The white paint for the 50-yard-line on the third football field was still fresh when Robert Kraft recited the Hebrew “Shehehiyanu” blessing for new things and cut the ribbon in Tuesday’s ceremony marking the opening of the new Kraft Family Sports Campus in Jerusalem.
“Okay, Robert, throw it out,” said Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams, running out for a touchdown.
New England Patriots owner Kraft was joined at Tuesday’s ceremony in the Emek Ha’arazim area of Jerusalem by 18 former NFL stars, who are in Israel for a week-long trip he hosted as part of an effort to promote the sport in a country that primarily sees “football” as soccer.
The visiting NFL hall-of-famers include Roger Staubach, Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson, “Mean” Joe Greene and four-time Super Bowl champion Joe Montana.
“It’s been an amazing trip,” said Montana as he stood with Kraft, looking out over the freshly laid turf of the new field.
Kraft made a $6 million gift toward the sports complex — his second in Jerusalem, after Kraft Stadium near the center of the capital.
This larger complex was constructed with sponsorship from organizations Mifal HaPais and Toto, and built in collaboration with the Jerusalem Foundation and the Jerusalem Development Company – Moriah.
Due to open in two weeks in time for the 20th Maccabiah, the complex contains two soccer fields and one dual-use US regulation football and soccer field, as well as locker rooms, administrative offices, parking, a central pedestrian thoroughfare and plans in the pipeline for additional facilities.
The cement sidewalks were still being poured and the parking lot hadn’t yet been constructed in time for Tuesday’s ceremony, but feelings were strong during the speeches made inside a tent raised for the inauguration.
“This is an emotional moment for me,” said Kraft. “My life is about only doing things I’m connected to. To share this with great players who are here, and see how special this country is, is an honor and a privilege.”
Kraft, now 76, said he received phylacteries for his bar mitzvah, which he would put on every morning as he prayed facing Jerusalem, amid dreams of being in the holy city and praying at the Western Wall.
“I was at the King David with my wife in 1963 and I remember being so disappointed to be so close to the Old City and not being able to go to the Kotel because of Jordanian soldiers on the walls,” he said, using the Hebrew word for the Western Wall.
“I can’t describe the excitement I felt and the recognition I felt for God that we were allowed to go back to our holiest place,” he added, referring to Israel’s 1967 Six Day War victory that won back the Old City and offered access to the Western Wall. “Now 50 years later, I’m here to stand before you and I’m able to help Jerusalem do this.”
Kraft spoke about being in Israel for this trip with his three sons, who helped Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat present their father with a banner marked with the symbols of Jerusalem, which will be hung at the entrance of the sports complex.
Barkat also presented Kraft with the Builder of Jerusalem award.
It was in 1999 that Kraft first donated $200,000 to construct the first Kraft Stadium in Jerusalem, a state-of-the-art AstroTurf field at the entrance of the city to be used primarily by a local league, American Football in Israel.
The collaboration began when an AFI player recognized Kraft in the lobby of the King David Hotel and told the millionaire that he and his friends played organized football in Israel on uneven, overcrowded fields.
Shortly after, Steve Leibowitz, a Jerusalemite and founder of the American football league, met with Kraft and received a contract promising $200,000 for a new field.
The field was later improved in 2005, and has been used since for AFI football team scrimmages and games, as well as other sports teams, day camps and concerts.
The new Emek Ha’arazim complex, located at the juncture of the Begin Highway and the start of Route 443, near the neighborhood of Ramot and the Har Hotzvim industrial park, will be used for football, soccer and other sports, creating opportunities to help further develop the city.
“The fields bring people from all tribes,” said Barkat. “Muslim, Christian and Jewish alike.”