Robert Kraft-led trip to Israel has profound impact on Hall of Famers

Jerome Bettis attends a football game in Ramat Hasharon, near Tel Aviv, Israel. AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis bleeds Pittsburgh Steelers black and gold, but as he boarded an airplane Tuesday set to return from Israel to the United States, he reflected on spending a week with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and laughed.

"I told my wife [Trameka], he has a new fan," Bettis said. "My phrase was 'I'm a friend of him, not of them.'"

That's how strongly Bettis -- who played several high-stakes games against the Patriots during his lengthy career with the Steelers -- felt about what transpired from June 13-21. Bettis was one of 18 Hall of Famers who joined Kraft on a trip to Israel.

"To have an opportunity for me and my wife to be baptized in the Jordan River, that was amazing. To have an opportunity, as a Christian, to see where Jesus Christ was born, was amazing. To walk in his footsteps. To go to the Church of Holy Sepulchre, those kind of things, things I read about in a Bible but to actually have an opportunity to walk and see it with my own eyes, they were amazing," Bettis said in a phone interview.

Bettis was joined by Pro Football Hall of Famers Lem Barney, Jim Brown, Cris Carter, Dave Casper, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Joe Greene, Willie Lanier, Joe Montana, Andre Reed, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, John Stallworth, Roger Staubach, Andre Tippett, Aeneas Williams and Ron Yary. Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker also made the trip.

This marks the second time in three years that Kraft has led an ambassador-type trip to Israel. Part of the trip's mission involved increasing American football's popularity in the region.

"I learned so much about him," Bettis said. "When you play against a team, and whenever you play you don't know who is going to win, that's a true rivalry. That's what you have with the Patriots.

"To have the opportunity to spend some time with Robert Kraft, it was very enlightening, because I got to see a different side of him, a side that under normal circumstances I would have never seen. I got a chance to talk about everything outside of football. I just got a sense that he's a great man, a great attitude, a great way of life."

Like Bettis, Andre Reed had extensive experience playing against the Patriots during his career with the Buffalo Bills (1985-1999). In those days, the Patriots weren't the consistent powerhouse they are today. Kraft had officially purchased the franchise in 1994.

"Robert Kraft, there's a reason why his teams are successful. There's a reason why they have been either contending or winning Super Bowls every year," Reed said in a telephone interview. "He has a love and a passion for the game and you can see that in his players.

"Everyone in the NFL wants to be like the Patriots, and there's a reason why people want to be like them: Because winning is a culture and it starts from the owner. What he's doing in Israel kind of defines what he's about and what his organization is about."

Reed's first trip to Israel had a profound impact on him.

"You read a lot of things about the Holy Land, about Jerusalem, and all the sites and things Jesus touched, where he did his sermons, where he was born, where he was crucified, where he was resurrected, it's all there. It's a great thing to be a part of. As a believer, you're overwhelmed."

Each day, the Hall of Famers heard from various Israeli spokesmen, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.

"You could hear just really how proud he is of his state and how resilient and tough they are," Reed said. "It really teaches a lesson. It's really nice to see he's so confident about not only his state and his people and [but also] what his region is about and how the region can make other nations better."

Said Bettis, "One thing that was resounding was the resolve of the Jewish people. We had briefings from a different set of people every day. The message that you get -- outside of the things that happened in each person's individual life -- was their love with the state of Israel, their country. But also the understanding that they were a people who were bashed and beaten, and they were able to rise and overcome it. You get that message with every single person you meet."