- Monday will mark a quarter-century since Robert Kraft bought the Patriots, turning around a franchise’s fortunes and forever changing NFL history.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Before Robert Kraft became a billionaire, made bespoke suits paired with Air Force 1’s a signature look and carved a Hall of Fame-worthy résumé, he was simply another paper packaging employee who walked into his Newton home one day holding a leather briefcase, the kind with a combination lock on each side. Inside, he showed his eldest son Jonathan, were Patriots season tickets.
This was in 1971. That night Kraft fought with his wife, Myra, like Jonathan had never heard before. She did not believe the family could afford something so frivolous, and besides their four sons had Sunday school in the mornings. Kraft assured his wife they would still go. Then he’d slip notes under his boys’ pillows, excusing them from class, and tell Myra he was going out to buy sandwiches. They’d drive together to rickety Schaefer Stadium, pushing eight or nine family members through the turnstiles when they only had six tickets.
Kraft was simply a fan back then, before Tom Brady ever threw a football or Bill Belichick donned a sleeveless hoodie. Before the Patriots had their famous Way. Before the team that never won became the team that seems to at least play for the conference championship every season.
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Next Monday, Jan. 21, will mark the 25th anniversary of Kraft’s purchase of the team in 1994. It’s easy to forget how different everything was then. “My objective in buying the Patriots is to help bring a championship to New England,” Kraft said on the day he made the purchase. Back then such lofty expectations seemed farfetched. When the ’94 team made the playoffs, it marked the franchise’s first appearance in eight seasons. New England had only hosted one postseason game in its entire history. The Patriots were more like the Lions than, well, the dynasty we know now as the New England freaking Patriots.
Now, with Kraft and company set to play in their eighth straight AFC Championship Game, on Sunday night in Kansas City, it’s worth briefly revisiting the earliest days of Kraft’s tenure. The franchise he took over has averaged more than 12 wins a season in those 25 years. But it wasn’t always that way, even if a case full of trophies tends to overshadow what Kraft inherited at the start.
For decades Kraft attended games as a fan, living and dying a little with each loss, of which then there were many. Eventually he muscled his way into ownership— first banking a fortune as a paper magnate, then buying the parking lot and the surrounding land next to the Patriots’ stadium, then leveraging the lot to buy the stadium, then using the power culled from owning both to buy the team.
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Robert and Jonathan completed the sale in a conference room in St. Louis in 1994, before hustling to the airport. They had to fly home to tell Myra that they’d spent $172 million, or more than anyone had paid for a team in NFL history, before the news broke. Kraft, his son says, had to bribe airline officials to get them on the next flight back to Boston, and they had to slide some extra cash to their fellow passengers to obtain two seats next to each other. When they got home, the phone rang. It was a lawyer offering Kraft three times the money that he had paid six years earlier for the stadium lease; they wanted to move the team out of Massachusetts. Kraft thought back to the heartbreak he felt as a kid when the Boston Braves were uprooted to Milwaukee, and he refused. Myra was livid.
“You don’t get a second chance at this,” Kraft responded. Eventually Myra relented, and a dynasty was born.
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Time tends to forget all of that history, everything it took to get to this point. The stadium he financed without any public money (after a brief flirtation with Hartford), the sellouts that followed years of blackouts, the fans spoiled by success. The Patriots were valued in 2018 at $3.8 billion. Time overlooks that nearly 20 seasons ago, Kraft had fired his second coach in four seasons and the Patriots seemed to be just like any other team, with upheaval their only constant. That offseason the owner called Lawyer Milloy, a team captain, into his downtown office. Kraft wanted to ask the safety about the purported defensive genius who had flamed out in Cleveland—should he hire him? “He’s the guy,” Milloy responded. He was referring to Bill Belichick.
At Kraft’s estate near Boston, he celebrated each of the five Super Bowl titles his team won with a party on the sprawling lawn, under white tents. He would have thrown another soiree last year, had the Eagles not upended his Patriots, 41-33, in Super Bowl LII last February. Kraft soldiered through the after party that night in Minnesota—“a downer” he says—and was consoled by celebrity friends like Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez. Imagine that back in 1971. Before he owned the team. Before all the steps he took to buy the team. Before Brady, before Belichick. That he seized on his first chance at ownership changed NFL history, made the Patriots more like the league’s old money franchises, a model for consistency and success.
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