By Bill Burt
SALEM, Mass. — Jonathan Kraft is known for helping lead the New England Patriots, rebuilding it almost from the ashes and turning it into one of the most respected franchises in football and professional sports.
But it was a different kind of leadership that the team president spoke about at yesterday at Kernwood Country Club: the leadership it takes to fight bullying in the locker room and on and off the playing field.
Kraft was the keynote speaker at the annual Essex County Law & Education Day, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League of New England. His topic: “Bullying In Sports: It’s not part of the game.”
Many of the movers and shakers of the North Shore were there for the event, which focused on the continuing battle against not just bullying but all forms of discrimination.
Kraft was introduced by North Shore native and restaurateur, Steve DiFillippo, who owns several Davio’s restaurants in Greater Boston, including one at Patriot Place in Foxboro.
“He’s the smartest person I know,” DiFillippo said of Kraft.
Kraft said he was hesitant to take on the subject of bullying in sports because there are people on the North Shore with more firsthand knowledge of the subject, particularly police officers, teachers and coaches.
But his account of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal of last October riveted the crowd of 350, including about 100 high school student-athletes.
“Here you have a man who is 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds ... and he went to Stanford. So you know he’s pretty smart,” said Kraft. “His name is Jonathan Martin, and he walked out of the Dolphins facility one day because he couldn’t handle the harassment anymore.
“This was a big, strong young man with millions of dollars. He couldn’t take it any more. He was bullied,” said Kraft. “This incident broke the stereotype. Bullying can take shape in all shapes and sizes.”
Kraft said such bullying, hazing and other forms of harassment typically have a common cause.
“It’s a lack of leadership,” said Kraft. “When you have leaders on your team, in any sport at any level, captains and coaches won’t let bullying happen. They won’t accept it. That’s why this is important for the young people here. You can make a difference. You can do something about it.”
Kraft said coaching his eldest son, Harry, on several teams opened his eyes to the positive effect sports can have on children.
One incident in particular stays with him.
“It was a Little League game, for first place, and one of our lesser players was up with a chance to win the game,” recalled Kraft. “He ended up striking out. But it was what the team did, cheering him on while the at bat was happening. All of the kids walked up to him and patted him on the back. It was a little thing, but it made a kid feel better. I’ll never forget it.”
Several members of the Danvers High School football team were among the student guests at the breakfast. Two team captains said Kraft’s words resonated with them.
“It is up to us, the leaders, to make sure everyone feels welcome,” said Danvers junior Chris Behen, who also wrestles. “I remember when I was a freshman, feeling a little scared. A few seniors looked out for me. It meant a lot.”
“He definitely opened my eyes,” said quarterback Nick Andreas. “We wouldn’t be here (at this event) without coach (Shawn Theriault) wanting us here. That’s leadership right there. We all have a responsibility to be leaders, whether it’s on the field or off.”
Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said the subject of yesterday’s program was a timely as ever, with the furor over racially tinged comments by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in the news.
“The hope is if you see bullying, you’ll do something about it,” said Blodgett, addressing the students. “Do the right thing.”
Also at the breakfast, Swampscott Police Detective Rose Cheever and Newburyport High School cross country and track coach Donald Hennigar, who has been coaching at the school for 30 years, were presented with awards for their service. Cheever was honored for working with Swampscott schools to prevent bullying. Hennigar was honored for winning more than 20 coach of the year awards and for coaching one team of 40 athletes, all of whom made the honor roll.