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Kraft, his heart heavy, lifts NFL

Patriots owner helped bring accord during his wife’s final days

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / July 26, 2011

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The National Football League is back in action. And Patriots owner Robert Kraft is getting much of the credit.

Not only did Kraft help owners and players end a 135-day lockout and agree to a 10-year deal, but he did so while tending to his wife, Myra, who died Wednesday of cancer.

The role Kraft played in the negotiations was not lost on anyone at yesterday’s press conference announcing the deal. Nor was the memory of his wife.

“A special thanks to Myra Kraft, who even in her weakest moment allowed Mr. Kraft to come and fight this out and without him, this deal does not get done,’’ said Jeff Saturday, a representative of the NFL Players Assocation and a center for one of the Patriots’ biggest rivals, the Indianapolis Colts.

He added that Kraft is “a man who helped us save football and we’re so gracious for that, we’re gracious for his family and for the opportunity he presented to get this deal done. So thank you very much - we really appreciate it.’’

Saturday and Kraft then embraced, in what will be the enduring image of this often contentious labor battle.

Kraft was at the press conference at the invitation of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith. It was Kraft’s first public appearance since the memorial service for his wife.

That Kraft was on a scheduled break for shiva, the seven-day mourning period in the Jewish faith, was evident. He was unshaven and, in the practice of keriah, wore a torn black tie under his suit.

Those familiar with the negotiations lauded Kraft for his behind-the-scenes help in producing the breakthrough.

He helped create the smaller group of negotiators - without lawyers - that made progress on difficult issues. Kraft, who dearly missed having “his guys’’ in his locker room, told stories of his players and coaches over private dinners to help put the players’ minds at ease. He gave Smith a ride on his private jet en route to a round of talks, helping the two forge a bond. And Kraft wasn’t afraid to tell his fellow owners when they were wrong on an issue to help push things forward.

“We needed him in this process because when he gets up in the room, people listen to him,’’ said New York Giants owner John Mara, another key negotiator on the owners’ side. “When he got up and spoke during any of our negotiating sessions, the players paid attention and respected what he had to say. He had a tremendous influence over this whole process. I don’t really think we would have been standing out in front of the union headquarters announcing this deal if he had not been involved.’’

Mara and Foxworth said they were amazed at Kraft’s ability to stay focused on the talks while his wife was ill.

“He told me today, ‘This is the way she would have wanted it,’ ’’ Mara said. “He got very emotional today before we went over to the union’s headquarters to announce this deal. I think he got a little bit emotional there. This has been a tough ordeal for him and they just have so much respect and admiration for the way he conducted himself. I’ll tell you what, I think that Patriots fans are lucky to have him as the owner.’’

Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who along with Saturday was present at every negotiating session, said that without Kraft’s help, “I think it’s a distinct possibility that we wouldn’t be talking about a new labor deal . . . I’d say that he was the single biggest player on their side. Without him, someone else would have needed to step up and I don’t know that someone would have.’’

Kraft continued to play a key role after his wife died. On Saturday, while family and friends filled his home, Kraft excused himself to join a conference call with the key labor players.

“He was almost happy to have the call and have something to do during this,’’ Mara said. “It really said a lot about him as an owner, as somebody who cares about this sport.’’

There were the times during federal mediation sessions in March when Kraft’s impatience with lawyers for both sides brought outbursts.

“I think that probably turned some people off and made it more difficult to negotiate at first,’’ Foxworth said. “But it also singled him out in our mind as somebody that wanted to get a deal done. So we kind of picked him out as a guy that we needed to talk to because we needed to get a deal done.’’

If the players had any doubt Kraft was fair, that ended when they reached an agreement on the rookie salary system. Kraft excused himself to return to Myra, and when the other players and owners reconvened, those representing the NFL scoffed at the system.

“All the owners were like, ‘Nope, we’re not going there. No way he said that,’ ’’ Foxworth said. “And it completely halted all of the progress.’’

After a phone conversation with the owners got nowhere, Kraft boarded his plane the next morning and flew back to make his case. “Everyone’s tune was different,’’ Foxworth said. “I don’t know what he did or said or how he explained it to them, but he made it so it made sense. He rescued it this morning.’’

Foxworth entered the talks with a very different view of Kraft. Foxworth saw an interview where Kraft said - and Foxworth said it is burned in his mind - that the owners bear all the risk in the NFL.

“Obviously that doesn’t sit well with us because we are risking our health and all of those things,’’ Foxworth said. “I remember coming into it thinking he would kind of be a hardliner. And he wasn’t.

“Now that I’ve gotten to know him, that’s not who he is. At no point did he wish to give us the short end of the stick. Where he came from all of the time was a genuine place of wanting to get this done and wanting it to be reasonably fair for both sides. That’s what we have today, thanks to him.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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