By JIM LITKE, Associated Press
The NFL season began on time largely because of Robert Kraft and John Mara. So there's no more fitting way to end it than the two of them facing off for the game's biggest prize.
The owners of the New England Patriots and New York Giants were instrumental in ending a long labor war that threatened to cancel what turned out to be, by nearly every measure, the NFL's most successful season. Both men have also held the Super Bowl trophy aloft; Kraft three times and Mara once, in 2007, at the expense of his fellow owner. But the similarities between the two pretty much begin and end there.
When Kraft begins a story, it's liable to end up anywhere. When Mara does, he gets straight to the point.
Almost two decades after buying the Patriots and transforming them into one of the most successful franchises in any sport, many of the things about the life of an owner — especially the celebrity — still seem fresh to the 70-year-old Kraft. So when a reporter from London asks about the growing popularity of his team overseas, Kraft notes that America's original "patriots" were transplanted Englishmen, offers a few suggestions how to widen the fan base over there and then ends with this little gem: "And one of my favorite friends, Sir Elton John, is very excited about us being back in the Super Bowl."
For Mara, 57, a man of many fewer words, the job seems second nature. Small wonder. He was groomed for the role since birth and inherited it when his father, Wellington, died in 2005. The family's roots stretch back to the founding of the franchise in 1925, when his grandfather, Tim, a New York bookmaker, plunked down somewhere between $500 and $2,500 and gambled on the viability of the then-5-year-old NFL.
"I'm not necessarily happy to be playing Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, I'll tell you that," Mara said. "But yeah, I'm very happy for Bob. He put his heart and soul into those negotiations during a very difficult time. The success they've had is well-deserved."
A "difficult time" doesn't tell the half of it. Agreement on a new 10-year labor deal came barely a week after Kraft buried his wife of 48 years, Myra, after a battle with cancer. For much of that time, Kraft shuttled back and forth between her hospital bed and the bargaining table, largely because, like Mara, he was one of the few owners the players felt they could trust.
"They saved me," Kraft said, gesturing back over his shoulder at the Patriots players on every side of him. "I never understood what the word heartbroken meant. It's hard for anyone to relate to it. My wife was 19 and I was 20 when she proposed to me. We had five kids right away. Then they left and we became best pals for 25 years. She was 98 pounds, read four books a week and was healthy.
"I thought she would outlive me for 30 years. "This horrible cancer came and it's wrecked my life. Having this team," he said finally, "has been a savior for me."
The close relationship between the short, silver-haired, always-nattily attired owner and his XXL-sized players makes for some interesting scenes. After games, Kraft takes a tour of the locker room, a broad smile creasing his features and hand extended in congratulations. But he rarely gets from one end to the other without disappearing in one massive bear hug or another from a few of the veterans.
"They're pretty sweaty," Kraft laughed, "and if you've seen pictures, my feet usually aren't touching the ground."
"That's for sure," chuckled Vince Wilfork, a massive nose tackle who's one of the longest-serving Patriots. "He still has his kids, but we're probably his second family. We see a lot more of him since Mrs. Kraft passed on, and you can see how hard he's hurting. So we have some fun, do things to try and take his mind off of that.
"And Sunday," he added, "we've got the chance to do a little more."
Mara was around football teams from the time he was just a lad. The family's internship policy practically required it: Begin as a ballboy, get out to every corner of the organization and learn every phase of the operation from ticket sales to salary-cap. Then, and only after reaching the top, does the reigning Mara have the luxury of getting back down to the field.