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That done, Werblin dropped in to see his old fishing buddy "Bobby"—that's Robert W. Sarnoff, then chairman of the board of RCA—and came away with a $36 million TV contract for the foundering AFL. "The football writers came running," Werblin recalls. "Other high draft choices went AFL and the league was off and winging."
But as the Jets climbed to the top of the league in attendance and edged toward destiny in Super Bowl III, relationships in the front office deteriorated to the point where in 1968 Werblin sold his 23.4% share for $1,638,000. Shortly after assuming the presidency of the Jets, Don Lillis spoke on behalf of the partners. "The team was Sonny's whole life and he did a great job," he said. "But we were on the outside peeking in. We were completely forgotten men. Nobody knew there were other owners. And that's what led to the disagreement. We had a lot of money invested and all we were getting out of it was a free box and a free lunch before the game. We offered to sell and when Sonny said no, we said what the hell, we'll buy you out."
"It was sheer jealousy," says Werblin. "Before the team was a success they were never around. You didn't see them in Kansas City when it was 14� below and your feet stuck to the metal floor. But the moment a profit appeared, we were suddenly running everything by committee, and everyone knows you can't run an entertainment enterprise by committee.
"They offered to sell, but the price was not right and they wanted cash down. So I made my offer and that's when Leon Hess told me, 'I'll never sell as long as you stay in.' So then I agreed to sell and I never spoke another word to any of them again. I just don't want to know people like that."
Shunted to a seat on the 10-yard line, Werblin watched with bittersweet emotions as the Jets powered their way through the season and on to an upset 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. "I was happy the boys won," he says, "but it hurt to see the way they've come apart since then. But I had my choice and I refuse to look back."
When Werblin left the Jets, he occupied himself with his partnership with Johnny Carson in Raritan Enterprises (producers of the Tonight Show), his racing stable, medical data-bank firm, investment company, real estate interests and seats on the boards of Rutgers, Monmouth Park, the New Jersey National Bank and the Lake Isles Country Club. To his football friends, he said, "I'll be back."
That it would be in the guise of the Jersey Swamp Fox is a role that not even Sonny Starmaker could have dreamed up. But then the Hackensack Meadowlands is not your everyday bog. Carved by a glacier some 25,000 years ago, it is a reedy channel, three miles wide and seven miles long, that follows the meandering Hackensack River northward from Newark Bay to just west of the George Washington Bridge. Named for the local Indian tribe, the Hackensack is the lifeline for a maze of tidal streams that have been resisting man's encroachment since the Dutch first tried diking and draining the marsh in the 17th century. By the late 1960s the area had degenerated into one colossal garbage dump; 50,000 tons of solid waste were being carted into the marsh each day. Dammed upstream and choked off below, the Hackensack River was close to dying.
In 1968 the state legislature created the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission to perform the tricky balancing act of cleaning up the environmental mess while exploiting the economic potential of 20,000 acres of marsh, an area larger than the island of Manhattan. Talk of including a major league stadium in the Hackensack Meadowlands master plan began in earnest when the Cahill administration took office in 1970. Trouble was, stadiums are such notoriously low-return enterprises that 70% of those built in the U.S. have had to be financed with taxpayers' dollars. And Cahill was loath to take that politically sensitive risk in New Jersey.
So State Treasurer Joe McCrane, a linebacker on the Davis-Blanchard teams at West Point, came up with a novel alternative. Float a public tax-free bond issue to raise the money for a stadium and a racetrack. Then use the profits generated by the horses (which figured to be about 30 times greater than those produced by the stadium) to pay off the whole lot and—voil�!—it's kickoff time in the swamp.
Though skeptical, Cahill agreed in the hope that the sports complex would relieve the state's "identity crisis" and be the "catalyst that sets the Meadowlands on fire." He recalls, "Everybody, including the New Jersey press, banged the idea. And I realized that this was going to be my crown of glory or crown of thorns. 'Cahill's Folly,' some people started calling it. But this is America and sports are a symbol. You've not really arrived until you have a major league team. So the sports complex seemed like just the thing to change New Jersey's image."