Robert Kraft had two unforgettable comebacks this year.
The first came in Super Bowl LI, when his New England Patriots overcame a 28-3 deficit in the second half to beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime.
And the second comeback was Kraft’s return in June to Israel, his second home, with a delegation of 18 Hall of Fame players whom he hosted, among them Jim Brown, Joe Montana and Roger Staubach.
Kraft, who is Jewish, has been heavily invested in Israel, both financially and emotionally, and is close friends with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s also essentially an ambassador of football in the region, and opened the Kraft Family Sports Campus in Jerusalem. That 25-acre, multi-sports venue — which includes the first three regulation-sized football fields in the Middle East — is reflective of his commitment to grow the game in the region.
“My life is about trying to, at this point, only do things I love and I’m passionate about, and be with people I love and feel connected to,” said Kraft, 76, who was joined at the ribbon-cutting ceremony by three of his four sons and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“I first came to Israel 54 years ago — even though I think I’m 35,” Kraft said. “It was on my honeymoon. Someone had given us a present. We came here, and it was just an amazing experience for me. I love America, and I’m so lucky to have been born there and be a U.S. citizen, but when I came here I also learned that this place was so special.”
Other “Gold Jackets” making the trip were Hall of Famers Lem Barney, Jerome Bettis, Cris Carter, Dave Casper, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Mean Joe Greene, Willie Lanier, Andre Reed, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, John Stallworth, Andre Tippett, Aeneas Williams, and Ron Yary. Players were joined on the weeklong trip by their significant others.
“I tell people, ‘You don’t have to be Jewish to go to Israel,’ ” Tippett said. “Jerusalem represents so many other religions, and there are so many things there to see, it covers the whole spectrum.”
The players prayed at the Western Wall, many were baptized in the Jordan River, floated in the Dead Sea, toured the Yad Vashem world Holocaust remembrance center, and had a private meeting with Netanyahu. They also met and posed for pictures with American Football in Israel players at Ramat HaSharon stadium in Tel Aviv, and signed autographs for at least 1,000 fans at the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem.
Kraft got a hero’s welcome from those Israeli players and fans at the football events.
“This is Robert Kraft leaving a legacy for his family,” Bettis said. “All the success that he’s had, he’s able to translate that here in Jerusalem, the land of his forefathers. And to be able to leave such an incredible gift for the people of Jerusalem is tremendous.”
The way Kraft sees it, he too has reaped the benefits of his financial and emotional investments.
“My late, darling wife, Myra, always used to tell me that until I start building football in Israel, I would not win anything with Patriots,” he said. “That happened in late 1999, and we won our first Super Bowl in 2001. Now we have five championships, and I can’t ignore the connection between our continuing to support development in Israel and our great accomplishments.”
By every measure, football has gained popularity in Israel in recent years, and Kraft has played a huge role in that.
“What Robert Kraft has been doing here in the last few years has brought a bigger awareness to the country,” Montana said. “With the players he’s brought, the complex that he’s built, once you start planting roots, the game just kind of grows on you. Soccer is wildly crazy around the globe. People have an obsessed attitude about it. But once you start learning our sport, you’ll see a lot more of that.”
That’s not to say everyone is entirely up to speed on the history of the NFL in a country that’s beginning to embrace the game. For instance, while in Tel Aviv, Montana and Staubach were in a crowded hotel elevator together, riding up to their rooms. It stopped at Montana’s floor and he got off.
“Did you see who that was?” an excited guest said. “That was one of the greatest quarterbacks in history! That was Joe Montana.”
“Really?” Staubach said with a smile. “Who’d he play for?”
“San Francisco!” the man said.
The elevator continued up, and the guest glanced down at the name tag at the end of Staubach’s lanyard.
“Hey, wait a second,” the man said. “I know you. … You’re that guy who has the real estate company.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer