“Shawn, what will you have to drink?”
When you’re in your 20’s and the most powerful man in football asks you what you’d like to drink, your days at the University of St. Thomas immediately flash back to being asked that question a year earlier at a boat party celebrating graduation.
A year earlier I would have had a variety of answers to that question – yet when sitting and discussing business with Jerry Jones, I went the conservative route and stuck to a beer. He ordered his usual Johnny Walker, but made sure to mention he also enjoys Woodford Reserve.
Rewind roughly four years ago and I was sitting at a bar with Jerry Jones, his son Stephen, and the commissioner of the National Rugby Football League as we tried to sell Jerry on the idea of a pro rugby franchise in his luxurious AT&T Stadium.
We discussed holding a rugby combine to workout the hundreds of former NFL players that had been cut by teams. “Jerry imagine taking Tashard Choice, who you just released, take that same athlete and re-purpose him over the next nine months, and by the time the spring comes around he’s playing pro rugby in the same stadium he just played pro football in, for 1/10th of the price.”
I had him hooked – and I could tell by the look on his face and the way that he pointed at me when he was responding to me that the wheels were moving in his head.
But what I didn’t know is that Jerry and Stephen were in the process of finalizing plans on The Star, a first-of-its-kind headquarters for the Dallas Cowboys that includes a 12,000-seat football stadium, hotel, a sports therapy & research center, and their new practice fields and offices.
Bringing pro rugby to Dallas was not in the cards at the time.
However, what became apparent almost immediately from having off-the-record conversations with Jerry is that he is far and away the most powerful person in football. Not to be confused with the commissioner Roger Goodell, who we will get to soon, Jones has spear-headed the biggest issues in the league over the past decade on behalf of the owners. And when Jones comes to town in Mobile, Alabama, he is the one that gets first priority over others for the private back room at Ruth’s Chris.
“Good morning, how are you doing,” as he gave me a pat on the back at 7:30 AM. We were two of four people in the cafeteria getting breakfast before the rest of the world had woken up.
When you’re in your 20’s, working at the NFL league office for $13/hour, living in Manhattan, and can barely afford to pay for the Fruit Loops you’re about to buy for breakfast, it’s hard to put together a response to Roger Goodell, he of the $40 million salary in his five-figure suit.
I’d never met Goodell until that morning. As a low-level employee at the league office, it wasn’t covered in the employee manual (there wasn’t one) what you are supposed to call the “most powerful man in football” – is it “Commish” or “Roger” or “Rog”? I’ve found that it’s a far different title than just calling a coach, well “Coach.”
I responded with a first-thing-in-the-morning-I-know-you-don't-really-care, “Great, how are you.”
Now I could go on with a story telling that you Goodell gave me the inside scoop behind the Rams moving to Los Angeles. But he didn’t.
Instead, he offered up a smile, a nod of the head, and turned away to go buy his breakfast. I haven’t received word lately on whether he still shows his face in the cafeteria.
At no point in my time at the league office, while Ray Rice was being torched by the media and Adrian Peterson decided to discipline his son in his backyard in Texas, did I feel confidence in the superiors above me to make the correct decisions in directing the league. As the league has hired more and more “specialists” to assist Rog with the league’s troubles, it never was felt in the offices that those “specialists” were providing anything of substance – that or Goodell wasn’t listening to them.
As word leaked throughout the office that the NFL’s Regional Combines had become a train wreck and financial disaster, there was little optimism among my peers that Goodell was going to get the league out of its rut. The Player Personnel department (where I worked) is next to the NFL’s lawyers in the league’s offices. During my time there I saw new faces being hired on a weekly basis to take on what appeared to be a growing list of off-field problems. People were plucked from all over the country from corporate, legal offices, and from fresh out of college to aid the PR disaster that the league that taken on.
For all of the problems the league faced with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson in 2014, fast forward to 2017 and The Shield is taking on a Game of Thrones-like retaliation from owners upset with Goodell’s declining performance, from players who have been compared to “inmates running the asylum” from one of the owners, and from the fans, who are tired of the endless barrage of negative news and just want to watch the sport they love.
What those on the outside looking in do not realize is that inside of the largest power struggle in arguably the league’s history, is two guys that are having a proverbial dropping-of-the-pants contest and neither Jerry, nor Roger EVER loses that battle.
And when that battle has been made more public, and dirtier than can be imagined, it only goes to show that neither party will give in.
Goodell is prepared to stick his feet in the sand, walk to the bargaining table for the new CBA in 2020, and not move a muscle when the NFLPA asks for more. His prerogative will be to set a new standard for the league’s CBA while entrenching himself and burning bridges as he hands off the job of Commissioner to a newly-appointed successor.
Why isn’t Goodell ousted now and a new Commissioner be given a chance at the CBA to repair relationships? Roger has been so caught up in maintaining his $40 mill/year lifestyle that he forgot to groom his successor. The league is at a loss for who to replace Goodell with, which is why the hotly-debated extension is moving forward.
But here’s the kicker – when Roger Goodell went ahead and slapped a six-game suspension on Ezekiel Elliott, a crotch-grabbing power-move by Goodell to show who is the most powerful man in the league, it churned a raging fire inside of Jerry Jones, the likes of which likely have not been seen.
As a Johnny Walker-fueled Jerry Jones began to explain how he had developed The Star, and how he had convinced the other teams in the league to build a more year-round experience to attract more fans - the Green Bay Packers are following suit with their own Titletown District, and the Minnesota Vikings are building their new facilities in Eagan, MN, for example – I became drawn to the big picture vision that never seemed to end with Jerry.
He had built the most incredible stadium ever assembled, he owns “America’s Team”, and he was putting the first shovel in the dirt on The Star.
If at the same time, for the betterment of the NFL, he made sure to help the Rams move to LA, and assist the Raiders with their clever move to Las Vegas, it made me wonder if there was anything that Jones wasn’t capable of accomplishing.
Over the next five years, this much is for certain – there will be a new commissioner to usher in the next decade of pro football. Whether that person is Jerry Jones remains to be seen. However, given his ability to move mountains, manipulate and dictate the thinking of the other 31 owners, and to establish his franchise as the most forward-thinking in the league, it is very apparent that he will have his hands all over the future of the NFL.
As Jerry and his entourage of family and friends hopped into the limo that night in Mobile, Alabama he left me with one last message, “The party is just getting started, Shawn.”
@ShawnZobel on Twitter