Commentary

In Pittsburgh, Robert Kraft’s 500th game a reminder of just how far we’ve come

Six Super Bowl titles and, frankly, any semblance of relevance, were never on the laundry list for Patriot fans. Kraft changed everything.

The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Patriots Sunday at Acrisure Stadium. AP Photo/Don Wright

PITTSBURGH — In all, we had 15 tickets to Sunday’s game; 13 in a row located in the end zone nosebleed bleacher seats at whatever they’re calling the ketchup palace these days, a pair more under shade in section 541, where my late father-in-law has held season tickets since the place opened in 2001.

Seven years after his passing, he finally came home.

His instructions were exact. The ashes were to be spread in the Three Rivers that served as tributaries throughout his upbringing in the City of Bridges. They were specifically to be dumped in the Monongahela River, a matter that his children, grandchildren, and other assorted, extended family members (Hello) managed to accomplish under a dusked sky on the eve of his favorite team’s home opener.

This was a weekend that took years to accommodate. Careful planning had to take into account timeliness of the act as well as the readiness of all parties to finally say goodbye. And so, two generations of Karcher offspring were able to experience what was a special moment, followed by the reception with 67,000 others the following day at the downtown football stadium.

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That’s where the Patriots crashed the party.

Yes, I managed to marry into a Steelers family 20 years ago, a matter you might notice immediately upon entry into our home. There’s the framed collage of my wife, her siblings, and their father in front of Ford Field prior to Super Bowl XL. There are Terrible Towels littered in corners like socks on a hot afternoon. There are probably enough replica Steeler jerseys in my house to field an expansion team, never mind the odd-looking, stuffed Steelers frog that has, for whatever reason, attained permanent residence in our family room.

It can be a bit much.

My wife was brought up during the glory days of the Steelers. She grew up with passion for Bradshaw, Mean Joe, and the Rooneys in her Connecticut home. It differed in some ways from how I grew up on football, just hoping my team would remain on a year-to-year basis.

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll never have any idea just how important Robert Kraft’s acquisition of the New England Patriots was in 1994. Imagine you’re a fan of the Oakland/Los Angeles/Las Vegas Raiders or the Los Angeles/St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams and you might have some of the picture down pat. Now, imagine your team is completely irrelevant to the NFL as anything but a doormat. That was the New England Patriots franchise, pre-Kraft.

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Sunday’s game, one the Patriots were able to squeak out, 17-14, for their first win of the 2022 season, was also Kraft’s 500th since taking over as owner 28 years ago. If he had failed to step up at that critical juncture, the team might have moved to St. Louis and beyond by now. We might pay them no more attention than the Braves or Carolina Hurricanes, New England franchises that ultimately built their legacies elsewhere.

There was never any such legacy with the New England Patriots, a franchise that was always in turmoil with a rotating door of owners who annually had it on the doorstep of moving someplace else.

Six Super Bowl titles and, frankly, any semblance of relevance, were never on the laundry list for Patriot fans. Kraft changed everything.

Which is why Sunday’s postgame locker room celebration was reason to reflect. Oh, these Patriots, led by a coaching staff construction that more resembles something out of a reality show, aren’t going to give much reason to remember them. Mac Jones may be King of the QB mids and Bill Belichick seems to be at the age now when he gives as much a damn about his perception as he does when his Snapchat expires. And if that sounds depressing, imagine if Mitch Trubisky is your starting quarterback.

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So to watch two storied franchises battle it out in a bowl of mediocrity Sunday was a reality check for everyone in the building. At least the ones calling for hometown hero Kenny Pickett waited until about two minutes had passed in the third quarter to voice their displeasure.

But when you consider that the 500th game under the Rooney name probably happened for the Steelers sometime in the 60s or 70s, it’s clear how much of a head start Pittsburgh has had.

“We’ve had a lot of big wins here in Pittsburgh,” Belichick said in the locker room before giving Kraft the game ball. “I think it’s fitting that this one comes on Mr. Kraft’s 500th game.”

After a steady stream of his signature smooching, Kraft told his players that “doing it here in Pittsburgh is pretty special.”

I’m sure Kraft was referring to the rivalry that has existed between the two cities over the years, one that was fueled by Brady and Roethlisberger. Joey Porter and Richard Seymour. Mike Tomlin and his affinity for the Patriots radio broadcast team.

The two teams have met in the AFC Championship game three times — all won by New England — cementing the Steelers as the Patriots’ most-consistent nemesis during the stretch run of both mini-dynasties within the context of The Dynasty.

But Kraft might as well have been talking about what he had ultimately hoped to build in New England, where he took a franchise off the map of soulless football toys and re-shaped it to mean something. Kraft understood the simmering passion that existed for the football team, thirsting for something, anything, to root for. He was a fan himself.

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It was indeed “pretty special” to celebrate 500 in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers revel in generational bonds through the fabric of the city itself. That’s something we’d never had any likeness of in New England, where the Patriots were once passed around from town to town like a mayor with aspiration, just little purpose. You don’t hear a lot about somebody’s ashes being spread in front of the Rodman enterprise.

We may never have the sort of relationship between city and team that Pittsburgh and the Steelers have. The team is defined by city and vice versa. Moving the franchise would be akin to the Cowboys, Yankees, or Packers re-locating. Thirty years ago, the Patriots moving may have caused a fret within our own states, but carried little more than a shrug elsewhere.

Now, the Patriots are in the same breath as the aforementioned heavyweights. That is a Herculean leap from the team Kraft bought off the scrap heap. Unless you lived it, you’ll never have any idea how ludicrous even the thought of it would have seemed in the early 90s.

On Sunday, there was a jersey dress code for the game, which was no problem for my wife, older son, and daughter (they’re good kids, but…), who picked a Watt, a Harris, and a Roethlisberger out of a pile of Antonio Brown leftovers. My good son wore his Mac Jones and I donned my Bledsoe throwback, a choice the kids don’t understand because they never saw the former Patriots quarterback play.

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I’ll always be considered a Bledsoe fanboy, but those who understand know that it’s more than what he did for the team that will cement his legacy in New England. After all, Bledsoe was there when it all started to matter.

Kraft was there to make sure the torch remained lit. Five hundred games later and how the world has changed.

Now, about Bill Parcells’ omission from the Patriots Hall of Fame…

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