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Woody and the Jets

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All of this has rubbed off on Johnson. People close to Johnson say that Ryan better reflects his natural personality—and that Johnson bristled while married to Mangini—but Johnson says he’s learned from Ryan’s praise-God-and-pass-the-ammo approach. Which means he’s finally able to fully enjoy being Woody Johnson, Jets owner. He’s become a much more hands-on presence than in his early days. “It’s a special feeling when your owner seems concerned with your day-to-day life,” says Scott. “That’s when you get that special relationship, that Jerry Maguire–type relationship.” Mike Tannenbaum says of Johnson, “Players in camp from other teams say they’ve seen more of Woody here than they saw of their other owners in ten years.”

For a decade, the gold standard of NFL organizations has been Belichick’s Patriots: Grim, professional, businesslike. That approach was imported by Mangini. Now Johnson’s feeling is, to paraphrase his current coach: Fuck that. “There are some very tight teams that have done very well,” he says. “But our style is, we’re not afraid to make mistakes. If you’re afraid of your own shadow, or you’re afraid of saying the wrong word, or you’re afraid you’re going to embarrass yourself or your team, that’s not who I want to be. That’s not who Rex wants the team to be.”

Last season, Johnson’s new openness was tested in January when his 30-year-old daughter, Casey, died in Los Angeles. Casey, estranged from her father (Johnson, married twice, has five children), was a gossip-page fixture, a cohort of Paris Hilton, and the fiancée of the bisexual reality star Tila Tequila. Initial reports speculated she’d died of an overdose—she’d had trouble with drugs—but the coroner declared it complications due to her diabetes. Johnson discussed with his executives the matter of dealing with the press. He decided that, if his players were willing to take the field days after a tragedy (one player had, in fact, lost his father earlier in the season), he couldn’t close down himself. Talking to a Times reporter, Johnson said his daughter’s death made him feel like a failure as a parent and that he’d once hoped her move to California, away from the family, might help her find her way—as his youthful wanderings had helped him. The news of her death broke shortly before the Jets’ playoff game in Cincinnati and Johnson watched the game stoically from his box. After the win, Ryan gave Johnson the game ball. Johnson cried.

“New York fans don’t care if you make mistakes, if you’re authentic. Well, they don’t like too many mistakes.”

It would be incorrect to say that, in Ryan, Johnson has found a kindred spirit. Ryan is huge and boisterous, and Johnson, with his glasses, his ball cap, and his Jet-green ties, can seem tiny and stiff by comparison. If Ryan was the star of Hard Knocks, Johnson made awkward cameos. In one memorable scene, Ryan and Johnson are working out side by side on a pair of treadmills. Ryan laughs good-naturedly about his bulk; checking the monitor, he jokes, “Heart rate: 2,000.” Meanwhile, Johnson, the notorious health nut and sixteen years Ryan’s senior, breaks into a brisk jog.

Yet they’re strikingly close. In an effort to lose weight, Ryan had lap-band surgery in the off-season, “and who does the research about it? Woody does,” Ryan says. “He tells me, this is where you need to go. You know what I mean? He’s behind me 100 percent. Some guys wouldn’t be. They’d say, ‘This is an embarrassment to the organization or whatever.’ Not Woody. Woody cares about me.” When Ryan was getting criticized for his excessive profanity on Hard Knocks, Johnson pulled him aside and said, “I love it. Whatever you’re doing, do it again.” He admires Ryan’s attitude, his infectious approach, and his tough talk. “Rex announced before the season we were going to the Super Bowl,” he says. “He was very matter-of-fact. You’re not going to want to play us. This is going to be a tough mother of a team.”

In this sense, Ryan and Johnson are parallels: Both were raised in a family business (Ryan’s father, Buddy, is a legendary coach and was an assistant on the ’69 championship Jets), and both were steeped in the attendant expectations. Ryan, though, has had a chance to wear his mantle, and does so with admirable ease. When Johnson talks about Rex’s version of the Jets, it always comes back to identity: We’re confident. We’re authentic. We know who we are. It’s a philosophy Johnson’s bought into. In the midst of his sixth decade, he’s grown into his own skin and is having a blast. “People can tell a phony a mile off,” he explains. “And the New York media, the fans, they don’t like phonies. They don’t care if you make mistakes, if you’re authentic. They’ll let you make mistakes.” He thinks about it. “Well, they don’t like too many mistakes.”


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