots team jet to China to bring back 1.2 million N95 masks for front-line medical workers. It was perhaps the most visible philanthropic action Kraft is known for, but giving back has long been a pillar of his public life.

In all his family has donated $800 million to charitable causes. Some are mega-gifts, like the $24 million endowment Robert and Jonathan Kraft recently gave to Harvard Business School, which could cover two years of tuition for 160 need-based fellowships.

Other donations are more targeted, but can bring just as much joy. In the early days of the pandemic, Kraft donated $100,000 to the Rhode Island operations of Institute for Nonprofit Practice, a Boston organization that educates aspiring nonprofit leaders, so it could maintain its 2020 class.

“I’ll never forget it,” said Yolanda Coentro, the institute’s president and CEO. “He was so enthusiastic.”

One year later, Kraft hosted a virtual luncheon for the organization and pledged $250,000 to create a Black Leadership Institute. His announcement spurred on other donors to reach $3 million in fundraising to launch the leadership institute in at least five cities.

That was typical of how Kraft approaches philanthropy: It is not done as a one-off, but rather in ways that can spur more development.

Then there is the story of Ron Burton, the first player drafted by the AFL’s Boston Patriots in 1960. In retirement, he built the Ron Burton Training Village in central Massachusetts for underprivileged youth to learn leadership skills.

When Burton was hospitalized in Boston and dying of cancer in 2002, Kraft visited him with a request. He wanted to create the Ron Burton Community Service Award, to be given annually to a Patriots player.

It’s now the only award on display in the team’s locker room.

“My dad broke down in tears, he couldn’t imagine a man of Robert’s stature to come and pay tribute to the very first Boston Patriot,” said Paul Burton, Ron’s son.

Kraft’s connections spurred an even longer-lasting benefit. Putnam Investments CEO Bob Reynolds became a donor and board chair of the nonprofit after seeing Kraft spotlight the Burtons at the annual Patriots award gala.

It was another deposit of psychic income, but one in keeping with the simple maxim Kraft has always lived by. “I’m into relationships and people,” he said. “There’s some reason I get energized with people, all people if they’re genuine. I enjoy people from all walks of life and connecting.”

Kraft will turn 81 next month, and as might be expected, he is frequently asked about his legacy. It’s a question that makes him think back to Brookline, to his humble beginnings and the ethical will he was given by his father. And when he does, he can be sure that the people he interacted with each day are richer and better for having known him.

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SBJ I Factor: Jed York, presented by Allied Sports SBJ I Factor presented by Allied Sports features an interview with San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York. York is in his 17th year with the organization and his 12th as CEO. He is a two-time SBJ Forty Under 40 honoree as a member of the classes of 2012 and 2013. York talks with SBJ’s Abe Madkour about what he learned from growing up in the sports business, working in multiple departments at the team, the challenges of building Levi’s Stadium, and how his leadership style has evolved through the years. SBJ I Factor is a monthly podcast offering interviews with sports executives who have been recipients of one of the magazine’s awards, such as Forty Under 40, Game Changers and others.

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