Published January 22, 2012
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was standing in the locker room, the AFC championship trophy cradled in his left arm, when his cellphone rang.
It was Elton John, calling to congratulate him on his sixth trip to the Super Bowl in the 18 years he has owned the team.
"I love you, man," Kraft told the singer as the thumping of some quite different music blasted from receiver Deion Branch's locker.
"He always would call and he'd speak to my wife first," Kraft said. "Usually he calls after the Super Bowl. Whether he's in Dubai or wherever he is, he watches our game. He's a huge Patriots fan."
Sir Elton will have a chance to watch New England again this year. The Patriots earned a chance to play for their fourth NFL title with a 23-20 victory Sunday over Baltimore that was sealed when Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds remaining.
New England will play the winner of the NFC championship game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis.
For Kraft, the victory extends a trying year in which he took a lead role in the bargaining to end the NFL lockout even as his wife of 48 years was dying of cancer. Myra Hiatt Kraft, 68, died July 20, five days before the two sides shook hands on a collective bargaining agreement.
At the news conference to announce the new deal, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday hugged Kraft and credited him for helping to "save football."
On Sunday, Kraft was rewarded for his work in averting a lost season.
"To win the game in front of your own fans ... wow," Kraft said. "It might not happen again in my lifetime."
The Patriots wore "MHK" patches on their uniforms, and on Sunday a large, framed poster was placed on chairs in the middle of the locker room reminding everyone that the season was dedicated to Myra Kraft. When BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored on a 7-yard run to give the Patriots a 10-3 lead early in the second half, he tapped the patch to acknowledge the late philanthropist and franchise matriarch.
After the game, Robert Kraft made a similar gesture, tapping the "MHK" pin on his lapel, kissing his fingertips and then pointing to the sky. And when asked about the team's good fortune to have an opposing kicker miss a short field goal attempt at the end of the game, he said, "There are forces at work beyond anything we can understand."
"I believe in spirituality, so I believe she's smiling and watching everything," Kraft said.
The Patriots were a sad sack franchise before Kraft bought the team in 1994, with a dilapidated stadium, a 4-6 playoff record and no Super Bowl championships. Since then, they're 18-9 in the postseason with three titles; in the 12 years since hiring Bill Belichick as coach and drafting Tom Brady in 2000, the Patriots have won at least 10 games 10 times — including a 16-0 regular season in 2007.
But the Patriots lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl that year, and they hadn't won a playoff game since. That mini-slump ended last week when they beat the Denver Broncos 45-10.
On Sunday, when Kraft was handed the Lamar Hunt Trophy that goes to the AFC champions, he was surprised to see that it had been redesigned and didn't match the franchise's six others.
"I'm a traditionalist. I like the old trophy better," Kraft said. "I was married to the same woman for 48 years, so I guess I don't like change."