NEW YORK — AirKraft is reserved for champions. Look no further than the five Lombardi trophies etched on the tailplane of the Patriots’ Boeing 767 jet. Only winners allowed aboard.
The 50 passengers on board Saturday’s chartered flight to the Patriots-Bills game did not qualify as losers by any stretch. The families won a shopping spree to the NBA Store in midtown Manhattan earlier in the morning, courtesy of Michael Rubin's REFORM Alliance. And unlike previous years, the select parents and children did not lose any valuable family time during the holidays due to incarceration. A roar of cheers overtook the $5.5 million aircraft, ready for takeoff at Newark International Airport.
It was the first holiday spent together in years for some, the first time flying for others and an experience of a lifetime for all. Christmas had arrived early in what amounted to a Super Bowl trip of sorts with stops at the NBA Store, Gillette Stadium and back to Newark for families unjustly affected by the U.S. criminal justice system in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York.
"Every kid here has a mom or dad who is currently incarcerated or was incarcerated for a technical probation violation, and it makes to no sense to me," Rubin said in the stadium suite as kids grabbed second helpings of chicken fingers and fries at the private buffet a few steps away. "We have 180,000 [people] a year going to prison for technical violations. That means they didn't commit a crime. So to me, to do something amazing for them is an honor and a privilege. ... But the way we top this is by changing the state laws."
Rubin and REFORM Alliance co-founders Meek Mill and Clara Wu Tsai welcomed Caris LeVert and DJ Khaled to help greet families at the NBA Store. Each family received a $500 or $1,000 gift cards to spend. "You're my rap hero, Meek," one kid shouted. Rubin even hopped behind the cash register to speed up checkouts. After 30 minutes, it was time to go. AirKraft was waiting.
"I said Robert, 'I think this is bigger than the Sixers or the Nets, this is bigger than sports," said Rubin, who had only three days to execute after brainstorming the idea last Tuesday with fellow REFORM co-founder and Patriots owner Robert Kraft in one of their serveral calls per day. "He said, 'I'm sending the plane down. Let's pick them up and bring them to the Patriots game."
Police cars escorted two buses across state lines and offered a subtle reminder of America's reality in the criminal justice system along the way. Just ask Albert McCollough on the way to the airport. The Scranton native beat drug charges on an illegal search after it was discovered a police officer provided the anonymous tip.
"I love what [the REFORM alliance] is trying to do by changing these laws," McCollough said. "Something has to happen. I see it every day, and it's only happening to us. You don't see non-minorities getting in trouble for the same exact thing. They don't get nowhere near the same amount of time, the same amount of probation. And it's ridiculous. especially Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is the worst."
The state is home to some of the country's most stringent probation regulations, triggering a statewide reform movement. Pennsylvania reportedly spends $100 million a year to house people for technical violations of probation and parole, while 57,000 people statewide are on probation. In January, REFORM Alliance started a mission to reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system after rapper Meek Mill spent five months in jail for a technical probation violation (popping a wheelie on a motorcycle in New York).
"The cell phone doesn't even have work [for you to go to jail]," another father interjected from across the bus row. "And I'm like, if I have a job and get a check, that's going to be more than $300. It doesn't matter [to the courts]."
The 12-hour day ended at Gillette Stadium, which doubled as an icebox entering the evening hours. That didn't stop the fun in Foxborough. Kraft invited the group into the Patriots' film room before lining up his guests on the sideline to watch players warm up.
For the kids who eagerly asked if they would meet No. 12, Tom Brady answered the request with a few handshakes before entering the locker room to prepare the Patriots for an 11th straight AFC East crown. Then they moved to a suite, stocked with unlimited food and drinks, in time to watch the game's first half.
The 45-minute return flight to Newark departed deep into the third quarter. Back in New York, the families embraced with NBA Store bags swinging in hand.
The champions had returned home with new hardware.
“I loved it,” McCollough said. "I brought my son here, and I'm glad my nieces and nephews got a chance to experience this day. Definitely a nice way to start Christmas."