FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Monday will mark the 25th anniversary of Robert Kraft becoming owner of the New England Patriots, and looking back at what he said that day, he couldn’t have been more prescient.
“Some people think it’s pretty silly to spend so much money for just a game. But for those of you who aren’t fans, let me tell you that this game holds the attention of the community and communities throughout this country from August to January in a way that’s hard to explain if you’re not into it,” he said after paying a then-record $172 million for a franchise that was the doormat of the NFL. “And it really impacts the psychology and fabric of the community, and this is my hometown, and I just believe this hometown wouldn’t have been the same if this team had left here.”
Since that time, the Patriots have totaled 31 playoff wins, 18 AFC East championships, 9 AFC championships and 5 Super Bowls, becoming the most dominant team in the NFL.
The 31 playoff wins are the third most for any ownership group, but no one has ascended the ranks as quickly as Kraft. The Rooney family has a record 36 playoff wins over an 86-year span, while the publicly owned Green Bay Packers have 34 playoff wins over 100 years.
In an interview with ESPN, Kraft reflected on the upcoming 25-year anniversary of becoming Patriots owner.
“In life, I think it’s important to dream big. My dream was to be able to own the NFL franchise that I adored and was passionate about. I wanted the privilege of trying to run it in my own hometown. [That day] a lot of things came together,” he said. “It’s unbelievable to me; I just sit back and pinch myself, that we were able to do it. [Tom] Brady and [Bill] Belichick get a lot of the credit, as they deserve to get. Really, the hidden asset in all of this is the fan support we got.
“When I announced on that day that I was buying the team, fans said, 'What can we do to help?' and I said, 'Buy season tickets so we can sell out for the first time.' Six-thousand people lined up in the snow on a Saturday morning the next day, and they kicked in. That was the beginning of a real love affair between our fans and our family. What they did to support us. They’re carrying on the balance sheet for zero but the fan support is worth a fortune. It really helped us to accomplish what we did knowing they were behind us.”
If told that day the Patriots would go on to a dynastic run of success, Kraft said he wouldn’t have believed it.
“One of my strategies in life, no matter what I do, is try to collect good people. And then have continuity. Because in life you have a lot of things that happen that cause tension or other things. You try to work your way through it and keep stability. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do here,” he said.
"... probably the best things I've done are things I've done by instinct, that I just feel it's the right thing. We paid the highest price ever paid for any franchise in any sport anywhere in the world." Robert Kraft on buying the Patriots
“We tried to create a culture the day we came in. We tried to have a system in place and have continuity. I think of when I was a young boy; the Boston Braves were my team. They left the area, and I was heartbroken. On January 21, 1994, I made a decision to pay 50 percent more than what I thought was the right number, what I had told my sweetheart [the late Myra Kraft] I would pay. She went bananas and really questioned my sanity. It just made me think in life, probably the best things I’ve done are things I’ve done by instinct, that I just feel it’s the right thing. We paid the highest price ever paid for any franchise in any sport anywhere in the world.”
Because Kraft owned Foxborough Stadium, where the Patriots played their games, it positioned him well to buy the Patriots. Kraft had bought the stadium for $25 million, and he was offered $75 million so then-Patriots owner James Orthwein could break the lease, which would have opened the door for the Patriots to move to St. Louis.
Kraft recalled a conversation he had with Myra about taking the $75 million, and then hoping to buy a different NFL team.
“I just thought back to the Braves leaving. A part of me died when that happened. I also thought about what it’s like in this area. The political people don’t finance stadiums. Life might’ve been a lot different if we hadn’t stepped up. I’m really glad we had the privilege to do it.
“It’s worked out OK,” he said, smiling. “It hit me that if I don’t step up and do this today, I might never get a chance. There are teams like the Giants and the Steelers and the Bears -- they’re in the same family for 99 years. Sometimes in life you got to step up. You got to believe you can do it. I really believed because of the potential. I was a fan sitting in the seats. I remember when Earl Campbell in '78 ran all over us in our only home playoff game. We lost, and I felt sick. I just thought, if I could have a chance to manage this, how I would do things.”
Hiring head coach Bill Belichick in 2000, and then selecting quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft were two of the most significant moves of Kraft’s ownership tenure. Kraft called Belichick the "GOAT of coaches" and Brady the "greatest player of all time." He lightheartedly patted himself on the back in calling the Patriots’ acquisition of Belichick from the New York Jets as “probably the greatest trade in the history of the NFL.”
“People are always the most important thing: We hire people on the basis of integrity, character and loyalty. That’s what I need to be able to build from,” he said, when asked how he’s found the sweet spot between business and finding the right people.
“I was thinking about it: We’re going to our 14th championship game [Sunday]. Before we bought the team, they went to one in 34 years, [and] 25 percent of the league hasn’t gone to one in the last 25 years. How lucky are we? Part of it is staying on top of things and collecting these great people who are driven so hard to do what we all love. Getting everybody on the same page is probably the way you really hit that sweet spot. Getting everybody to check their egos at the door. That’s true in life. It’s true in relationships. It’s true in everything.”
Kraft called the Patriots' first Super Bowl victory the biggest high in his ownership tenure and said the most challenging day was turning down a lucrative opportunity to move the team to Connecticut in the 1990s, which ultimately led him to privately finance a new stadium in Foxborough that opened in 2002.
Kraft reflected on his remarks on the day he purchased the Patriots, about how a football team can help bring a community together, sharing a story of a letter he recently received from a family from Vermont.
“They said what’s happened with the Patriots over the last two decades has done more to bond their family together. They communicate. They wear Pats gear,” he said. “I’ve seen this happen with a lot of people -- Sundays are important to them. It’s ‘Patriot time.’ In today’s world, with technology the way it is, everyone just in their own little lanes, this is something where you reach out and connect a community. Families, I think, come together around our sport.”
Kraft was asked what he hopes his legacy will be.
“That I love this community,” he responded. “What we do as a family and what our life is about is building bridges, bringing people together. I really feel that anyone who is born in this country has won the lottery. It doesn’t matter your ethnicity or the color of your skin: If you want to work hard, persevere and dream big, you have an opportunity to make it happen.
“I look at this team carrying our family name, the way we do things, I hope people are proud and want to brand with us. And it makes the quality of their life better. I hope in a small way we’ve done that and brought pride and good will and good feelings. Then, the unique opportunity of what it allows you to do philanthropically, and how your players can go in and make an impact, and how our charitable foundation can also do that.
“That no one ever loved the community more. In the end, that would sum it up. And our actions speak as loud as our words.”