Remembering the Patriots' first lady

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There is a forest of family photographs in Robert Kraft's office at Gillette Stadium.

This one, of his late wife, Myra, is a sweet slice of slapstick: She's well into her 50s, a spirited sprite, but wears a New England Patriots cheerleading outfit. And shakes those pompoms for all she's worth. The goofy smile, the arched eyebrows, the zest in her eyes, well, those are some of the things her husband of 48 years adored most.

"I love that picture," he explained in a soft, unsteady voice. "She borrowed [the outfit] for a surprise birthday party -- and it was quite a surprise."

Kraft paused, his eyes misting over, and smiled. He had always believed she would outlive him by 30 years.

"She was a special, special lady," he said.

Myra Hiatt Kraft died in July. She was 68.

The past year has presented the owner of the Patriots a series of soaring peaks and harrowingly deep valleys that most of us would have difficulty imagining. Myra was fighting an unwinnable battle with ovarian cancer, the $9 billion-per-year behemoth that is the National Football League shut down, then dramatically, five days after Myra's death, reopened for business with Kraft playing a critical role. And now, perhaps appropriately, the Patriots will play the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.

"Yeah, it's amazing," Giants owner John Mara said Monday in Indianapolis. "You can't make it up. I'm happy that they made the Super Bowl, happy for the entire family after what they went through. They've had so much success up there, and a lot of it is tied to the way he operates his business."

As Jonathan Kraft, the oldest son of Robert and Myra, will tell you, "Anything my father has achieved in life, was a joint effort with my mother. She had a hand in everything he did."

She still does.

All season long the players have worn Myra's initials, MHK, in tribute on their jerseys and they will carry her memory again in Indianapolis. It is not a coincidence that the patch is just above their hearts.

"We play a game, but this game is really small in the grand scheme of life," said Patriots special-teams captain Matthew Slater. "What she did was really shine a light on what's valuable, what's important. She really cared about her fellow human beings. She was so selfless in the way she carried herself. She had a great heart."

A ferocious force for good

He grew up in Brookline, on the southwest edge of Boston. She was from Worcester. She was 19 when she proposed on their first date. They were married a year later in June 1963, just after he graduated from Columbia University. She was the daughter of Jacob and Frances Hiatt, noted philanthropists. He started out working for her father and later founded one of the world's most successful paper and packaging companies.

Football, in those days, was not one of their shared passions. Robert had Patriots season tickets in Section 217 at old Schaefer Stadium, but Myra never went to the games. Those Sundays when the Patriots played at home were her quiet time; she'd curl up on the couch and do The New York Times crossword puzzle. Or read one of the three or four books she averaged each week.

In 1994, Robert bought the Patriots -- a team that had gone 19-61 the previous five years -- for $172 million. Myra was worried the demands of an NFL team might force them to cut back on their already impressive largesse. As it turned out, she needn't have stressed. The Patriots became a powerful platform for her outrageous good works.

Five years ago, Fortune Magazine estimated the family's worth at $1.3 billion. In the preceding four years alone, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Krafts gave more than $100 million to charity.

It's easy, she freely acknowledged, to write a check. It's another thing to put in the time. She was the first female president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, from 1995 to 2002. She was also the president of the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation and served on numerous boards. She was an irresistible force for New England arts and education, women's and U.S.-Israel issues, quality health care and children. After she got sick, she helped create the NFL's "Kick Cancer" campaign in 2010.

At the same time, she was a powerful influence on the Patriots' organization. She didn't often get involved with roster decisions, but in 1996, after the Patriots drafted Nebraska defensive tackle Christian Peter, Myra -- after learning of his history of violence against women -- asked Robert to reconsider. Demanded, actually. Peter was released, the first time in NFL history a drafted player was waived before training camp.

"She was a warrior, a tough young lady," said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. "One of the biggest hearts you can imagine. The things she did for people, it went beyond camera and it wasn't all about the media. She just did a lot for people.

"She wanted to be out in the community. With people that make a difference, going to the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, going to these shelters, all the type of places that need help. She was right in the middle of it. She branded us for life."

Myra made it a point to get to know the players. She worked with the wives, urging them to use their time and resources to give back to those less fortunate.

"The legacy that she always wanted to leave behind was that these guys are great on the field but look at what they've done to help this community," said left tackle Matt Light. "It's been an awesome thing to be a part of as a player."

Robert Kraft remains his wife's greatest champion.

"She cared about people -- all people," he explained. "And doing random acts of kindness. I don't think there's enough of that in this world. She was the No. 1 volunteer. That's what makes this country great. She personified it."

Added son Jonathan, "Once she raised the four of us, she focused her attention on improving the lives of others. Given the amount of mail we've gotten from people we didn't even know about, she touched the lives of so many people. So many people, 365 days a year, not just the men in our locker room."

Finding the finish line

Like a young, ambitious senator, Robert Kraft worked his way up through one of the most exclusive clubs in existence. His team won three Super Bowls in four years, played in a sparkling state-of-the-art stadium he built without public funding, and he enjoyed an increasing role in league matters. His specialty was television -- and those weighty negotiations that make the NFL one of the richest sports leagues in the world.

But when the lockout arrived last March, Myra was already sadly wasted and weary. Robert spent most of his time by her bedside in the final months, at home in Brookline and at the hospital, but she knew he had a greater purpose. Myra insisted he attend the important negotiating sessions between the owners and the players. He couldn't bear to be away from her; he'd take his private jet and fly back that same night.

"No," said John Mara, the Giants' owner, "I can't imagine having to go through that gut-wrenching time. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for him. A lot of the time, I remember, it was therapeutic for him to be able to do that.

"But let me say this: I don't think we would have gotten to the finish line without him."

Kraft was dealing with two different groups: the NFL Players Association and a faction of hard-line owners, who wanted complete capitulation from the players in a toughly negotiated collective bargaining agreement. Kraft worked hard to get to know DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA's executive director. On several occasions, he offered to fly him to negotiations on his jet.

It was Kraft who pushed to discuss some of the more complicated issues in small groups that didn't include the lawyers. He played a key role in urging the owners to make concessions at critical times. He repeatedly stressed the need to leave emotions at the door and take the long view.

"Bad deals wind up imploding over time," Mara said. "He said, 'We need a long-term deal that's good for both sides.' He kept drilling that message, over and over again. I believe the players bought into that. There was a level of trust on behalf of the players when he said, 'We're not going to give you a bad deal.'"

Back on July 20, Myra finally lost her 18-month fight. One day later, the owners announced a settlement. Four days after that, in a joint news conference in Washington, D.C., the players accepted the deal.

Colts center Jeff Saturday, one of the leading players involved in negotiations, cited Myra Kraft.

"Who," Saturday said, "even in her weakest moment, allowed Mr. Kraft to come and fight this out. Without him, this deal does not get done."

After 132 days of infighting, legal maneuvering and some charged rhetoric, Saturday wrapped an arm around Kraft, who put his head on his shoulder. It endures as the most poignant image of the lockout and signaled that the healing had already begun.

"I was standing right behind them," Mara said. "It was nice of Jeff to do that and I know Robert appreciated it. That was a very, very difficult period for him. I remember in the days after the funeral talking to him when he was having a tough time getting through a few sentences."

Kraft and Mara were widely recognized as the two owners most instrumental in carving out a labor peace. Some would say that six months later it is poetic justice their teams are the last two playing.

A higher power?

The Patriots players and coaches, keen to pay tribute to Myra toward the end of the season, turned to Light. He commissioned a painting by local artist Brian Fox, who had done some work for his foundation. It depicts a huddle of Patriots reaching skyward toward the initials MHK and a Patriots logo.

Light presented the painting to Kraft on Christmas Eve after the Patriots beat the Dolphins and it was later moved to his office. The following week, with the Patriots trailing the Buffalo Bills 21-0 in the final regular-season game, Kraft -- a deeply spiritual man -- had an idea. He directed his chief of staff, Al Labelle, to move the painting into the Patriots' locker room, where it was placed on an easel.

"In the middle of the locker room," Jonathan Kraft said, "so both the offense and defense could see it. Nobody said anything. Nobody had to. It was just there."

A sweet, sentimental gesture? Maybe it was something more. The Patriots scored 49 unanswered points and haven't lost since. The painting is with the team in Indianapolis and will be prominently displayed in their locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium when they meet the Giants.

In the AFC Championship Game, BenJarvus Green-Ellis broke a 3-all tie in the second quarter with a 7-yard run. He dropped the ball in the end zone, touched his MHK patch, then his face mask as if to give the woman the players called "Mama" a kiss, then pointed skyward.

"It was me thinking about the whole team and how we feel about Mr. Kraft and his family and how we think about his wife," Green-Ellis said last week. "Just being there for him, just showing him we love him."

When Billy Cundiff's 32-yard field goal attempt skittered wide left -- a kick that should have forced overtime -- the Patriots were 23-20 winners over the Baltimore Ravens. The players will tell you, to a man, that Myra Kraft was responsible, that their little cheerleader is still cheering.

"I just hope she can blow one of mine in if it starts going the other way in Indy," said Patriots place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who had three field goals against Baltimore. "Crazy things happen in sports, and if it gives people a reason to believe, then that is cool."

When the clock ran out, Kraft hugged longtime Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi in his suite. Later, standing on a podium at midfield and clutching the Lamar Hunt Trophy with his left hand, Kraft touched his MHK lapel pin, kissed his finger and pointed to the sky with his right. This was a better alternative, he would explain, than breaking down in front of millions watching at home.

"The emotion of losing my mother, his best friend, the magnitude of that, that loss dwarfs something like being in the Super Bowl," Jonathan Kraft said. "The professional accomplishment is meaningful in day-to-day life, but in life, L-I-F-E, nothing approaches that loss. He gets through all this because he's somebody that's mentally tough, as mentally tough as anybody I know."

Four days later, sitting in the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium for a television interview -- about 100 yards from where he paid that tribute to Myra -- Kraft did it again.

"I think we had an angel smiling down on us that day," he said. "I think the spirit of my sweetheart pervades our locker room and our team this year. I really do."

In the 18 seasons he has owned the franchise, the Patriots are 212-104. That's more victories in that span than any other team.

"This terrible cancer came," Kraft said, his voice trailing off. "So ... don't take your loved ones for granted. Make sure they know you love them. She was quiet, petite of stature, but had the heart of a lion. Or lioness, I guess I should say."

And then, finally, Robert Kraft laughed.

"She was a very strong lady," he said. "I was lucky to have her by my side."

Greg Garber covers the NFL for ESPN.com.