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Patriots' cry: Win it for Myra!

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst, and Michael Zuckerman, Special to CNN
updated 11:59 AM EST, Fri February 3, 2012
Robert Kraft and his wife Myra wave to the crowd during warmups before a 1995 Patriots game.
Robert Kraft and his wife Myra wave to the crowd during warmups before a 1995 Patriots game.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen, Michael Zuckerman: New England Patriots have special determination to win
  • Patriots dedicate their efforts in memory of Myra Kraft, wife of team owner Robert Kraft
  • Authors: Myra was beloved for her dedication to charity

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @David_Gergen. Michael Zuckerman is his research assistant.

Boston (CNN) -- Across the country, fans of the New England Patriots are wondering whether Tom Brady will return to top form this Sunday, whether Gronk's ankle will hold up, and whether cornerback Julian Edelman can shut down the Giants' dangerous receivers. But here in Beantown, folks ask still another question: Will the Pats go out and win this one for Myra?

The passing of an owner's wife is rarely a source of inspiration in professional sports, but the Patriots have long thought that Myra Kraft was different. That's why they have woven an insignia bearing her initials into their jerseys: She has been their talisman this season and will be for the season's finale.

A little bit of background helps to explain. Myra's husband, Bob Kraft, bought the Patriots in 1994 when it was a broken-down, struggling franchise. Since then, he has built it into one of the pre-eminent franchises in professional sports, with Myra as a close, constant partner.

The Patriots racked up victories on the shoulders of a topflight quarterback in Brady, an ingenious coach in Bill Belichick -- but they won the respect of others around the league in large part thanks to Bob's forthright leadership and Myra's heart of gold.

In fact, as Bob once recalled to The Associated Press, Myra was the one who balked when he was planning to buy the Patriots for a then-record $172 million: "She was afraid it would affect our charitable giving."

Bob assured her, "We will do more for the community if we run this franchise correctly" -- and he was right. Her contributions to humanity range from monumental gestures to everyday acts of kindness.

She managed the Robert and Myra Kraft Family Foundation and the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation, which contributed millions of dollars to charities across the United States and in Israel, focusing on everything from education to poverty to cancer research. She headed the board of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley and was the first woman to chair the Boys & Girls Club of Boston. Frequently, she opened their home to Israelis studying at Harvard on Wexner fellowships.

She and her husband also loved their large, boisterous family. A couple of years ago, the Krafts invited one of us (David along with wife Anne) to join them for a seder dinner during Passover. The room was crowded with almost three dozen children, grandchildren and friends. As the only Christians there, we were entranced as Bob asked every grandchild to read and Myra made each of us feel absolutely special.

Although married to a man who Forbes lists with a net worth of $1.7 billion, Myra always made time to serve food in soup kitchens, to pack bags full of donated clothes, to bond with anyone around her. And she often persuaded Patriot players to serve alongside her. Former Pats running back Curtis Martin still remembers how much he enjoyed her chicken noodle soup. "I used to give Myra Kraft a kiss before every game," 325-pound defensive tackle Vince Wilfork recalled to The Boston Globe.

She mattered to the players so much that, following her death at age 68 in July, the whole team commissioned a painting in her memory and presented it to Bob in an emotional locker room ceremony celebrating a late-season victory. Her memory also made the famously ice-cold Belichick choke up in a radio interview. And she struck a deep chord with fans, too. One of the biggest ovations in the AFC Championship came when someone held up 3-foot-high cutouts of her initials for all of Gillette Stadium to see.

She rarely interceded in football operations, but fans happily recall how she nixed the drafting of a Nebraska linebacker with a criminal history of abusing women. With characteristic pluck and fearlessness, she advised Bob to dig deeper, and that was that -- the Patriots waived their rights to the player almost immediately after the draft, a previously unheard-of move.

And while she was already beset this past summer by cancer. her deep connection with her husband -- and the grief so widely shared upon her passing -- is credited by many around the league with helping end the lockout that threatened this NFL season itself. Who will forget the timeless photo of the enormous Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday embracing Bob Kraft just days after Myra's death?

Myra Kraft was not a large woman. But as Dr. Gary Gottlieb, president of Partners HealthCare (another nonprofit she supported vigorously), told the Globe, "As diminutive as her physical size was, it was in inverse proportion to the size of her heart and soul."

So that will be the legacy on the minds of the New England Patriots -- and the cheering faithful -- as the team suits up this Sunday. It's a legacy that highlights the very best in football and brings out the very best in players. Steve Buckley of The Boston Herald notes that at halftime in the last game of the regular season, with the Pats down 21-0 to the Bills, Bob asked an assistant to bring that painting of Myra down from his office and place it in their locker room. The team roared back, scoring 49 unanswered points.

"Myra Kraft meant more to this than probably any of us that are playing this game," Wilfork told the Globe. "She's the foundation. Hopefully we can get it done for her."

The fans here in New England are confident their team can. With a foundation that strong, they're eager to see the Patriots go out and win one for Myra -- and for the timeless values she championed.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

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