Crossing party lines: Kraft's burden met with respect by all

WASHINGTON -- On Monday, America got football back with proclamations coming from downtown in the nation's capital.

But the story of how we got there actually started at a hotel in a quiet suburb of Chicago.

Colts center Jeff Saturday (right) honors Patriots owner Robert Kraft for his sacrifice and devotion in working toward a labor deal.
Colts center Jeff Saturday (right) honors Patriots owner Robert Kraft for his sacrifice and devotion in working toward a labor deal. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

It was there, on May 31, that NFL owners and players agreed to hold their first of eight weeks of clandestine meetings in an effort to resolve their differences and put the game back on the field. And it was there that NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith helped paved the way to resolution.

At the hotel, Smith reached out to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, asking for a one-on-one meeting the night before full-scale talks were to begin so each man could feel out the position of the other party. Kraft said he couldn't negotiate in exactly that matter, but he said, "You get a player, and I'll get the commissioner, and we'll talk."

The discussion, which went into the night, paved the way for two productive sets of talks between owners and players to follow June 1 and 2, leading into the injunction appeal hearing with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on June 3. And ultimately those days served as a launching pad for the progress to come over the next seven weeks, culminating in Monday's settlement agreement.

"The big shift in this entire deal was when players and owners began to negotiate just in a room by ourselves," Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, an NFLPA executive committee member, said Monday on NFL Network. "And you really began to see men's personalities and what they believe in stand up and come out. Robert Kraft was instrumental in getting this deal done."

After the deal was done, Kraft said: "DeMaurice Smith has come in and he's managing 1,900 players, a bunch of different professionals. It's a new CBA with tricky language, and he was able to keep all those things going, and he was able to come up with an agreement that he and (NFL Commissioner) Roger (Goodell) did together with their two teams."

The two men built so much trust that by the end, Kraft invited Smith to fly back to negotiations with him aboard his private jet, on two July weekends that the NFLPA chief spent in Boston.

Through it all, Kraft not only had the lockout looming over his head, but the weight of a wife struggling with a terminal illness to deal with as well. Kraft never made his wife's battle with cancer a public matter, instead choosing to keep it a private one. But those with whom Kraft was working -- and negotiating -- on a regular basis knew of the Patriots owner's heavy burden.

"His wife, Myra, who was sick the entire time, him having to balance and juggle his time going back and forth, and she would push him to come to the meetings," Saturday said. "I have a ton of respect for what she did, even in her weakest moment and for what he did and the sacrafice he made -- I really do have a lot of respect for that situation and that family and how they handle their business. I think each and every one of us understood what he was going through, and I can't imagine it. I wouldn't wish that on anybody."

Myra Kraft lost her long battle with cancer Wednesday, one day before the owners voted to ratify a proposed labor deal.

And while the owners and players continued to work around the clock to finalize the details of an agreement, Smith took one more trip to Boston -- last Friday to attend Myra Kraft's funeral.

And after the deal was done three days later, Smith followed Saturday's emotional words about Kraft with a tribute of his own.

"We couldn't have done it without you," Smith said of Kraft. "We took a day off on Friday to remember a great woman and her great family. 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."