INDIANAPOLIS – No one would have guessed while the NFL labour war raged last spring that the three of them would be so happy to see each other again.
“We met at a time when football looked like it might not continue,” NFL players union chief DeMaurice Smith said, his arm draped over the shoulders of Patriots owner Robert Kraft. “To be here now and watch a great game unfold, I’m not sure I could ask for anything more.”
An hour later, Smith popped up alongside Giants owner John Mara.
“I’ve been saying nothing but nice things about you,” he said, extending a hand.
“Same for me,” Mara said.
Back in March, when negotiations between owners and players hit bottom, and a full regular season was anything but assured, such cordiality was hardly the norm. If Kraft and Mara — optimists both — had even dared dream about a reunion with Smith then, they likely would have chosen a mountaintop in Kathmandu.
Instead, they got together again Tuesday at the stadium where the Super Bowl will tie a bow on the league’s most successful season ever.
“This guy had a lot to do with us having labour peace,” Kraft said, referring to Smith. “We were able to build a bond of trust. … We came very close to having a lockout. People have no idea.”
There was something fitting about two of the owners who played such pivotal roles in ending the lockout facing each other for the game’s biggest prize. Agreement on a new 10-year labour deal came barely a week after Kraft buried his wife of 48 years, Myra, after a months-long battle with cancer. For much of that time, Kraft shuttled back and forth between her hospital bed and the bargaining table, largely because, like Mara, he was one of the few owners the players felt they could trust.
When the agreement was announced last summer, Colts centre and players’ union rep Jeff Saturday wrapped Kraft in an XXL-sized hug and spoke emotionally about the sacrifices Kraft made, and how that earned their respect. Mara said it wasn’t just the players who felt that way.
“Everybody knew what he was going through and he still found the time to be there with us,” Mara said. “Like I said, I don’t think we get the deal done without him being there.”
For all the work both owners put in to make sure there was a season, long stretches zoomed by where neither had expectations of meeting again at the end. Mara told the story of how in 2007, after the Giants lost to an undefeated Patriots team in the final game of the regular season, he ran into New England coach Bill Belichick in a hallway on the way back to their respective locker rooms.
“We shook hands and congratulated him and he said, ‘We’ll play again.’ I remember not particularly believing him. I had a pretty strong sense that they were going to get there, but I wasn’t so sure about us and sure enough it happened,” Mara recalled, leaving out the best part — how the Giants won the Super Bowl on Eli Manning’s late heroics.
“Then he called me — I can’t remember after which game it was, but it was late this season — just to say hello and congratulations for whatever game we had just won and he said, ‘We’ll play again,'” Mara added. “So again, I think that was met with the same bit of skepticism but he turned out to be right.”
That Smith would turn up and make it a reunion — considering how well things worked out for everyone involved — was a bonus.
“Pretty cool,” Kraft began, with Smith at his side. “This man had to manage 2,000 players, a bunch of agents, a bunch of lawyers, then prioritize their demands and build a trust with our side.”
Kraft also found time to praise Commissioner Roger Goodell, “who had to deal with a lot of kooky owners who thought they had the answers.”
“If we missed any games, it could have taken years, maybe a decade, to get the fans’ respect back. People are hurting today,” he said. “They want good stories.”