Typically, owners of major sports franchises are not lauded for much of anything. Either they are loudmouths like Mark Cuban, meddlers like Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones, divorcés like the McCourts, or incompetent like Donald Sterling and Al Davis.
Owners who are well-respected like Dan Rooney, Tom Hicks and John Henry don’t usually make headlines because they generally refrain from doing idiotic things.
Rarely is there a story about an owner which does not involve his or her wasting money on a star, berating referees to earn a hefty fine or firing a coach after seven games. Rarely do we think of owners as anything but rich, well-to-do employers of rich, well-to-do athletes. We do not typically picture these elite individuals as regular human beings and the thought of a tragedy striking them is almost unfathomable.
Enter Robert Wood Johnson IV, or Woody as he is affectionately known. Johnson, 62, is the heir to the Johnson & Johnson corporation as the great-grandson of the original Robert Wood Johnson, who co-founded the company. Woody Johnson has dedicated most of his life to philanthropy and purchased the New York Jets from Leon Hess in 2000. The Jets return to the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1998 on Sunday when they take on the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy.
Johnson is father to five children, three daughters and two sons, and his philanthropy is closely tied to the love he has for his kids. Doctors diagnosed daughter Casey with diabetes, prompting Johnson to donate heavily to causes related to the disease with which his first-born was afflicted. Johnson also serves as chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. His second daughter, Jaime, contracted lupus, inspiring her father to found the Alliance for Lupus Research.
Earlier this month on January 4th, Casey Johnson died at the age of 30. The cause of death has yet to be determined.
She died the day after the Jets clinched a playoff spot by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals, setting up a rematch with them in the wild card round. The Jets won the second matchup and then upset the San Diego Chargers to get to the AFC Championship. Needless to say, this return to the postseason for New York’s owner has not been all that he anticipated, as the Johnson family put Casey to rest during the playoffs. The ceremony was private and quiet, bittersweet for Woody Johnson and his beloved football team.
Casey was in the spotlight in her own right in recent years. She grew up on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and was known to pal around with fellow heiresses Paris and Nicky Hilton. The three were featured together in the 2002 documentary, “The It Girls”.
Ms. Johnson was also common tabloid fodder in the last six months, drawing headlines for questionable relationships and strange behavior. Just last month, Casey announced her engagement to Tila Tequila of reality show fame in an online video, earning raised eyebrows and even more questions.
But Casey Johnson’s life did have a deeper side. In 1994 she wrote a book with her parents entitled Managing Your Child’s Diabetes. Clearly, Casey’s battle with diabetes has fueled Woody’s passion for helping treat the disease.
Casey was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of eight in 1988. In addition to the book the Johnsons published, the family donated $10 million to a diabetes campaign in 1994 and had given at least $5 million more before Woody Johnson and his wife, Nancy, divorced in 2001.
In 2007, Casey Johnson adopted a child from Kazakhstan, whom she named Ava-Monroe. Today, she is survived by that daughter in addition to her parents and siblings.
The attention Casey received from the media didn’t always sit well with her and she struggled with it most of her life. Her love/hate relationship with her family’s history may have been best characterized in a 2007 interview with Life/Style Television. She said then:
“You really have to know why someone wants to be your friend. I’ve learned that the hard way. I’m Casey Johnson. I’m not The Johnson & Johnson Girl.”
In 2004, Casey’s cousin, Jaime produced “Born Rich,” a documentary on heirs to ridiculous fortunes. The piece explored the effect inheritances have on children and how they fare later in their lives. 11 other heirs to similar fortunes were also interviewed for the production.
Since the cause of death is not yet known, speculation on what Casey was involved in is inevitable. The torment that Woody Johnson must be feeling is incomprehensible for a man who has dedicated his life to serving others, many of whom shared the same misfortunes his daughters had, leading to his involvement in organizations that help research and treat lupus and diabetes.
Additionally, Johnson’s legacy of charitable acts includes being a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and being a successful lobbyist. In 2002, Johnson was effective in lobbying Congress for a five-year, $750 million package for funding diabetes research.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation invited Woody Johnson to join the board of the charity set up through his grandfather’s estate. He was the only member of the Johnson family asked to be a part of the foundation. The charitable organization has nearly $8 billion in assets and gives $1 billion annually, making it the United States’ largest foundation of its kind dedicated solely to health care.
Johnson had a sit-down with several reporters for 20 minutes on Thursday, acknowledging how difficult it is for him but that he is still behind his team and excited for what is to come. It was uncertain whether Johnson would attend the Jets’ game at Cincinnati, but he was there and in the end…when Head Coach Rex Ryan awarded him the game ball.
There can be no doubt that winning has been the best medicine for Woody Johnson, the man who gave so much only to lose something so dear just weeks ago. Ryan and his players have done a lot to ease the pain for Johnson and the owner reciprocates the same kind of care. Earlier in the year, he comforted long snapper James Dearth, who lost his mother.
Woody Johnson is not your typical owner. He cares deeply about people and helping those who are in need. While his fortune was inherited, what he has given back is immeasurable. The loss of his daughter is truly tragic, but perhaps these upstart Jets have just the medicine to cure Johnson’s gloom: a Super Bowl berth.
Here are my picks for the AFC and NFC Conference Championships. Lines are from Danny Sheridan as of Friday evening. Picks against the spread are in caps.
Indianapolis 27, NEW YORK JETS (+7 ½) 24
I don’t know if New York pulls this game out, but I think it will be very close. I will certainly be rooting for them as they are the underdog and I think it would be a great karma game for Indy to lose to the team they could have put their foot down on in Week 16 when they were 14-0 and let up. I see this game coming down to how well the Jets can control the ball with their running game and how many times they can force Peyton Manning and the Colts offense into field goals instead of touchdowns. I see it coming down to one possession and think that taking the points is the safest wager.
NEW ORLEANS (-3 ½) 38, Minnesota 24
I think the Superdome will be too much for Minnesota. Their defense can be beaten and Drew Brees certainly has the weapons to put up points. I also see Brett Favre rediscovering how to throw bad passes in big spots this game. The Viking running attack really has not been effective for some time and Favre has been asked to throw more. I see the Saint secondary coming up with big plays and think Darren Sharper will make his presence known to the team that let him walk. Add all that to the crazy crowd and the Saints being legit at home and I see New Orleans travelling to Miami for the Super Bowl.