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The Czar Is Born
MICHAEL MACCAMBRIDGE
October 04, 2004
During a period of personal turmoil in 1963, Pete Rozelle made a series of monumental moves that positioned the NFL to conquer the sports world. An excerpt from a new book
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October 04, 2004

The Czar Is Born

During a period of personal turmoil in 1963, Pete Rozelle made a series of monumental moves that positioned the NFL to conquer the sports world. An excerpt from a new book

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In addition to that, Rozelle's presence was now required at dozens of social events a month. His wife, Jane, had never enjoyed the spotlight, and her drinking, which friends had first noticed during Rozelle's tenure with Ken Macker's public relations firm in the '50s, had grown to troublesome proportions.

"In fairness I think Pete was married to pro football more than he was married to Jane," said his friend John Lehman. The specter of marital discord had grown so daunting by 1963 that Rozelle often found excuses to stay late at work. "He said he didn't want to go home," said one coworker at the league office. "So he'd stay out as long as possible and maybe when he got home, she'd be asleep."

When Dallas Cowboys vice president and general manager Tex Schramm and his wife, Marty, visited New York, they frequently made dinner appointments with the Rozelles. "At the last minute," said Schramm, "something would always come up. 'Jane's not feeling well' or 'Jane can't make it.' After a while we began to figure it out."

The year 1963 was a particularly taxing one for the Rozelle household. Jane was hospitalized for a few days in January and June, and after another setback in late September, she was admitted to another facility for extensive treatment of alcoholism.

"If I can look at what my life was, from [ages] one to 10, she might have been there 1 1/2 percent of the time," said Anne, the couple's only child, who turned five in 1963. "I mean, it was really small. Really small. My dad always made every school event; I don't know how he did that but he did. Then I went through a period where I was struggling in school, and I remember they said, 'She can't tell time.' So he would literally clear his calendar for an entire weekend and work all weekend long on, 'We're going to learn the time.'"

Rozelle compensated for Jane's absences by frequently bringing Anne along on road trips and letting her play in the NFL offices when he went into work on Saturday mornings. In these instances, Rozelle's secretary, Thelma Elkjer, often acted as a surrogate mother, taking the girl shopping or to dinner. He stayed in many nights, coming home from work and changing into a bathrobe, helping Anne with her homework or eating dinner in front of the TV, reading newspapers and novels and talking on the phone to CBS sports chief Bill MacPhail or Philip Morris executive Jack Landry or, most frequently and at greatest length, Kensil. It was not an ideal situation, but those closest to Rozelle never questioned the father's love for the daughter. At a time when men routinely eschewed the obligations of parenting, Rozelle was taking even more of it on himself.

The final straw for Rozelle came in a series of episodes in 1965, including one in which Jane threatened her daughter and a teenage nanny with a knife. Another afternoon, Elkjer patched through a call to Rozelle from his wife, asking him to come get her at a midtown bar. When he went to pick up Jane, he found Anne sitting on the barstool next to her.

"That convinced him that he had to get a divorce," said his friend and former University of San Francisco basketball coach Pete Newell. "Anne was the light of his life." In 1967, at a time when such a thing was virtually unheard of, Pete Rozelle was awarded custody of his daughter.

In white collar, his cultural history of the rising middle class, C. Wright Mills observed that by the '60s, postwar America had become "a great salesroom, an enormous file, an incorporated brain, and a new universe of management and manipulation." The sport that best reflected that change was pro football, and the league that was best able to create and capitalize on those changes was the NFL.

In essence, the NFL didn't merely sell a game, it created a full-force public relations strategy to bring the game to America. The league's two great marketing innovations came into being in approximately the same period. Both were ideas presented by outsiders, then embraced and honed to maximum advantage by Rozelle.

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