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Pats owner Kraft builds steady, successful team

Robert Kraft sat in his office as his busy day was winding down. Dressed casually in a blue sweater, he seemed animated about the latest playoff berth for his New England Patriots.

Looks can be deceiving.

"You know what?" the soft-spoken owner who grew up just 20 miles away said. "I'm tired today, but it's good stuff. We've got a lot of good stuff. So I'll just knock on wood here."

He leans forward, taps his desk twice, and wishes for more.

"Hope it keeps going past this weekend," he said with a hint of a smile.

Luck should have little or nothing to do with the outcome of Sunday's divisional playoff game against the New York Jets, just as it hasn't had much impact on his team compiling the NFL's best record since he bought it in 1994. Step by step, Kraft has methodically and boldly built a franchise that once seemed headed to St. Louis or Hartford.

He took big risks and spent loads of money. He is chairman of the NFL's Broadcast Committee and a member of its Labor Committee.

He was listed as the ninth-most influential person in sports last month by Sports Business Journal. Forbes magazine ranked him as the 269th richest American with a net worth of $1.5 billion as of last September.

"I love action," Kraft, who turns 70 on June 5, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I think I'm 28. I love people. I love all kinds of people."

Kraft occasionally strolls through the locker room talking with players. He chats with employees such as those who do laundry and cleaning for the team. He and his wife Myra recently announced a $20 million gift to attract medical personnel to work in community health centers in Massachusetts.

"I love this country," Kraft said Thursday. "I worry when we have unemployment like we have, the social impact of that, and so we try to create a system in medical treatment that would go into the inner city and allow people of all backgrounds to get the same treatment my family could get."

For now, his focus is on football.

The Patriots are in the playoffs for the 12th time in his 17 years as owner. They've been in four of the past nine Super Bowls, winning three. Their 14-2 record this season was the league's best.

At 4:30 p.m. Sunday, their next playoff game will start. Some three hours later, Kraft will either have another home playoff game to watch or the unenviable duty of patting disappointed players on the back.

"I'm always a little uneasy," he said.

Whatever happens, the Patriots should be contenders for a long time. Young players are making major contributions and Tom Brady has a $72 million, four-year contract extension that starts next season.

He'll be 37 by the time it expires and said before the deal was made that he wants to play 10 more seasons.

The contract agreed upon three days before the season opener was "one of the great strategic things we did," Kraft said. "I wonder if Tommy would have had the year he had if we hadn't taken the contract (issue) away and put it to bed. ... I think that was a real big move in giving him peace of mind."

Brady had one of his best seasons, perhaps surpassing his 50 touchdown passes with just eight interceptions in 2007 when the Patriots went 18-0 before losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants 17-14.

He is a favorite to win his second regular-season MVP award after throwing 36 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

"It's a tremendous amount of money," Kraft said, "but he, obviously, is worth it."

Brady had given the owner fair warning soon after the Patriots drafted him in 2000.

"He was this skinny beanpole," Kraft said. "I always tell the story how he came down the steps at the old Foxboro Stadium. I'm going out one night and ... he had a pizza under his arm and he comes up and he says, 'Mr. Kraft, I'm Tom Brady.' I said, 'I know who you are, you're our sixth-round draft choice from Michigan.'

"And he looked me right in the eye and he said, 'and I'm the best decision this organization has ever made.' Verbatim."

One of the best, anyway.

Kraft made a much riskier decision when he hired Bill Belichick as coach against the advice of many.

After 16 years as an NFL assistant, Belichick got his first head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns in 1991. He left after five years with a 36-44 record and a rocky relationship with the media.

He spent the next year as Bill Parcells' assistant head coach with the Patriots. But when Parcells left for the Jets as head coach the next year, Kraft bypassed Belichick and hired Pete Carroll. After three years, Kraft fired Carroll and hired Belichick in 2000, giving up a first-round draft choice to free him from the Jets where he had just been appointed, then stepped down, as Parcells' successor.

"People at the league office, people in this town, sent me tapes of him in Cleveland and said, 'you don't want to hire this guy.' And, remember, he went 5-11 (his first season) and we gave up a number one draft choice," Kraft said. "People thought we were nuts. So I think that probably was one of the best decisions I've made in football."

That's not the only time his sanity was questioned. Myra Kraft wondered about her husband's mental state when he paid $172 million, an NFL record at the time, for a team that was 19-61 the previous five seasons.

"She thought it was nuts," he said. "She was afraid it would affect our charitable giving and I said, 'We will do more for the community if we run this franchise correctly.' "

She also disagreed with his decision to buy season tickets to the Patriots in 1971. Then there was the $350 million, without taxpayer assistance, it cost to build Gillette Stadium, which opened in 2002 with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Would anyone else have taken all those risks — hiring Belichick, paying $55 million more than his investment bankers felt was a fair price for the team, building a stadium with private funds?

"If you look at successful people, they make decisions that other people look at as being weird, crazy, odd, strange," former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "They're not like normal people. They're visionaries. They see things a lot differently. Where you and I may look and say, 'that's the color red,' they say, 'no, that's maroon.' That's what Mr. Kraft has."

That insight turned the Patriots into a widely respected franchise and helped the NFL become a broadcast bonanza.

"All you have to do is look at the Patriots now compared to when Robert acquired the team," commissioner Roger Goodell said. "The franchise was seriously challenged. Now they've won multiple Super Bowls, transformed the stadium experience for Patriots fans, and it's a terrific success story all the way around.

"Robert is also fully engaged in helping to make our league better. He has great business instincts and knowledge and spends a good deal of his time on league issues."

Kraft's wife is the daughter of Jacob Hiatt, a philanthropist and owner of the Rand-Whitney Group, a Worcester-based packaging company where Kraft went to work. Kraft is still that firm's board chairman. He also founded International Forest Products in 1972.

On the wall behind his desk are large black-and-white photos of his four sons. One of them, Jonathan, is president of the Patriots, adding continuity and stability to the franchise.

On top of the desk is a letter from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, sending his regrets that he won't be able to attend Sunday's game.

"He's a pal," Kraft said quietly. "He couldn't change his plans."

Then the owner who calls himself "just a kid from the streets of Brookline" gets up. He walks toward the door of his office in the expensive stadium that houses the team he paid too much for that's led by a head coach no one else wanted.

Risks? Sure.

So far, they've worked.

"I've got the best coach in Belichick, the best quarterback in Brady," Kraft said. "We've just got to keep it together."