Cradling the AFC championship trophy in the crook of his left elbow, and with his right arm draped over the shoulder of his granddaughter, New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft stood in the center of the team's locker room following the win over Baltimore that sent the franchise to a sixth Super Bowl appearance under his stewardship, and greeted the legion of well-wishers.
Surrounded by reporters -- most offering congratulations on another conference crown and pending Super Bowl XLVI berth, and a few who had not seen Kraft in a while extending belated condolences on the death of his beloved wife, Myra, six months ago -- the New England owner was in his element. The scene was vintage Kraft, who doesn't so much preside as he does hold court over an expanded town hall caucus. And for a man who lost his best friend of 48 years last July, it was fraught with welcomed exhilaration.
The same feeling of unabashed exuberance resonated through the locker room.
"It's really as much about him as anyone else," gushed tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who punctuated his second-quarter touchdown blast by touching the index finger of his right hand to his lips, then his heart, and then pointed to the heavens, an obvious tribute to the late Myra Kraft, that was unwittingly mimicked hours later by the Pats owner when he accepted the Lamar Hunt Trophy. "He holds it all together. The man definitely is one of a kind."
Make no mistake, the affable Kraft is a keeper, a man whose ownership of the Pats and clever utilization of three Vince Lombardi trophies provide a platform for him to expand his business opportunities, and certainly his gravitas within league circles, but who remains approachable and magnanimous. But the "one of a kind" rhetoric could be blunted a bit this week by New York Giants president CEO John Mara, particularly if the Giants best the Patriots again on Sunday night, for the second time in four years.
No disrespect toward Kraft, an acute entrepreneur whose philanthropy and record with the Patriots occasionally overshadow his business acumen, and whose public image easily eclipses his private success and reported $1.7 billion fortune, but the man nipping at his heels might be Mara. Mara is a man on the rise, both in terms of Super Bowl victories -- a win on Sunday night would leave the Giants owner just one behind Kraft in terms of the Tiffany-created championship hardware -- but also as regards his profile among the league's most noted fraternity members.
"He pretty much (epitomizes) the term "quiet leadership' I guess," said New York left tackle David Diehl. "He wants to win just as badly as the next guy. I'm sure his stomach is churning like every other owner, but he doesn't show it much."
Once fairly anonymous in the NFL's big-picture universe, reticent and reserved almost by design, Mara has positioned himself now as a power broker of sorts.
"No question, Kraft is more the 'schmoozer' of the two, the guy who probably feels more comfortable in public, seeks out the limelight a little more," one owner, who attended several of the meetings which led to the collective bargaining agreement last summer, told The Sports Xchange. "But don't underestimate (Mara). He might be a little quieter, but his (sway) is growing. He's got tremendous respect among the (owners) in the (meeting) room."
The Super Bowl XLVI battle, more a revival than a rematch, is hardly about the two owners, of course. But the contrasting styles of Kraft, 70, and the 57-year-old Mara, and the disparate paths traveled by each of the men on the journey to Indianapolis and their respective, critical positions in the league, can be fairly compelling stuff in the grand scheme of subplots preceding the game.
Each will garner his requisite share of attention.
Mara is, of course, heir to a football legacy. His surname is all but synonymous with the league, certainly the Giants' franchise, with his grandfather, Tim having founded the club, and his father, Wellington, having presided over its growth. Both men are inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Mara's uncle, Jack, was an important figure, too, in helping Wellington Mara operate the team.
Kraft purchased the Patriots in 1994, the franchise's fourth owner, after founder Billy Sullivan, and the ill-fated and frequently ham-handed tenures of Victor Kiam and James Orthwein. In that sense, and compared to Mara and his estimable family tree, Kraft is a veritable Johnny-come-lately to the league.
That doesn't, however, peg Kraft or son/team president Jonathan, as carpetbaggers by any means.
Said former New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe, an honorary Pats captain for the AFC championship game, and a man who has remained in close contact with Bob Kraft: "From the (outset), he pretty much mandated excellence in all facets of the operation. He didn't make any secret of the fact he wanted to win Super Bowls, and that was the goal. But he always talked about the strength of the league, too, and how that was (critical) to him."
Essentially, Kraft has supplanted Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, who abdicated his position in part by becoming ambassador to Ireland for the Obama Administration, as a go-to guy and sounding board for Commissioner Roger Goodell. Attend any NFL meeting and it's typically Kraft who is at the right hand of Goodell when owners walk down a hallway into a meeting room. The positioning certainly is symbolic. In fact, some league owners have privately suggested that Kraft may possess too much of the commissioner's ear, and has directed Goodell increasingly toward a business-based model for the world's most preeminent sports entity.
Mara is inarguably less conspicuous, and perhaps less pragmatic, but his influence has clearly grown over the past few years.
Notable is that, while Kraft and Mara have arrived at similar perches while scaling summits in different ways, each sees himself as the guardian of a trust, committed to the league and its growth, and to the continued success of their franchises.
"You take the (Mara) name, the team, the history . . . all of it very seriously," Mara said last summer. "It's not something you take on lightly."
Kraft's status isn't as much about birthright as it is bargaining chips (he basically purchased the Pats after declining Orthwein's offer to buy him out and by shrewdly gaining a then-meaningless parcel of land adjoining the stadium), but he is no less passionate about his club.
There is no pretense about the fact Kraft embraces winning, whether the victory is in a board room or a football field. It's at the latter, though, that he has become more well known, at least publicly.
"This is what makes it worthwhile," Kraft said, slightly raising the Lamar Hunt Trophy, after the AFC championship game. "It's what it all about."
That may be true, but Kraft's value is about a lot of other things, as well. Often lost in the tremendous record of the Patriots under his astute guidance is that the MBA graduate of the Harvard Business School has amassed a fortune outside the franchise, too. Known as a clever and opportunistic businessman, and a person of great foresight, Kraft was successful in packaging -- real estate, land speculation and a few other ventures. Reflective of his genius is not only the construction of Gillette Stadium, but the land surrounding it, especially the Patriot Place complex, and by the travel business he has established around the team and its successes.
At the same time, Kraft possesses an indisputable humanness about him, one that is most patently seen by his charitable endeavors, and probably less so by his obvious regard for people and their condition. His kindness and graciousness are realistic, and those generally come across as genuine traits.
Not much is known about the various holdings of Mara and his family. But like those of the Rooney Family, whose diversity in several ventures outside of football was subjugated for many years by the Steelers' profile, they are thought considerable. At the same time, in large part because of his last name, Mara is regarded as more of a football man than is Kraft at this point.
Said Mara this summer: "We're football people." With another Super Bowl appearance, Kraft becomes a football person as well, even if he wasn't teethed on the game. Then again, whether an owner was born into the game, like Mara, or interjected himself into it, as did Kraft, none of that seems to matter much now. Each man is successful in his own right. Under Kraft, the Patriots have played in nearly three times as many postseason contests as they did in the 35 years before he bought the franchise.
After a fallow period -- even some staunch Giants fan might lose sight of the fact the franchise owns a pair of Super Bowl championships from the Bill Parcells Era -- Mara has the team back in the title game for the second time in five seasons.
Of the two, Mara certainly seems the more unflappable, his public veneer seeming to skew toward the dispassionate. But Mara, every bit as insightful as Kraft even if he seems to be far more measured, is regarded as competitive by the players who know him a bit. Regardless of who wins Sunday night's game, the owners won't be much changed, some owners and players suggested to The Sports Xchange.
"They're both very important men, not just to their teams, but to the league," said Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday, who was part of the CBA bargaining process this summer and who famously embraced the still-grieving Kraft after a peace accord had been struck. "I've seen 'em both in action, and they both mean business, no matter how they do it. The old 'different strokes for different folks' may (apply), sure, but they're both about the same things."
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.