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The labor headache looms. Goodell, more than anyone, is the man who can make it go away.
The NFL has had three commissioners since 1960: Pete Rozelle, the heavy-smoking deal-maker who realized the great value of television in building the league; lawyerly Paul Tagliabue, who kept the train rolling into a period of immense prosperity; and Goodell, a politician's son and Tagliabue's longtime top lieutenant, who is probably best known so far for being the tough cop with players. But Goodell has turned into a better communicator and listener than Tagliabue was. Several owners told SI they feel far more connected to the league office and to the commissioner himself than they did under the previous regime. Owners also feel Goodell allows them to state their case and speak their minds more freely. In two sessions covering nearly seven hours with his negotiating committee and the full ownership group in Fort Worth, Texas, in December, Goodell did nothing but listen and take notes. Asked by Richardson after the sessions if he had anything to add, Goodell said, "No, but thanks for the way you ran the meeting."
Goodell has become as much the face of the NFL as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. He tweets (@NFLCommish), though stiffly; he's never met a talk show on which he couldn't impart his message; he does fan chats on NFL.com. He blind-calls fans who e-mail him, text-messages players and coaches daily, gives his cell number out generously (including to a Cincinnati high school athletic director who had ideas for getting more NFL alums involved in coaching football), talks to tailgaters at most games he attends and sometimes just stops on the street for a quick chat with a fan about the game.
He can schmooze like Rozelle, and if he's not as cerebral as Tagliabue, he more freely embraces the new. As Tagliabue's top aide, Goodell pushed for the Thursday-night season opener to make the start of a new NFL year a bigger event. Last year Goodell moved the first round of the draft to prime time on Thursday, where it drew more viewers than the NBA playoffs. "Change before you're forced to change," he told owners when he campaigned for the commissioner's job in August 2006. "Find a better solution."
The former Bronxville (N.Y.) High football co-captain has an affection for the game that crops up even at the oddest times. On the evening of Dec. 20, eight hours after a stern face-off with Brett Favre over Favre's alleged harassment of a Jets sideline reporter in 2008, Goodell sat in the stands in frigid Minneapolis to watch the Vikings play the Bears. Favre started despite a shoulder injury. On the first series of the game, he rolled right and zinged a pass to Percy Harvin for an 11-yard gain. "The guy's unbelievable!" Goodell yelled.
But the commissioner has a cold and confrontational side that serves him well in staring down miscreants and business adversaries alike. "The way Roger talked to me when I was still hiding from what I'd done was such a slap in the face," says Michael Vick. "Like, 'Don't you lie to me!' With stronger language than that. It was rough."
If there is one thing I want to accomplish in my life besides becoming commissioner of the NFL, it is to make you proud of me.
—ROGER GOODELL, writing to his father, 1981
The third of Charles and Jean Goodell's five sons, Roger was three months old when his father entered the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican congressman from western New York in May 1959. In the ensuing years the boys played a big part in Charles Goodell's political campaigns. "In those days," said Bill, the oldest brother, "[voters] wanted to see the candidate's family. So the boys got out with our dad." In the 1966 campaign Roger was assigned to hand out kitchen sponges, the kind that expand to 10 times their size when wet, with GOODELL FOR CONGRESS printed on them. A sudden rainstorm soaked the sponges, ruining them, and little Roger felt he'd blown his assignment.
The boys lived half the year in Washington, D.C., becoming friendly with the Mondale kids and the Udall kids and others in Washington political circles, and half the year in idyllic Chautauqua, N.Y. Education was a vital part of family life; the boys remember their dad reading the dictionary from cover to cover to improve his vocabulary. "And Mom managed the chaos very well," says Bill, 55. "Five boys, a Great Dane, two cats, parakeets. The house was so warm, so welcoming, because of Mom."