FOXBOROUGH — It was a year ago that the Patriots beat the Ravens in the AFC Championship game, after Baltimore missed an easy-peasy 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds remaining. The 2011 season had been dedicated to the late Myra Kraft, who died of ovarian cancer that July.
Though the 2012 season was not dedicated to Myra, and the team no longer wears the “MHK” patches on their uniforms, Patriots owner Robert Kraft is dedicating the Baltimore rematch Sunday to her memory. “It’s the second championship game at home, and it’s in her honor,” Kraft said this week, sitting behind a massive desk in his office at Gillette Stadium.
By now, everyone in Patriots Nation and beyond knows of the close bond between the couple, who were married for 48 years. Kraft’s grief — even as he brokered an end to the 2011 NFL lockout — earned him an outpouring of sympathy.
“I sort of feel robbed,” Kraft said of his wife dying at age 68. “I try to stay very busy, I basically work seven days a week. I try to do new things, to meet new people.”
One of those new people is Ricki Noel Lander, the 32-year-old dancer and actress he’s been seeing. The couple have been spotted arm in arm everywhere from London to Cape Cod to Sun Valley, Idaho. Some of those close to Kraft credit Lander with helping to pull him out of a deep depression brought on by his wife’s death.
For the past several months, the Globe has requested an interview with Robert Kraft to discuss his life after Myra, but it wasn’t until this week that he felt ready to talk . On Jan. 11, the Patriots called the Globe to say the interview would happen — if the team beat the Houston Texans.
They did, 41-28, and this week, over the course of an hourlong interview, the Patriots owner discussed his late wife, his memories of her, and the challenges of carrying on. In his office at the stadium, Kraft, 71, would not discuss Lander, saying only that he’s “keeping my private life private.”
Later, he wondered aloud why people care so much about it.
He’d rather talk about Myra, whose death still seems to surprise him. “Myra was the picture of health,” he said. “She weighed 98 pounds, she read four books a week, she ate healthy and exercised every day. Our plan was that she was going to outlive me by 30 years.”
Indirectly, though, he did address the question about Lander.
“I’m blessed with four great children and eight grandchildren,” he said, knocking on the wood of his desk. “But you go home, and you go home alone, and no one’s there. It’s just really sad.” He hastens to add: “No one’s going to feel sorry for me because I’ve been so blessed.”
Still, he sounded as if he was speaking from experience when he added: “I tell you, I would never sit in judgment of anyone, as long as they’re good folks. I would never judge their life because it’s important to know their feelings.”
A year ago, Kraft’s four sons were worried about him. He was in deep mourning for Myra, who had died six months earlier. Always active, Kraft was not sleeping or taking care of himself.
After losing their mother, his sons feared they might lose their father, too.
“You hear about couples married for 50 years, whose lives were totally intertwined, and when one loses their partner, the other doesn’t want to live,” said eldest son Jonathan Kraft, president of The Kraft Group and his father’s closest confidant. “They degrade very quickly. I’ve seen it happen, and we didn’t want that happening to my father.”
Each son spoke to their father separately about how important it was for him to get back on his feet, about how their mother would feel the same way. They told him he needed to reinvest himself in the businesses, friendships, and philanthropy that he and Myra had worked on. The couple has given more than $100 million to charity.
“More important, we told him that we and our children would lose him, and that was an untenable thought,” said Jonathan, 48. “We made it very clear that we all prefer he choose the path of figuring out how to regroup, and part of that was finding companionship. That when the time was right, that would be an important part of the process.”
Jonathan believes their mother would agree.
“She would be the first to say that he couldn’t function on his own, and I say that with a smile,” he said. “My father is someone who needs companionship. From the time he was a junior in college, he and my mom were inseparable.”
Trying to move on
Kraft and Lander were first photographed together courtside at a Celtics game in June, and the blogosphere was abuzz. The Patriots owner introduced Lander as a friend, but it wasn’t long before the actress, who’d appeared on “True Blood,” “Ugly Betty,” and in a couple of small films, was spending time with Kraft at the US Open tennis tournament, at the premiere of “The Bourne Legacy,” and at the high-powered Allen & Co. annual conference in Sun Valley. Lander could not be reached for comment for this story.
It was around that time last summer that the embarrassing video went viral. In it, Kraft is helping a bikini-clad Lander rehearse for an audition, which ends with him throwing a fake punch and uttering a profanity. The video burned up the Internet, and Kraft issued a public apology, explaining that he’d been helping Lander get ready for a movie audition. He said he regretted the video had been released and added that he was “going to stick to my day job.”
Asked if the video hurt Kraft’s image, public relations czar George Regan said no.
“What’s going to hurt his image is if they don’t beat Baltimore on Sunday,” he quipped.
Regan was close to Myra Kraft, traveling several times with her to Israel, and he remains close to Robert.
“Outside the family, there’s no one who loved Myra more than me,” said Regan, who has known the family for 25 years and has represented Kraft on occasion.
Of Kraft’s relationship with Lander, Regan says that the Patriots owner loves his family “with his heart and soul,” but “you’ve got to move on with life. Everyone in this world needs a companion. Life is for the living. The last thing Myra Kraft would want is Robert sitting in front of the TV crying at night. She would have kicked his rear end.”
Kraft has been spending more time out of state, “making new friends and branching out,” said his son Josh, 45, who is president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston. His father has also slimmed down — working out and eating better. “He wants to stay vibrant and healthy and strong, especially for his grandchildren.”
Josh says he knows it’s hard for his father to be at the couple’s Chestnut Hill home now that his mother is no longer there. “We’ve had to deal with that,” said Josh. “He’s learning how to manage that and how to live with that. There are so many things that remind him of her.”
Another friend, Donald Trump, met the Krafts 20 years ago. They’ve done philanthropic work together in Palm Beach, Fla., where Trump has an estate. He says Kraft’s life since his losing Myra has been challenging, as one would expect.
“They had an amazing marriage, and Bob was devastated when she died,” said Trump. “He suffered greatly for a year, and he still suffers. But at some point, life has to go on, and it’s going on for Bob.”
Team helped him cope
Kraft himself says as much as anything, his team has helped him cope. “I tell you, the guys down in that locker room saved me. They were really terrific.”
One former player, Eric Kettani — who now plays for the Redskins — painted Kraft a picture of that now-infamous Baltimore kick, with a three-dimensional football going left of the posts. In the upper right corner are the initials “MHK.”
In a conference room near Kraft’s office, there’s an oil painting of a Patriots huddle with players pointing to the sky under the large letters, “MHK.” The players commissioned and paid for it. There’s also a portrait of a young Myra, sent by an artist, a total stranger from Florida. It arrived last week.
Myra Hiatt was 19, and Kraft was 20 when he spotted her in a Boston coffee shop, on a double-date with another couple. He was home in Brookline, on break from Columbia University; she was attending Brandeis.
Grabbing a piece of paper, Kraft draws a diagram of where he was sitting with his friends that night 50 years ago, and where she was sitting with hers.
“When she got up to leave, I winked at her, and she winked back,” he said.
At Kraft’s behest, his friend got her name, and Kraft found a “Myra Hiatt” listed at Brandeis University. He called the next morning, a Sunday, but her roommate said she was at the library. For an hour, Kraft recalled, he went through the Brandeis library and finally located her in a quiet area behind the stacks “with a few other nerdy types.”
They went out on a date that night, which he says ended in a wedding proposal — from her. The next morning, he hitchhiked back to Columbia. They married a week after he graduated from college, in June 1963.
Kraft says one’s choice of a spouse is the most important decision in life, and that he “lucked out.”
Though every marriage is tested, he said, if one is “smart enough and patient enough to stay together, you come out stronger. It’s the same as running a sports franchise.”
In fact, the only time his marriage was challenged was in 1994, he says, when he bought the Patriots, who had won just 19 games the previous five seasons. Myra thought he was crazy. Since 1994, he says, the Patriots have the second-highest winning percentage among American pro sports teams. The first? The San Antonio Spurs, by a hair.
Since Kraft took over, the Patriots are 20-10 in the playoffs overall, but 14-2 in the postseason at home. And now here comes Baltimore, to Gillette.
“This is our 17th game [at home], we’re 14-2, and please God, we’ll soon be 15-2,” said Kraft.
Myra, are you listening?