Robert Kraft strong in trying times

Few owners in the history of professional sports have a moment like the one the New England Patriots' Robert Kraft experienced Monday afternoon in Washington, D.C.

At a time of deep personal pain, as he was grieving the death of his wife Myra, who passed away on Wednesday, Kraft was singled out as one of the main reasons the 2011 football season was saved. It was a powerful moment that couldn't be scripted.

To hear it was one thing. But this was one you had to see to really feel the impact.

It was the way 295-pound offensive lineman Jeff Saturday, a leader among the players' executive committee, brought his right arm around Kraft and pulled him close, Kraft's head nestling into Saturday's chest to receive the embrace with feeling.

If anyone needed a snapshot to know the NFL's lockout was coming to an end, this was it. Players and owners united in a moment that had a strong New England twist.

Looking understandably tired after an emotional week, Kraft looked up at Saturday and said, "It means a lot."

The picture told us that well before Kraft's voice could be heard.

And with that, Kraft's mark on football powerfully extended beyond the New England region in which he is already revered by many for saving the Patriots franchise from moving to St. Louis and helping bring home three Super Bowl championships.

That alone would have represented a great run for Kraft, one that many in his position could have settled for in terms of leaving a lasting legacy.

But say this about Kraft: He's not one to settle.

While helping establish a culture that has turned the Patriots into one of the league's model franchises, he has annually been heavily involved in NFL business, serving on the league's broadcast, NFL Network, finance, compensation and executive committees.

Kraft's influence has grown steadily since he purchased the team in 1994, to the point he is now considered one of the NFL's most powerful and influential owners. That standing was strengthened Monday, highlighting his ability to build bridges with players. Kraft had said multiple times that the key in labor talks was getting lawyers out of the negotiating room, and his ability to generate trust among players was considered a key reason a deal happened.

Add to that his being emotionally torn between high-stakes negotiations and spending his final months with his wife of 48 years, and he made a sacrifice many can appreciate.

On Monday, Kraft dipped his head when Saturday mentioned Myra Kraft, his emotions building.

"A special thanks to Myra Kraft, who even in her weakest moment allowed Mr. Kraft to come and fight this out," Saturday said, looking toward Kraft to his right. "And without him, this deal does not get done. He is a man who helped us save football and we're so gracious for that; we're gracious for his family and for the opportunity he presented to get this deal done."

NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith added, "We couldn't have done it without you. We took a day off on Friday to remember a great woman and a great family and I'm thankful for what she meant to the city of Boston. I'm especially thankful for what you mean to the game of football."

Earlier, Kraft had apologized to the game's fans for the lockout, showing an understanding of the frustration many endured over the past five months, before promising that the sides had struck an agreement that will allow football to grow over the next decade. He also tossed a zinger to politicians in Washington, saying, "The debt crisis is a lot easier to fix than this deal was."

While that line drew a chuckle, the Saturday/Kraft embrace was the unforgettable moment of the day. Kraft had previously said no one wants to watch billionaires fight millionaires, and he was right.

But even so, this was an ending most could appreciate, one that will be a major part of Kraft's football legacy.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.