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Peter King
February 07, 2011
A politician's son who rose from intern to NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell presides over a multibillion-dollar juggernaut that will revel in its own success down in Dallas. Afterward, though, he'll face his greatest test of will and character
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February 07, 2011

The Man Of The Hour

A politician's son who rose from intern to NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell presides over a multibillion-dollar juggernaut that will revel in its own success down in Dallas. Afterward, though, he'll face his greatest test of will and character

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At the same time, his mother, who was divorced from his father in 1978, was gravely ill with breast cancer that had spread to her brain. The other boys were away at jobs or school, so Roger, living at home in Bronxville, became a caregiver. Jean was an independent woman, but as her health declined, she needed help with everything. Her 23-year-old son eased her in and out of bed, took her to the bathroom and the kitchen, early in the morning and late at night, until in the last week of her life hospice workers came in. Jean died on March 21, 1984.

Bill Goodell's voice cracks as he talks about the work his little brother did at home: "Being there for her... . It was just a beautiful thing."

Goodell's first project upon being hired full-time by Rozelle in 1984 was to persuade college players not to sign with the rival United States Football League. Goodell and longtime Cowboys executive Gil Brandt traveled to bowl games and All-America gatherings to argue that the USFL's money was fool's gold. "We had an 800 number set up to ring into Roger's office, and gave it to all the players," Brandt says. "He'd never lie to 'em. He'd never tell a fourth-round guy he was going in the first round. But I think we saved some guys from signing in the USFL." At a black-college all-star game in 1985, Goodell laid a pro-NFL pitch on a little-known receiver out of Mississippi Valley State—Jerry Rice. He signed with the 49ers.

When Tagliabue succeeded Rozelle in 1989, he began trusting Goodell with jobs beyond the public-relations realm. Some didn't work, like the initiative to keep the NFL in Los Angeles. Goodell made scores of trips to the West Coast in the mid-'90s, forming a partnership with Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley and working to build a football stadium in Chavez Ravine. But Goodell and O'Malley couldn't make the economics work, and Goodell told Tagliabue that the league was better off making no deal than a bad one. When the NFL's 32nd franchise began play in 2002, it was in Houston, not L.A.—a rare failure for the league's rising star.

Goodell had better success with another franchise issue. In November 1995 Browns owner Art Modell announced he was moving his team from Cleveland to Baltimore. For such a storied football city to lose its team was a disaster for the league. Clevelanders were so ticked off that whoever was dispatched from New York to soothe them would be Public Enemy No. 2, behind Modell. Tagliabue sent Goodell to work out a deal that would put an existing or new franchise in the city. "Roger took a ball that was flatter than a pancake and blew it up," says Tagliabue.

It was clear in early negotiations that a new stadium would be vital to any chance of success, and Goodell told the city's chief negotiator, Fred Nance, that fans would have to help fund the construction by purchasing personal seat licenses throughout the stadium's lower bowl. Nance and Mayor Michael White were skeptical of the idea, and longtime Browns fans pleaded to keep costs down in a city whose economy was tanking. Finally Goodell devised a compromise: exempt the 10,000 seats in the Dawg Pound from PSLs. That won over Nance and the mayor. Still, Goodell would need 12 of 21 votes on the City Council to approve a stadium plan after it was agreed to by the city and the NFL. Only seven council members were solid yeses, leaving Goodell to politick with White and Nance. Eventually they got six more votes, the stadium was approved, and in 1999 the Browns returned to the NFL, keeping their name, their traditional colors and their old records.

"There would not have been a deal without Roger," says Nance. "No way. He came into a city under siege and was hard-nosed and stubborn. But he was sensitive to figuring out what we had to have to make a deal, and how much he could compromise knowing he had the owners to answer to whatever he did."

That's the reputation Goodell developed—problem-solver—on matters big and small. When the Rolling Stones were scheduled to perform at Super Bowl XL in February 2006, it was Goodell, at the time the NFL's chief operating officer, who ordered the suggestive lyrics in Start Me Up and Rough Justice to be censored or he'd replace the Stones with Stevie Wonder. When the lyrics in question were sung, all America heard was crowd noise.

Goodell also helped salvage the NFL career of Joe Cullen, the former Lions defensive line coach who was cited for indecent exposure in 2006 (he'd driven naked through a Wendy's drive-through) and arrested for DUI shortly thereafter, resulting in a one-game NFL suspension. Goodell followed Cullen's career and, satisfied that he was serious about his sobriety, wrote a strong letter of support when Cullen applied for the Jaguars' defensive line job a year ago. "Roger called and gave a very strong recommendation," Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver said. "We would not have hired Joe without that recommendation."

When Tagliabue retired in 2006, Goodell seemed a slam dunk to succeed him. But league attorney Gregg Levy mounted a strong candidacy, and Goodell had only a three-vote edge after the first ballot of league owners. "I think a lot of owners looked at me as a mini-Tag," says Goodell. "Like, does this guy really have anything on his own?"

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