ALL IN THE FAMILY

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Last summer I had the opportunity to go to Israel with a group of past and present New England Patriots players. Team owner Robert Kraft was our host. Kraft has a habit of taking his players to the Holy Land during the offseason. Over the years he’s also taken many NFL Hall of Famers, from Jim Brown to Roger Staubach to Joe Montana. These trips are part of Kraft’s effort to build unity by exposing NFL players to a country where Jews, Christians and Muslims peacefully coexist.

I never imagined that writing a book about the most dominant sports team in contemporary American history would take me to the Sea of Galilea, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Western Wall, the Room of the Last Supper, or the Dead Sea.

unnamed 3Jeff Benedict with Patriots atop Masada, built by Herod the Great.

Nor did I expect when I set out to write The Dynasty that I would see Patriots players and their wives in such spiritual and solemn settings. I walked the streets where Jesus walked amidst a group that included Stephon Gilmore, Joe Thuney, Stephen Gostkowski, Ty Law, Jerod Mayo, Andre Tippett, Vince Wilfork, Drew Bledsoe and others. It was an opportunity for me to see a side of the dynasty that’s not on public display.

One night we attended a private reception outside Tel Aviv at the home of the U.S. Ambassador to Israel. While the Patriots players mingled with dignitaries and a jazz band played “The Girl from Ipanema,” I took out my journal and noted: “This kind of experience makes it very hard to get traded to another team.”

In this environment, I interviewed former Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett. Tippett has worked in the Patriots front office since Kraft purchased the Patriots in 1994. “Not many faces like mine were in those positions,” Tippett told me. “We were all wearing helmets. But he (Kraft) looked at me as someone who was credible, hardworking, loyal, and reliable.”

After hiring Tippett, Kraft confided to him that when he bought the Patriots he’d been warned not to hire black people because they were hard to discharge. They discussed the implications of that comment. Then Tippett laminated the racist advice on a piece of paper the size of a business card and stuck it in his wallet. He would go on to work with Kraft in the Patriots front office for twenty-five years. Tippett told me: “I carry that quote with me as a reminder that I can never let my guard down. And never stop working hard and never think we’re all on the same level. Because it’s not a level playing field. I tell my kids, ‘It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.’”

Jeff Benedict with Andre Tippett in Israel.Jeff Benedict with Andre Tippett in Israel.

It’s amazing how much you can learn just by listening. I learned a lot from Tippett, and my relationship with him was cemented in Israel.

For me, a personal highlight was the chance to be baptized in the River Jordan. All of the Patriots players on the trip were given the same opportunity. Like many of them, I had been baptized as a child. But the opportunity to be baptized again in the place where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist is something I will always cherish and never forget. (And I will always be grateful to Vince Wilfork for helping the priest fully immerse me in the river.)

Vince Wilfork, Jeff Benedict, and a member of the clergy in the River Jordan.Vince Wilfork, Jeff Benedict, and a member of the clergy in the River Jordan.

On the last night of our trip, we gathered for a Jewish feast. During the meal, each of the players took the opportunity to say a few words. Drew Bledsoe gave the most moving speech, bringing tears to the eyes of some in the room (including mine). At the end, Vince Wilfork reminded everyone what’s so unique about the Patriots organization. “The reason we win is we are family!” Wilkfork told the group. As everyone nodded in agreement, I glanced at Kraft, who was choked up.

More than anything else, the concept of family guided my writing of The Dynasty. It helps explain why I opened the book in an emergency room at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2001 when Drew Bledsoe was undergoing a procedure to save his life while his wife waited anxiously with Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. It’s why I pivoted from there to the scene last year when Brady was alone in his suite at Gillette Stadium, contemplating what would be his final season in New England (which was very much a family decision). And it’s why I then pivoted from Brady’s suite to a diner in the Back Bay section of Boston, where young Robert Kraft – then in his early twenties and known simply as “Bobby” – entered in 1962 and spotted Myra Hiatt, a striking girl in line in front of him that would soon become his wife.

From the outset I saw the Patriots story as so much more than a football story. Of course it has plenty of high-stakes tension; heart-pounding, last-second finishes; controversy; crushing losses; and some of the greatest plays in the history of the NFL, such as Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning kick in the snow against the Raiders in the ‘Tuck Rule’ game.

The story is also packed with lessons on leadership, success, and overcoming adversity. But the Patriots dynasty is ultimately an epic American story rooted in personal relationships. One of my favorite stories in the book is when Robert Kraft purchased season tickets for himself and his young sons in 1971. The games conflicted with his sons’ Hebrew classes. So on gamedays, Kraft would handwrite notes to his sons’ Hebrew class teachers and slip them under the boys’ pillows before bedtime.

Dear Mrs. Cohen, please excuse Daniel at 11:30. He has a family commitment. Sincerely, Mr. Kraft

Reflecting back on that time, team president Jonathan Kraft told me: “For us, family was real important. But our family wasn’t geared around religion. Not that we weren’t religious. We were. But it wasn’t the centerpiece of our lives. I think my father chose sports. The Patriots really were the ‘religious’ centerpiece for our family. It started with him getting us out of Hebrew School early to go to Patriots games.”

Writing The Dynasty and seeing the Patriots family up close was the chance of a lifetime.

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