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OWNER'S BELOVED WAS A VOICE FOR VICTIMS

Before you can understand the loss of Myra Kraft, before you can measure the void she left behind, you must start with one of the many she helped to heal.

Myra was a strong, confident woman. Kathy Redmond was neither.

Myra had power. Kathy had none.

Everyone loved Myra. For a long time, Kathy felt as if everyone was against her.

That was before Myra spoke out, before she became Kathy's champion, before one woman made another one whole again.

This week, as you read about Myra, the late wife of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, as you come to appreciate the heart of the New England franchise, start with this story. Start with the simple act of a woman saying no and the precedent it set across the National Football League.

It was 1996, and the Krafts were relatively new to a league where size and speed mattered a lot more than character to most teams. New England had just spent a sixth-round draft pick on Nebraska defensive lineman Christian Peter even though he had been accused of rape and other crimes while in college.

And Myra said no.

Simple as that. No. The New England Patriots weren't going to be a franchise where thugs came to make millions. No. The Patriots swiftly relinquished their rights to Peter without compensation, and without hesitation. No.

Halfway across the country, the woman who said Peter had raped her felt a little less alone.

"I was broken,'' said Redmond, the founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. "I was a mess. Myra gave me a victory when I didn't have any. After that, I didn't feel as alone. When my lawyer told me what this woman had done, I sighed. Then I gasped. Then I bawled.

"It wasn't just me. Myra had an impact on tons of victims. She had an impact on the NFL. A lot of owners in the NFL didn't want this precedent to be set. They didn't want character to be an issue. Myra was a pioneer.''

She was other things, too. She was a philanthropist who raised millions. She was named one of the most powerful women in Boston. Above all, she was Bob Kraft's "sweetheart.''

Some Super Bowls are about coaches, and some are about quarterbacks. Some are about last-minute drives and dramatic catches and field goals as the clock runs out.

This one is about a love story. This is about a loss that has broken a man's heart and the team that has helped heal it.

Myra Kraft died of cancer July 20 at age 68. Even now, Bob Kraft refers to her as "my sweetheart.'' Most agree it was Bob who helped end last year's labor impasse and it was Myra who shooed him away from her deathbed to do it. Without one Kraft or the other, who knows how long play might have been stopped?

Bob Kraft seems to struggle without his wife. Grief is a relentless adversary, and it comes not at once but in a million small doses. Anyone who has lost the love of a lifetime knows the heartache.

"This team has been my savior,'' Kraft said recently. And why not? When a man has lost his greatest love, who else can pull him through but his second-greatest?

Myra Kraft made a difference with the lives she touched. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy suggests she was "the heart and the conscience'' of the franchise. To Redmond, that sounds about right.

There is a lot to learn from the two women, Myra and Kathy. Sixteen years ago, Redmond was a 23-year-old who felt as if the entire state of Nebraska was against her. There were death threats and crank phone calls and depression and nightmares and flashes and eating disorders.

She had barely arrived on campus, she said, when Peter raped her in his dorm room and a day later in hers. Then Peter was drafted by her favorite team, and she was devastated.

Peter was never charged with raping Redmond. By the time of the 1996 draft, he had been arrested eight times and convicted four for crimes that included groping a woman at a bar.

"It felt as if everything was uphill,'' said Redmond, now 39. "I was to the point of questioning whether humans ever did the right thing. When Myra did what she did, it was a victory when I didn't have any. It was a huge victory in a battle that won the war. For me, this was Georgetown."

One of Redmond's biggest regrets is that she never met Myra to say thanks. She did meet Bob in December before a Patriots-Broncos game.

"She was the conscience,'' Redmond said of Myra. "Bob sort of looked at her like she was his hero.''

Redmond thinks of her in the same way. When she counsels rape victims, she makes sure to tell each of them about Myra.

During the Super Bowl, when you see the patch with Myra's initials (MHK) on the Patriot jerseys, appreciate who she was and the impact she made. This is why last weekend's photograph of Kraft looking skyward and waving toward heaven with his right hand as his left cradled the AFC championship trophy touched so many.

"I think about her every day,'' Kraft told Fox Sports recently. "I always thought she was going to outlive me by 30 years. She was 98 pounds. She read four books a week. She ate healthy. It was just this horrible disease.''

In some ways, the story of this Super Bowl began almost four decades ago, when young Bob Kraft was thunderstruck by a girl at a local delicatessen. He sent over his friend Moose - evidently, Kraft spent some of his youth in an Archie comic book - to put in a good word for him.

At first, she didn't want to go out with him, but once she did, she proposed on the first day.

Kraft, it should be noted, had another love. He followed the Patriots around in their early AFL days, going from stadium to stadium to watch loss after loss. There weren't a lot of keeper days - one home playoff game in 34 years - but over time, this became his team. His, and hers.

In 1994, he bought it, and he helped it grow. This will be the sixth Super Bowl the Patriots have played in since Kraft took over, the 29th playoff game. Three times the Patriots have taken home the Lombardi Trophy. They are thought of as an elegant, classy organization, and much of that is because of Kraft.

Myra's one hesitancy about purchasing the team? She was concerned it would affect her charity work.

It didn't. Myra Kraft raised millions for the Boys and Girl Clubs and her other causes. Again, she was a woman of impact. Just ask her players.

"I pinch myself that I have the privilege of owning this franchise,'' Bob Kraft said. "We have a such a great group of young men, and they've been great to me. Sometimes a few of them come through, and they touch the patch and say, 'That one was for Mama.'''

This one would be for Myra, too. If the Patriots win, watch how many players touch the patch. Watch how many signal toward the sky.

After all, this is Myra's game.

Myra's trophy, too.

- gshelton@tampabay.com

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