JERUSALEM, Israel – A good will tour of Israel by 18 NFL Hall of Famers and the league's most successful owner raised American football in Israel to a new level.
Two days after New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the Hall of Fame players met with Israeli football fans, they traveled across town where they saw what the future of American football will look like in Israel.
On the outskirts of Jerusalem, a new multi-sports complex is taking shape.
For centuries, pilgrims walked through the valley of Ha'Arazim on their way to Jerusalem. Today, pilgrims of a different sort – sports fans and players – will make their way here to the Kraft Family Sports Campus, home to the only regulation-size football field in Jerusalem and the Middle East.
Kraft partnered on the complex with the Jerusalem municipality.
"I'm trying to bring together two passions that I have – love of the State of Israel and love of football – bring it together, and I hope we celebrate it 50 years from now," he said.
Kraft, who first came to Israel in 1963, sees the center as another phase in Israel's restoration.
"It's amazing to me, in my lifetime, you know our people haven't been here for 2,000 years, and in my lifetime the state was created and then with the reunification of Jerusalem 50 years ago, I'm so honored," he said.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat called it a "classic win-win" for the nation's capital.
"It's a huge honor," Barkat said. "For hosting it, for having the football field carry the Kraft family name in it, it's a classic win-win for Jerusalem, the connection to football and the Kraft family."
For most of the 18 Hall of Famers who joined Kraft, it was their first visit to Israel.
"The highlight is seeing everything that I've seen, taking pictures of great images and things of that nature and knowing I'm in the city in the Holy Land where our Lord and Savior walked," said former Detroit Lions cornerback Lem Barney who wrote about his conversion to Jesus Christ in the book "The Supernatural."
"Well, it's something I've wanted to do for a long time," said Dallas Cowboys' former quarterback Roger Staubach, who has been called Captain Comeback. "We grew up in the Catholic Church and practice our faith through the Catholic Church so the chance to be in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and that history of you know Jesus Christ, so that was really good."
Joe Montana, considered by some the greatest NFL quarterback of all time said, "I think watching the boys, their first reaction to going to the holiest places in the world. We've been here once before so trying to let them experience for the first time and watching their expressions and watching their questions, it's been gratifying for us."
Despite a tense relationship because of the Patriots' Deflategate controversy, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell joined Kraft for the ceremony.
"Well this means a great deal for me [and] for the Kraft family," Goodell said. "And what they are doing here and the importance of Israel to the whole family – the fact that he's using the ambassadors of our great Hall of Famers to promote the game of football – is a real important benefit."