Be passionate about whatever your pursuits may be.
That is one piece of advice Robert K. Kraft, owner and chief executive officer of the National Football League's defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, would pass along to current NCAA student-athletes.
Kraft recently was selected as the 39th recipient of the NCAA Theodore Roosevelt Award, the highest honor the Association bestows. Named after the 26th president of the United States, who was instrumental in the formation of the NCAA in 1906, the "Teddy" is presented annually to a distinguished citizen of national reputation and outstanding accomplishment who was a varsity letter-winner in college.
Kraft knows a thing or two about mixing passion with pursuits. As a boy, the Brookline, Massachusetts, native was fiercely passionate about sports. According to a September 2005 Forbes Magazine article, Kraft's father, a dressmaker in the Chinatown section of Boston, discouraged his son from playing sports, preferring instead that he study to become a rabbi. Eventually, though, Kraft competed on the Columbia University football team for two seasons, before an injury cut short his playing career.
Surely it was passion that led Kraft, founder and chair of the Kraft Group of Companies, to build the holding company that now supports interests in paper and packaging, and sports, entertainment and venture investing into a conglomerate that generates more than $1 billion in annual sales.
Without question, it was passion that guided Kraft, a longtime season ticket holder and fan of the New England Patriots, to transform into reality a long-held dream to own the football club.
"Student-athletes ought to do things they love -- not things their parents want them to do," Kraft said. "They should be respectful of it, but they should pursue things that turn them on personally. When they fail, they shouldn't be afraid to keep coming back.
"What I've learned is that most people don't have perseverance. In the end, you might say, 'hey, this isn't right for me,' but don't wait, look over your shoulder and say, 'I wish I had done this differently or I wish I had given this a shot.' "
Kraft credits his experiences while competing as a member of Columbia's football team with teaching him the importance of teamwork, a value he said has helped him in his business pursuits. Football, Kraft said, is a great sport through which to demonstrate the value of teamwork because it doesn't matter how many stars are on the team -- if all players aren't working together, a team will not win.
"With all due respect to individual statistics and individual achievements, there's a certain satisfaction in bonding with a group of people. When you win, when you have something good happen in your life, you like to share it with someone you care about. I think you really get an appreciation of that in intercollegiate athletics on a team basis. That's probably the best thing that came out of my participation in college sports," said Kraft.
Kraft, who came from humble beginnings, grew up in an observant Jewish family. The product of public schools, he won an academic scholarship to Columbia. There he earned the first of two letters as a member of the freshman football team in 1959. The following season, he started every game at halfback and safety for the varsity lightweight squad. Two games into the 1961 campaign, though, Kraft was injured and did not play again.
After graduating from Columbia in 1963 with degrees in history and economics, he attended Harvard Business School on a fellowship and earned a master's degree in business administration.
Kraft initially stepped onto the business scene in the late 1960s with the Rand-Whitney Group, which he later acquired. He then founded the Kraft Group of Companies, whose holdings in paper and packaging include the Rand-Whitney Group, International Forest Products and Carmel Container System, Ltd., one of the largest packaging companies in the Middle East.
As extensive as Kraft's business empire is, he is probably most well-known as owner of the Patriots. Upon purchasing the team in 1994 for $172 million, then the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise, Kraft stated that his objective was to help bring a championship to New England.
Eleven years later, Kraft has met that objective not once, but three times -- in 2001, 2003 and 2004, and he has pushed the Patriots to other lofty heights as one of the richest and most successful NFL franchises. Before his tenure, the Pats had won just 225 of 510 games since their founding in 1959. They never played before sell-out crowds, either, not even during the 1985 season when the team made its only other Super Bowl appearance. Under Kraft's leadership, New England entered the 2005 season with a 20-game winning streak and a string of 115 consecutive home-game sellouts intact. Forbes ranks the team as No. 3 in its NFL team value at $1 billion and estimates the Patriots generate $236 million annually and clear $50 million in earnings.
Kraft also owns the New England Revolution, which won the Major League Soccer Cup in 2002 and advanced to the final last year.
The Patriots and the Revolution were not Kraft's first forays into the ownership of professional sports teams. In 1975, he purchased the Boston Lobsters of World TeamTennis, a professional league that included all the world's top players. Kraft's Lobsters played on the campus of Brown University and featured a young Martina Navratilova. The league folded in 1978 but has since been resurrected. (The 2005 version of the Lobsters once again features Navratilova.)
A trustee emeritus at Columbia and a trustee at Boston College, Kraft serves on the executive committees for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
For all the material success that has followed him, Kraft, who says the birth of each of his four sons and eight grandchildren are the proudest moments in his life, is aiming at something much longer lasting: a legacy that will continue to influence future generations.
"In the end, no matter whether you make a billion dollars or a thousand, the real lasting value you leave is through your family and through the next generation -- that's the lasting legacy. That's really what's important to me," he said.
Kraft is well down the road to establishing that legacy. Beyond donating millions to local charities, Kraft has established the Robert K. Kraft Blood Donor Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and he has served as the principal benefactor for the Robert K. Kraft Family Center for Student Life at Columbia. He also donated funds to construct stadiums for recreation and amateur sports in Providence, Rhode Island, and Jerusalem, Israel.
"For any of us who have been privileged enough to make a few dollars, to give back and touch our community in ways that help people help themselves or help people be strong when they are vulnerable is a rewarding experience that creates 'psychological' income that is unique," said Kraft. "I can honestly say that if you're privileged enough to be in a position to do some good things, the reward you get from doing it is far greater than almost anything you can experience in life."
In learning of his selection as the most recent recipient of the NCAA's highest honor, Kraft expressed surprise and, after looking at the names of former winners such as Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Sally Ride, noted he was in "pre tty good company." He said, though, that he wouldn't have picked himself for the award.
"I don't think in that league," Kraft said. "My love of Columbia, plus my love of sport -- combining with something that has a national exposure -- is very flattering."
Kraft will be recognized as the 2006 Teddy winner at the January 7 Honors Celebration during the 100th NCAA Convention in Indianapolis.