Myra Kraft: The heart of the Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Each story has a different twist, but ultimately ends in the same place when it comes to Myra Kraft.

A 20-something-year-old player arrives in New England for the first time, taking the first steps in life as an NFL player, and it seems so far away from home. That is, until he meets Myra, the wife of Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

"She really, truly was a mother figure to all of us," said former quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who played for the team from 1993-2001. "When we went and had dinner with them at their home, I sat down in the kitchen like I'd do it at my own mother's house, and we had a great meal and great conversation. Just wonderful times."

While Myra Kraft often opened her home to Patriots players, sometimes the meetings came in other, unexpected places.

"I remember sitting in the training room with her one day; we were both getting treatment, and she invited [wife] Kirsten and I to Israel with her and Mr. Kraft," recalled tight end Benjamin Watson, a Patriot from 2004-2009.

"I thought she was kidding, but that's the kind of person she was: so gracious, generous and hospitable."

Their 2008 trip to Israel, which featured a large group that included former Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour and his wife, created unforgettable memories about Myra.

"I specifically remember how comfortable she made us feel. We did not know most of the people on the trip but she went out of her way to introduce us to everyone, like we were her kids, as well as educating us on the many places we visited," Watson said. "I also didn't realize what a sense of humor she had. She and our tour guide had us rolling."

Long snapper Mike Bartrum, who played for the team from 1996-99, remembers how warmly he was received by Myra. One example came when everyone on the team, including the players' wives and children, were invited to the family's Cape Cod home.

"There was face painting at the house and then you could go out on the boats fishing. It was just a great time. She came out on the boats with us," Bartrum recalled. "For an owner's wife to do that, there was something special about her. She was like our mother away from home, soft spoken, just the epitome of a good woman."

So when the question is asked, "What did Myra Kraft mean to the Patriots?" the stories of countless former players speak volumes. Petite in size, she might not have been front and center on a regular basis, but her presence was always felt.

With Kraft losing her courageous battle with cancer on Wednesday at the age of 68, the Patriots organization will never be the same.

"Myra Kraft was a beautiful human being inside and out, very genuine, passionate and giving to so many people and to so many causes," said cornerback Ty Law, who was with the team from 1995-2004. "My fondest memories of Mrs. Kraft are how she always made you feel at ease. She was so humble and nurturing on every encounter, she made us all feel like an extension of her family. We were like her sons."

While players viewed her in that light, coaches also felt a strong connection.

"As much support as her quiet but unmistakable presence provided us in the competitive arena and as much as I personally will miss her warm embraces before and after each game, Myra shined brightest in a much broader arena," said coach Bill Belichick, who has been with the Patriots for 12 of the Kraft family's 17 seasons as owners.

"In the humanitarian arena, her generosity through philanthropy was admired and appreciated by all. She made a permanent impression on hundreds of coaches, players, staff and our families as a model of grace, strength and giving. Myra's vision and example will impact and remain very much with our team forever."

Her philanthropic reach extended well beyond New England, to small towns in northern Russia, Israel, South America and beyond. Annual trips to Israel brought her great joy, such as the time in 2005 when she unexpectedly met a few Massachusetts-based Patriots fans at the Western Wall with Robert Kraft, and they all said prayers for linebacker Tedy Bruschi in his recovery from a stroke.

Most of her work came in greater Boston, and in more than 40 years, she served on and chaired boards and committees for many of the city's major nonprofit organizations. The one position of which she was most proud was becoming the first woman to serve as chair of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston in its 110-year history.

When it came to football, Myra was a quick study. She didn't know much about the game when the Krafts purchased the team in 1994, but later came to appreciate its strategy and intricacies.

One of her first encounters with a player came at training camp in Smithfield, R.I., when she approached receiver Troy Brown while he was feeding fish in a pond. The image of a reflective Brown didn't fit the stereotype of a big, tough, aggressive football player. They hit it off.

"I remember fondly the first time I met her at my second training camp. She stopped by to say a few kind words of encouragement and a special relationship grew from there," Brown recalled. "She may have been small in stature but she had the biggest heart. We are all better people for having known her."

The popularity and reach of the Patriots created new avenues for Myra to improve the lives of others. Every Patriots player has a clause in his contract that says he'll take part in 10 charitable events per year, and the Patriots Charitable Foundation seemed to grow each year, helping more in need as times became more challenging.

"Myra Kraft was the matriarch of the Patriots organization and the driving force behind all of our charitable initiatives," said Andre Tippett, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and team's executive director of community affairs. "Upon completion of any project, her first question was always, 'How can we do more?' Her impact locally and globally was immeasurable. The philanthropic community has lost one of its brightest stars."

Myra and Robert Kraft contributed more than $100 million to the organizations and causes most important to them, with a primary focus on children and educational opportunities.

Like a quarterback and star receiver, their chemistry was special.

One night in 2008, the Krafts invited a group of reporters to dinner while the team was on the West Coast and shared stories of how they met.

Myra, who was born in Worcester, Mass., was a student at Brandeis University at the time and was dining with friends when Robert arrived with a few of his pals. Robert couldn't take his eyes off Myra, asked a friend to find out her name, then winked at her on the way out the door.

He later called the Brandeis switchboard in an attempt to contact Myra, but after having little luck, he showed persistence in arriving on campus to knock on her door. Myra broke other plans to spend time with him, and soon enough, they were engaged.

June marked their 48th wedding anniversary, and when they were together in public, they often appeared as happy as newlyweds, usually holding hands. Robert regularly called Myra his "sweetheart," a connection that was evident to players.

"Mr. Kraft and I spoke a lot over the years about 'Momma,' and I hurt for him as I know the love he has for her," said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who has been with the franchise since 2004. "I will miss her giving me a hug and kiss before every game, but in my heart she will be there. Myra was a wonderful woman. My wife and I cared about her deeply. It goes beyond football. It goes to what matters in life, being able to build relationships and make a difference."

Some players viewed Myra's presence as the foundation for the Patriots being considered to foster a family environment.

"I will always remember her for going above and beyond to know the players and their wives. She was the biggest fan in and outside the building," said defensive lineman Ty Warren, a Patriot since 2003. "I see her in my mind right now, standing up in the Kraft box cheering harder and louder than anyone else in that box."

From the box on game day to opening the doors of her family's home and even the training room, Myra Kraft represented the good side of the football business. In a cutthroat environment, she was, in many ways, the Patriots' heart.

Perhaps no one summed up her impact better than Bledsoe, the star quarterback who helped revive the franchise after being selected with the No. 1 overall draft choice in 1993.

"The superlatives that go with Myra Kraft are many," he said. "To me, what I noticed through her charitable endeavors and just her attitude toward life, is that she inspired people around her to be better people."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.