By Steve Ginsburg
(Reuters) - New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is one of the most visible faces of the NFL, guiding his once-moribund team to unparalleled success while assuming an influential role navigating the league's complex inner workings.
The affable 73-year-old Kraft is in Arizona this week, preparing for the Patriots' seventh Super Bowl appearance since the Massachusetts native purchased the club in 1994.
"After my family, my team is my passion," Kraft, a one-time Patriots season ticket holder, told reporters this week. "I love being around the guys. There isn't one guy in our locker room I wouldn't be pleased to have at our dinner table.
"I can relate to all of them."
Kraft made billions in the paper industry after graduating from Columbia University and the Harvard Business School. He's now CEO of the Kraft Group, a diversified group of privately held companies. But his heart lies between the goalposts.
In the 20 years since he bought the team, the Patriots have made the playoffs an eyebrow-raising 15 times and are shooting for their fourth NFL championship.
"The greatest decisions I have ever made in my life were all instinct and what felt right," he said. "This is a people business too and developing trust and respect is very important.
"It doesn't matter what team you are with, there are going to be a lot of things you didn't plan on. And how you react and work together really is the key."
A respected philanthropist, Kraft, always a dapper dresser, is a shrewd businessman. He bought the Patriots, one of the least valuable NFL teams, for a then-record $172 million. Today, the team is ranked second in value in the NFL at $2.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Kraft is a consensus builder, and the league has used his skills well.
In 2011 when the NFL and the union hammered out a new 10-year labor deal, ending a 135-day lockout, Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith grabbed the spotlight but Kraft received much of the credit.
"Without him, this deal does not get done," Jeff Saturday, a union representative and then-center for one of the Patriots' chief rivals, the Indianapolis Colts, said at the time.
"We needed him in this process because when he gets up in the room, people listen to him," echoed New York Giants owner John Mara, another of the league's key negotiators.
This past December, when the NFL announced its new personal conduct policy, Goodell unveiled the highly anticipated changes but had Kraft by his side, explaining many of the details.
Kraft's best move might have been in 2000 when he hired Bill Belichick, widely regarded as the best coach in the NFL. Who did he replace? Pete Carroll, the current head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, the Patriots' Super Bowl opponent on Sunday.
"I'm pretty proud of that," he said of his penchant to hire successful coaches.
New England's seventh Super Bowl appearance is the most ever under a single owner. No one loves the game like Robert Kraft.
"I just think how lucky I am to own my hometown team," he said.
(Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington. Editing by Steve Keating.)