Leadership starts at the top and no one in sports is a better example of that than Robert Kraft. Ever since he became the owner of the New England Patriots, Kraft has built a legacy around good business sense, smart managing of personnel, and a strong moral grounding that has since become known as the Patriot Way.
That is what makes his friendship with teenager Sam Berns all the more unsurprising, yet inspiring. Berns has progeria, a condition which accelerates his aging by a factor of eight. He's sixteen, but he looks eighty. And he and Robert Kraft have become incredibly close.
We could give an entire synopsis of the tale, but Rick Reilly of ESPN wrote this piece, and it would be a shame to cut out most of it:
When Sam was 2, his parents were told that he probably wouldn't make it past 13, the usual life expectancy for the one in 4 million kids born with progeria. They were told that he would be a living time lapse. His skin would wrinkle, his eyesight would fade, his hair would go, his nose would beak, his head would swell, his face would shrink and there would be nothing they could do about it. There's no cure.
But Sam's parents -- Dr. Scott Berns and Dr. Leslie Gordon -- didn't listen. If nobody was coming to the rescue, why couldn't they?
They started a foundation and after years of work, helped identify the gene mutation that causes the disease and the first experimental treatment for it, lonafarnib. But with Sam's time running out, they need money -- $4 million -- to figure out through clinical trial if it's a cure. That's where Kraft enters.
Kraft read about Sam in the Foxboro Reporter. This is a man who watches young men perform astonishing athletic feats with their bodies. This is a man who still grieves his wife, Myra, who died two years ago at 68. In Sam, he must've seen a tragic meld -- a young man dying of old age.
He invited him to a Saturday practice, just before the Patriots' September 29 game in Atlanta, and liked him so much he decided to donate $1,000 for every year Sam had been alive.
But then Sam mentioned his birthday was October 23. Now the donation had to be $17,000. "Smart businessman," Kraft grinned.
And that was just the start of Kraft falling in love with a young man trapped in a senior citizen's body.
Kraft: "Who's your favorite player? I'll introduce you."
Sam: "Oh, I could never pick just one player. Football is a team sport."
So Kraft introduced him to the entire team. He met Tom Brady. Bill Belichick. Everybody. They gathered around and made Sam look even tinier. Then Sam gave the whole team a speech, telling them how they could strategically beat Atlanta and quarterback Matt Ryan. "Make Matty Ryan feel uncomfortable ... so he throws an interception and we get the ball back. And drive it in."
The players and coaches stood there scratching their heads at this little old boy who sounded suddenly like Vince Lombardi.
"You're looking at him and these 300-pound guys are coming at him and he's got such a calm demeanor," Kraft says. "We need to keep him alive. We need to keep him strong and healthy."
And maybe they need to hire him as a coach. The Patriots rattled the Falcons 30-23.
"I should've had him at the Cincinnati game," Kraft moans.
The soup thickened. Sam invited Kraft to a screening of a documentary -- "Life According to Sam" -- that airs on HBO Oct. 21. The longer Kraft sat there watching it, the more his wallet itched. The more he learned about Sam, the more he gave. His donation went from $17,000 to $100,000, to $250,000, to, finally, a $500,000 matching donation. Now that's a movie that can OPEN.
He couldn't help himself. "I'm looking at him and seeing how smart he is," Kraft remembers, "how passionate, how full of life. And I'm thinking of so many other friends I have who are just, 'Woe is me.' ... I haven't been moved like this by someone in a long, long time."
It's a small story that will hopefully gain a lot of traction now. The Patriots took a lot of flack over the summer from the national media over the supposed death (or complete lie) of the Patriot Way, of how the classiness of the organization was overstated. Stories like these prove otherwise. An organization takes on the mold of its owner and stuff like this shows that the Patriots are being led by a very classy man.