According to many of Johnson’s famous friends, he’s long been a private wild man. Jann Wenner might tell you about the time they took a cross-country motorcycle trip with a bunch of dudes (including Michael Douglas), from the Tavern on the Green to the Golden Gate Bridge, and Johnson wore a helmet with fake black hair streaming out the back. Or Mitt Romney might relate the story of how Johnson visited his estate and, when no one else would test a rope-swing into a swimming hole, grabbed the rope and hurtled himself into the drink. One of Johnson’s better-known idiosyncrasies is his habit of zipping around New York on a three-wheeled push-scooter, which he rides from his home on the Upper West Side to his office in Rockefeller Center. “It’s so amazingly convenient,” he says. “If I’m going out to lunch, I can fold it up, give it to the hatcheck lady, and she’ll take it. When I get out—boom, I’m gone.” He’s such a scooter evangelist that he recently bought one for a friend, who was somewhat less taken with it. “I tried to give him lessons, but the only real lesson is, put your gloves on. You’re going to have to fall a few times.”
Johnson has had his share of stumbles. He was born Robert Wood Johnson IV in 1947, the great-grandson of one of the founders of Johnson & Johnson. As a child, his future seemed preordained: “I thought for sure I was working for J&J,” he says. “I was going to be like my dad, and my grandfather, and get a chance to make Band-Aids, and pharmaceutical drugs, and cure cancer, and do all that kind of stuff.” But he never got the chance to work for, let alone run, his namesake company. In 1965, when Woody was still a teenager, his father, then president of Johnson & Johnson, lost his position after a feud with Woody’s grandfather. Five years later, both men were dead, Woody was in his early twenties, and his door into the family business was closed.
“People say we talk too much,” says Johnson. “Fine. Whatever. Good.”
For a time, he drifted. He moved to Florida and got into real estate. A business partner from the seventies described the young Woody to the Times as having a Fu Manchu mustache, “his zipper open, sandals on, and long straggly hair.” Still, Johnson did well in business, augmenting his considerable fortune with a successful cable company. In the early eighties, Johnson toyed with investing in an NFL franchise in Tampa but decided it was a bad fit. He poured his energy into fund-raising, both charitable and political, becoming a major rainmaker for Republican pals like George W. Bush. Bush, of course, is another heir apparent to a family dynasty who spent some years in the wilderness before taking up sports ownership; he was part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.
In 1999, when longtime Jets owner Leon Hess died, Johnson went to Hess’s funeral and he was impressed to see the whole team in attendance. When the Hess family put the team on the market, Johnson moved quickly. He was drawn to the Jets “as a chance to compete in a very competitive environment.” After all, New York is a bigger stage than Tampa, and winning a Super Bowl is a better way to make your name than padding your inherited fortune in the cable business.
At the time, observers placed the Jets’ value at roughly $250 million, but the bidding war soared higher—much higher. “I dropped out at $510 million because my brains overruled the seat of my pants,” real-estate mogul Sam Grossman said at the time. Ultimately, the bidding came down to two suitors: Johnson and Charles Dolan, another cable magnate and owner of Madison Square Garden, the Rangers, and the Knicks. Johnson put in a bid for $625 million, then bumped it by another $10 million at the deadline, an offer Dolan didn’t match. This price tag was the highest ever for a New York sports franchise, and the third-highest for an NFL team. A columnist predicted that Johnson would “probably be content to let the all-powerful head coach [Bill Parcells] steer the ship while he provides a conservative, stable port.” As for Johnson, he’s described the day he was approved for ownership as “a moment where I knew my life had changed, and the journey began.” He says now, “I was looking for something to give me the same feeling” that he had about Johnson & Johnson. “I think football does a pretty good job of it.”
At the beginning of 2000, the Jets franchise had three things going for it: (1) the legend of Super Bowl III in 1969, when Broadway Joe Namath guaranteed, then delivered, an upset win; (2) the marketing cachet of being a New York–based team, even though they played their home games in a stadium in New Jersey that was shared with, and named for, the rival Giants, and (3) Parcells, a revered coach who’d led the Jets to the brink of the Super Bowl a year before. But in early January 2000, Parcells retired. He was supposedly leaving the team in the able hands of his chosen heir, Bill Belichick. Then Belichick quit as well. He announced his departure by scribbling a note on a scrap of paper—“I resign as HC of the NYJ”—right before a press conference intended to introduce him as the new coach. In the midst of this turmoil, the NFL approved Johnson’s bid for the team.