By Peter Perl
Sunday, September 15, 2002
The hard rubber ball smacks off the front wall, and, just as it hits the polished wood floor, Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, is all over it. He smashes it hard and low into the right corner, so I have no chance. Now it's Snyder's serve: He wins the first point, then the second. I haven't played racquetball in years; Snyder plays, quite competitively, at least three times a week. Very quickly, Dan Snyder is getting bored.
"I'll spot you 11 and we play to 15," he says.
"No way," I say.
"I'm spotting you 11. You got 11, I got 2; 11 to 2, and I'll still beat you."
We'd been talking about playing racquetball since I'd first met him six weeks earlier in his office at Redskins Park to propose writing an article about him. He'd had decidedly mixed feelings. "You're gonna trash me. The media always trashes me," he'd said, eyeing me skeptically over the rims of his eyeglasses as he sat, swigging a bottle of water, his shiny black shoes propped on his large, handsome rosewood desk. He seemed convinced this story would be like others that he said have portrayed him as brash, arrogant, aggressive, greedy, meddlesome. I assured him that trashing him was not my intent.
"You smoke cigars?" he said, abruptly veering the conversation.
"Uh, once in a while."
"You drink beer?"
"You play racquetball?"
"No, not really. . ."
"Good, I can beat you," he said, smiling. "We'll play for money."
I laughed. "How much we playing for?"
"How much you got?" He smiled boyishly.
"Not quite as much as you," I said to the man who by age 34 had built a $2 billion international advertising empire and put together the $800 million bid for the Redskins, the most ever paid for a North American sports franchise, and who now, at 37, owns arguably the richest team in the National Football League and still has probably a few hundred million left over. Despite wealth and fame, he described himself in our first meeting as a fundamentally simple fellow: "I smoke cigars. I drink beer. I play racquetball," he said. "I'm a guy's guy."
Having thereby established how much we had in common, Snyder agreed we would "hang out" a bit, do some interviews and play racquetball. But in the following days and weeks, he lost interest in all of that, even the racquetball. "I don't want you to see how competitive I am," he said in a phone call. "I'm insane when I play. I wanna win." But finally, he relented and scheduled a match at Redskins Park, with a challenge: "Hey, Pete, you ready for a can?" Snyder asked, his voice oozing locker-room bravado.
"A can," he said. "I'm gonna open a can of whup-ass!"
Racquetball is the ideal sport for Dan Snyder. It is intense hand-to-hand combat in a confined space. He likes the action fast and furious. He plays all the angles, and he loves to go for the kill shot. It's also a sport in which he is not hampered by his somewhat diminutive stature: He's almost 5 foot 9, although in various media accounts he's been shrunk to 5-6 or even smaller, while being labeled, among many other things, a "pint-size pompous jerk."
Even with the handicap, he beats me, 15-13. I ask if we can take a break for a drink of water. He says no, we have to play again, right now. This time he spots me 13 points, and still beats me, 17-15, barely breaking a sweat.
But then we are joined by his regular racquetball partner, Redskins personnel director Vinny Cerrato, a lean, muscular former college quarterback at Iowa State. They play a ferocious match for the next half-hour, and Snyder is getting beaten. Only now do I see what Snyder meant when he told me several times in the past weeks, "I'm still a kid . . . I'm just a kid." As he is losing, he pouts. He grimaces. He curses. He shakes his head in disgust. He hits the wall with his fancy racket. Then he kicks the wall with his new Reeboks. He gets so mad at one point, he jumps up and down in a tantrum, pounding both feet simultaneously.
Then Snyder rallies, and he comes back to tie Cerrato at 10-10. Now, he's taunting, "C'mon! C'mon!" He turns to shout a challenge at Cerrato after winning a point, "C'mon, [two-word expletive]!" After much more cursing, kicking and theatrics, finally, Cerrato prevails.
Afterward, I ask Snyder why he is so driven to win, all the time, in all aspects of his life. He answers dismissively: "I don't have a clue." Then he and Cerrato share a laugh about just how competitive they are: Not long ago, Cerrato learned his wife was pregnant with their first child, a boy. Snyder and his wife, Tanya, who have two young daughters, were coincidentally expecting their first boy. So, from the obstetrician's office, Cerrato announced his big news by calling Snyder and leaving a message on his cell phone: "My boy's gonna kick your boy's ass." Then Snyder called back and left his friend a most unusual congratulatory message that consisted of only two choice words.
Daniel M. Snyder gets so nervous on Redskin game days, he spends a good deal of his time in the bathroom. He has the seemingly boundless enthusiasm and energy of a child, an internal engine that is always running at one of two speeds: fast and faster. He is excited by new things: products to sell, players to sign, marketing ideas to try out. He often just can't wait until morning, conducting much of his business in late-night phone calls because he doesn't like to sleep. He wolfs down burgers and ice cream, and loves going to movies. His frenetic pace and constant motion prompted Tanya, his wife of eight years, to give him the nickname "The Torpedo."
Like a willful child, Snyder sometimes can appear impetuous or insecure. After buying the team in 1999, he quickly fired or otherwise eliminated dozens of Redskins employees, including some he had assured, in writing, that their jobs were safe. He then hired but rapidly lost a handful of new executives who were turned off by his blunt, demanding style. The next season, he became the talk of the NFL by spending an unprecedented $100 million on payroll, buying free-agent superstars like Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith in what seemed a frenzied need for immediate fulfillment. His big spending, coupled with his highly publicized firings of three head coaches in a 13-month span, earned him a reputation as hotheaded and impulsive. In the merciless world of 24-hour sports journalism, Snyder became "Boy George," a reference to much-reviled New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and "The Danny," a comparison to the self-importance of onetime billionaire "The Donald" Trump. The nationally syndicated comic strip "Tank McNamara" parodied him for months as a money-mad mogul and named Snyder its "Sports Jerk of the Year" for 2000. "I get the impression that if Dan Snyder went one-on-one with Saddam Hussein," a Fox sports commentator said then, "you'd root for Saddam Hussein."
Young, rich and forceful, Snyder became the embodiment of the 21st-century sports owner, a sort of Rorschach image of wealth and power: Some saw in him the shape of a cold, calculating bully who raised prices while ruthlessly eliminating all traces of the previous paternalistic Redskins owners, Jack Kent Cooke and his son John. Others saw in Snyder a marketing genius bringing a long-overdue vitality to a proud but faded franchise, the ultimate diehard fan whose love for the team and whose wallet are joyfully boundless.
In Snyder's early tenure, "the mind-set that permeated was management through fear and intimidation," says John Maroon, the former Redskins public relations director who quit less than a year after he was hired. That first year, "it was my way or the highway . . . There was a palpable fear among game-day employees," says Phil Hochberg, the longtime voice of the Redskins public-address system until retiring after the 2000 season.
"People do get intimidated by Dan, and by me," says Karl Swanson, a self-described Snyder "henchman" who worked for his advertising firm and is now a vice president of the Redskins. Snyder is a challenging boss who relentlessly asks questions, expects answers, rewards excellence and doesn't tolerate mediocrity, Swanson says. "Everybody knows it can get rough-and-tumble--and it's fun. Unless you have the confidence and the ego to support your own beliefs, then you won't be very happy here."
As he begins his fourth season owning the Redskins, Snyder is trying to achieve a new maturity and stability, both for the team and for himself as owner. "He wants instant gratification. He says that's not true, but I tell him, 'You have to learn to be patient,' " says former Redskin quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, a Snyder friend and confidant. "He understands it, but he gives you the impression that he does not--but he really does, I think."
The problem for Snyder is that he is not winning. Not enough to suit him, anyway, as underachieving Redskin teams have gone 8-8 the past two seasons and haven't made the playoffs since 1999. That's why Snyder this season spent a record $25 million on a five-year contract to hire the University of Florida's Steve Spurrier, one of the most successful and charismatic coaches in college football history. The size of the Spurrier deal infuriated other NFL owners, because it raised the salary bar for all other pro coaches. It renewed Snyder's image as the man who would pay anything for a Super Bowl and, therefore, the man everyone loves to beat.
His will to win is so consuming that Snyder has little time or inclination to look backward on his humble past. He grew up in a close-knit but financially struggling family, occupying modest apartments in Silver Spring and Rockville. He was an unremarkable student with little interest in school, a notably limited attention span and few close friends. He dropped out of the University of Maryland soon after he dropped in. His greatest passion as a kid was putting on his white Redskins jersey, with Sonny Jurgensen's No. 9, and eating his mother's special "Redskins chili" while watching on TV with his sister and parents as the legendary quarterback led his beloved team to victory.
Now, the same kid with the perpetually youthful face is preparing to move into a spectacular 14-acre compound overlooking the Potomac River that formerly belonged to King Hussein of Jordan. Snyder paid $10 million to buy the estate in Potomac--and tore down the king's 11,444-square-foot limestone and stucco mansion to build something better. His sister and parents still live nearby, except now they are all multi-millionaires from the years they worked, often without pay, to help him build a company that became Snyder Communications Inc. He flies cross-country and abroad in his 12-passenger Challenger jet with the Redskins logo. His shorter hops will be aboard his new $6 million Eurocopter, painted in the team's burgundy and gold. He spent $20 million to build a 166-foot yacht in Rotterdam, with a crew of 12, but then sold it when he decided he didn't have the time to enjoy it. And the nerdy kid who had few friends in high school is now almost constantly surrounded by his business and sports buddies, a devoted posse of Snyder followers including Jurgensen, the Hall of Fame quarterback and broadcaster who is now his cigar-smoking comrade and trusted football adviser.
The transformation of Snyder from a little-known businessman into a Washington celebrity has been at times bewildering for him. He proudly displays the photographs and positive stories, reveling in his presence in gossip and society columns, but he still covets his privacy and smolders with anger about each of the shots he has taken in the media. "I became portrayed as a meddling jerk and a rich Harvard kid driving daddy's BMW," he says. "[Expletive]! I dropped out of college, and we didn't even have a car till I was 17 . . . The people who've trashed me don't even know me," he says. Yet for weeks Snyder remains evasive; he repeatedly avoids requests for a sit-down interview; he proffers an invitation to his home, but changes his mind; he agrees to a private dinner, but midway through the meal calls a close friend to join us, suggesting I interview him instead.
Snyder goes through five newspapers a day and has three television monitors in his office, but says he's finished paying attention to media criticism. He believes he remains quite popular with the one constituency that he says really matters to him, the one he says shows him an overwhelming approval rating by faithfully renewing season tickets: "I represent the [expletive] fans, and the fans are good! The fans are right!"
In his first years owning the team, Snyder acknowledges, "I came on too strong. I made mistakes . . . I just do stupid things sometimes." But he points to his remarkable business career as evidence that "I can be patient. I didn't get where I am without being patient." He says he is trying to learn how to apply that quality to his greatest passion. "Winning? It's just me. I like to compete . . . Show me someone who is comfortable with losing and I'll show you a loser."
On the lush green field, all four potential Redskin quarterbacks are taking snaps simultaneously in a synchronized sequence that looks beautifully balletic. They backpedal, dip their heads, swing their hips, swivel their shoulders, and unleash tight spirals under the watchful eye of Coach Spurrier. It is opening day of June minicamp at Redskins Park, and Snyder's attention is riveted, particularly upon No. 11, Patrick Ramsey, the 6-2, 217-pounder from Tulane University who is the Redskins' first-round draft choice and designated "quarterback of the future."
"You see that arm? You see the zip? You see the way the ball moves?" Snyder asks, his voice rising, his cadence quickening. "Watch his arm! Watch this! Watch this!" Snyder is sitting on the sidelines in a plush white boat chair, alongside Jurgensen and Snyder's longtime business mentor and minority Redskins owner, Fred Drasner. Snyder is literally bouncing in and out of his chair. Jurgensen's quietly puffing his way through a big stogie at 10 a.m., and Drasner is talking about a diet that lost him 21 pounds, which brings up one of Snyder's favorite topics: food. At play, Snyder is often planning one or two meals ahead, asking his friends where they want to have lunch or dinner. Or he is reminiscing about great meals past. "Man, I had the best piece of pie last night," Snyder tells Drasner. "Old Angler's Inn. Oh man! Great pie!"
His enthusiasm quickly swings back to the field. He seems to know most of his players--strengths, weaknesses, work habits, personalities, salaries, wives' or girlfriends' names. But he's particularly interested in rookies he helped recruit, like Ramsey and Rock Cartwright of Kansas State, who's just made a great play. "You see that catch?" Snyder exclaims. "He's like 5-6, 240. I call him 'Thumper.' You see him run? See that?"
"You just like him 'cause he's your height," Jurgensen says. "Maybe the only guy you're bigger than." Jurgensen laughs and so does Snyder.
The quarterbacks take turns throwing, and now it is Ramsey. "You see that zip on his ball?" Snyder exclaims. "He is a big boy! He's a man! . . . Whaddya think, Sonny?"
The moment has come for the legendary No. 9 to make his pronouncement, which he does with the solemnity of a papal ruling. Sonny rests a hand on his ample gut, lets go a puff of white smoke from his cigar and declares: "He's got the best arm of the four."
Snyder smiles. For the moment, all is right with the world. It's not just a promising QB that makes him happy, particularly because Snyder knows a strong arm alone doesn't produce a winning quarterback. More important is the promise of a new coach, the hope that Spurrier can rekindle the magic of Joe Gibbs, who led Cooke's teams to three Super Bowls. Dan Snyder does not like to dwell on his turbulent, almost comical history with coaches. He still harbors harsh feelings for Marty Schottenheimer, whom he fired a year after excitedly declaring that Schottenheimer was his coach of the future. He believes Norv Turner also had to go, although he acknowledges now it was "stupid" to fire him with three games left in the 2000 season, when the team still could have made the playoffs. Neither former coach would comment about Snyder for this story.
Soon, Snyder lights up a big cigar. "It just feels much better this year," he says. Snyder insists his relationship with Spurrier is the real thing, not like all the others. "With Spurrier, just watch him out there. He is coaching. He is not managing the team, but coaching the players. He is inspiring them. He is talking to them. Teaching. It's a wonderful thing to watch . . . Now, this is enjoyable."
The appeal of the Redskins to Snyder sometimes seems mystical. For years as a kid, he constantly wore his lucky Redskins belt buckle. After he bought the team, he had a silver Redskins buckle custom-made by a jeweler in New York as a charm to bring victory.
As a child, he rarely got to go to games, and then usually in the nosebleed seats. At RFK Stadium and on television, the avid young fan would catch glimpses of Jack Kent Cooke, the city's long-reigning sports monarch, holding court in his owner's box. As Snyder rose in the business world--and languished for more than a decade on the season-ticket waiting list--he told friends and family that he harbored the dream of one day owning the Redskins, although today he likes to claim, unconvincingly, that he only became seriously interested after Cooke's death in 1997.
Snyder says he regrets never knowing the flamboyant, often-outrageous elder Cooke. Then, in one of the few anecdotes he offers about his past, he volunteers that he actually met Jack Kent Cooke once, briefly, when Snyder was 27 and he took a young lady on a weekend date to see the Redskins play the Buffalo Bills in the 1992 Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
Snyder says he wangled his way into the VIP area where Cooke was presiding over the gleaming silver Vince Lombardi Trophy. Brimming with joy at the Redskins' victory, Snyder says, he felt a sudden urge to kiss the Super Bowl trophy. So the fresh-faced kid approached the 79-year-old Cooke and asked if he could. The sometimes cantankerous Cooke at first seemed taken aback by the bold request, but then replied, in his characteristic fashion: Of course, my dear boy.
So the young businessman smooched the gleaming trophy. Snyder's date thought he was crazy, and the relationship didn't last. I ask him why he did it. "Too many beers, I guess," he says. "I don't really know."
Snyder the salesman can get just as excited as Snyder the Redskins fan, particularly when the product he is selling is the Redskins brand name. Indeed, to the great dismay of Redskin fans, the team's greatest triumphs of the Snyder era have not been on the field, but at the cash registers.
Since taking the name of Jack Kent Cooke off the Redskins' stadium and selling the naming rights to Federal Express for $205 million, Snyder has turned FedEx Field in Landover into one gigantic point of sale, saturated with colorful advertising. Snyder has spent lavishly, an estimated $50 million in stadium improvements for the fans' comfort, enjoyment, care and feeding--and for the creation of an opulent, clubby atmosphere of leather and mahogany in luxury seating that goes for up to $3,400 per seat and at least $220,000 for a suite per season. Near the choicest seats, there are even flat-screen TVs above each urinal, so guys never have to miss a single play. Snyder has sharply increased ticket prices and boosted seating capacity, to 86,500, making FedEx the biggest stadium in the NFL, with the highest prices. According to a Forbes survey last fall, his Redskins now generate $75 million in annual operating income, by far the league's highest.
Snyder is nonetheless relentless in pursuit of new sources of revenue and branding. "This is Redskins Cola!" he says, gesturing at an easel in his office bearing a shiny two-foot-tall image of a soda can featuring the fearsome likeness of No. 56, linebacker LaVar Arrington. But it's not just any can of soda, he quickly explains: One lucky Redskins fan for maybe every few thousand purchasers will pop the pop-top and get an actual Redskins ticket! In the can! Encased in a little plastic pouch!
"Whaddya think? Isn't that cool? Whaddya think of that?"
"Yeah, it's cool," I say. "I'm not a big soda fan."
"Yeah, but whaddya think of the idea? . . . Don't you think that's really cool?"
The more he talks about other new concepts, the more animated he becomes. It's not just cola. It's also Redskins franks, a most delicious new brand, coming soon to a supermarket near you, Snyder says. "They are really good hot dogs."
Then, there will be the special new 70th-anniversary old-style Redskins uniforms that will not only excite the fans, but also boost sales at Redskins retail stores. And there will be eight new Redskins Stores, making 12 in all, opening for this football season at malls from Gaithersburg to Richmond. Not only that, but the team will periodically broadcast Redskins radio shows from glass booths at key stores. "Isn't that a cool idea? Don't you think that's a cool idea?" he asks.
Snyder is particularly proud of another new creation he calls a video drop. It is a flat, square light box that will be the backdrop at all Redskin news conferences. The gimmick is that every 30 seconds, the box changes color and flashes a new image with the name of a different advertiser, each paired with a different Redskin logo. So, while Coach Spurrier talks to the media, cameras will advertise: Bud . . . Bud Light . . . Smirnoff . . . Papa John's . . . Bud . . . Bud Light . . . etc. "I invented it. I'm patenting it. I'm gonna sell it to other teams," Snyder says. On college draft day, the newspapers had a front-page photo showing Spurrier, Ramsey--and a Budweiser backdrop, Snyder says. "I sent it to Augie! Augie Busch. And we got a call back from their people saying, 'Wow! Talk about free advertising!' "
Some ideas, however, have a short shelf life. Several weeks later, I ask Snyder when fans will be able to buy Redskins Cola, and he looks at me blankly. That deal is dead, he explains, because he subsequently signed an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola. Too bad, I say. Not at all, says
Snyder. Instead of cola, he's decided to create a brand-new "Redskins Energy Drink," and, he says, "it'll be great."
So, where did the young Daniel Snyder get all this competitive energy and drive? I ask his parents, Gerald and Arlette Snyder. "And charisma, too!" his father says, quickly adding, "I'll tell you one thing, he didn't get it from us." They describe themselves as plain and simple people for whom money was never very important. We are meeting at a restaurant in Potomac because they are publicity shy about their large new house--the first they've ever owned--which is near the homes of their daughter, Michele, and their son and grandchildren. They talk for three hours about how proud they are, not just of their son's achievements, his mother says, "but for who he is: a warm person, a caring person, and someone who is there for his friends. It's his
human side I'm most proud of."
"It's a great story. A great American success story," says Gerry Snyder, who was a freelance journalist who wrote articles and several books for National Geographic and anyone else who would pay. Gerry Snyder's father died when he was 3, and he was raised by his single mother, a New York City garment worker. He joined the Army, got a journalism degree thanks to the GI Bill, and set off on a Hemingway fantasy, moving to Madrid to become a writer. In his boardinghouse, he saw a photograph of his landlord's beautiful goddaughter, who lived in Casablanca. So he went off to meet her, carrying a letter of introduction from her godparents. Five dates later, Gerry Snyder and Arlette Amsellem, daughter of a marketplace manager, were married in Morocco.
They moved to New York for the birth of Michele, followed two years later by Daniel, and then to Washington, where Gerry took a job with National Geographic, partly to indulge the adventuresome family's love of travel. Together, the Snyders took in seemingly every Civil War battlefield, traversed the entire route of explorers Lewis and Clark for a book Gerry wrote, and took several trips abroad for his work.
As a child, Danny was "always assertive. He knew what he wanted," his mother recalls, in her melodic French accent. "In the Oak Hill apartments, every kid had a tricycle, but he wanted a tractor. I tried to talk him out of it, but I couldn't." She laughs. "He got very good at riding that tractor." He played with a lot of other kids, he was smart and liked to read, but was not too motivated by school. Around fifth grade, the Snyders were summoned to Hillandale Elementary because "his teacher said Danny is always looking out the window . . . daydreaming." Today, such a kid might be diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder, his parents say, but they were not worried. "I think it was his imagination and creativity. It could be that the class was not very uplifting," she says. "We didn't deal with it. We laughed about it, though not in front of him." His father later would joke that Danny was probably staring out the window because there was a new bank across the street.
When Danny was about 11, the Snyders moved for two years to England, where Gerry wrote a book on the Loch Ness monster. The Snyder kids were uprooted for another two years when the family moved back to New York, and took another break from school for a four-month stay in England, living, at Danny's suggestion, in very tight quarters on a 27-foot canal boat.
"I think the moving around helped them become a little fearless," says Gerry. "As parents we were not afraid to disrupt their education because we believed
the education may actually come in the disruption."
The Snyders tried to build their children's confidence by encouraging them to follow their chosen paths, and they were not particularly worried when Danny showed little interest in college. Michele was getting an architecture degree at the University of Maryland, but her brother only dabbled in a few courses at Montgomery College and then at Maryland. He'd been working after school and on weekends since his first job at the B. Dalton bookstore at White Flint Mall. School never captured his fancy, but the challenge of business did.
At 17, Danny partnered with his father in a bold venture: His idea was to sell bus-trip packages to Washington Capitals fans to see their hockey team play in Philadelphia. Gerry wrote the promotional fliers, and on a cold winter night, father and son walked around the Capital Centre parking lot to put the ads under everybody's windshield wipers. But the Caps lost the game badly that night, the weather was awful, and father and son emerged to see all their fliers scattered on the pavement. "We got no orders," Gerry recalls.
By the age of 20, though, Dan Snyder had his first big hit: selling college students spring break vacation packages to Florida and the Caribbean. "He didn't have any money," says his mother. "He had chutzpah." Working initially out of his bedroom in his parents' apartment, he was putting callers on hold, so he would sound very busy, and he was chartering airplanes and booking hotel packages. "He'd had like Business 101, but how did he know what to say? . . . And he didn't have his daddy co-signing," says Tony Roberts, Snyder's closest high school friend, who occasionally helped out and later maxed out his credit cards to lend $25,000 for his buddy's start-up. With Gerry Snyder writing the advertising brochures, Dan recruited hundreds of college students to post them on campuses across the country. Orders began pouring in to his Rockville post office box, and after two years, Snyder was running a $1 million business.
Snyder got more ambitious and launched Campus USA, a college magazine that aimed to publish 1 million copies to be given away on 500 campuses. Dan was the publisher, his father was editor, reporter and columnist (writing under several names), and he persuaded his sister to join as business manager. For three years, none of them took salaries as they struggled to build the magazine, and Arlette was the main breadwinner, producing newsletters at the World Bank.
"It was a struggle," her husband says with a sigh. "We did it because Dan needed help. So we came, and Michele came." They all borrowed on their credit cards and the Snyders took a second mortgage on a small flat they owned in England. The family drafted a written agreement, without lawyers, that set up Snyder Communications, giving Dan the largest share and eventually making them all rich beyond any expectations--even though Campus USA ultimately failed.
"It was not about the money," Gerry Snyder says. "I never heard Dan say, 'I'm gonna make a lot of money.' It was always about achieving a goal, about overcoming problems. Being a doer. The money came later. It wasn't a drive for money, as such; it was more like the money tells you how well you are doing." Around this time, Gerry Snyder wrote a freelance magazine article about great entrepreneurs and recognized all the same traits in his son, particularly one, he says. "Entrepreneurs don't like failure."
Snyder's first big failure helped spawn his spectacular success. He still had virtually nothing--except a ferocious energy and dauntless optimism that convinced potential investors that he was not just likely to succeed, but destined.
"He had the fervor. He was passionate. It was not a sales pitch with him, it was real belief," says Drasner, who as CEO of U.S. News & World Report had been so impressed by Snyder that he helped persuade his boss, Mortimer Zuckerman, to invest $700,000 in the fledgling magazine. Then $1 million more, then $1 million more. Drasner, who now runs the New York Daily News, among his other enterprises, remembers Snyder once calling him from three separate cities in one day, selling his ideas. "He was tireless. As a twentysomething, he just convinced me," Drasner says. "He eats, drinks and sleeps business."
Campus USA could never generate enough paid advertising and eventually turned into a $3 million bust. Creditors came after Snyder, and a bank repossessed one of his first major wealth toys, a $50,000 Lotus coupe. Despite the business collapse, Drasner, Zuckerman and a growing number of investors saw potential profit in the fresh-faced kid who was already focused on his next big idea: WallBoards. Barely 25, Snyder realized early on that the era of mass marketing was waning in a segmented world with hundreds of cable TV channels; advertisers were more eager than ever to directly reach "targeted" populations. How about parents of newborns, for example? The new WallBoards were installed in pediatricians' offices, providing articles and educational materials for new parents--along with free product coupons and paid advertisements selling baby food, diapers, drugs, minivans. In a related business, Snyder built huge national databases with names of new babies, and arranged for "Your Baby" product samples of diapers, formula and other goodies to be delivered directly to new moms and dads at the hospital.
Hooking new customers this way was such a hit that Snyder expanded the WallBoards and free product samples to day-care centers, truck stops, airports, immigration centers and all varieties of doctors' offices. Before long, the company had lucrative contracts to sell products for Procter & Gamble, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Kodak and many other Fortune 500 companies. In the early 1990s Snyder presciently targeted the expanding non-English-speaking immigrant communities, and his company recruited workers speaking more than 20 languages to sell long-distance service for AT&T, MCI and GTE. That business became the biggest profit source for a company that grew spectacularly from $2.7 million in revenue in 1991 to more than $40 million by 1995.
But Snyder's biggest coup lay ahead: In 1996, he embarked on a months-long campaign to take his company public, impressing Wall Street and international investors with his vision of building a billion-dollar global communications empire. Taking his "road trip" to London, Milan, Zurich and virtually every major financial center in America, Snyder and his then-chief financial officer, Clay Perfall, made up to eight high-octane presentations a day, sometimes hitting two or three cities in a day on Snyder's jet. "Investors have to be excited by the vision and the energy level," says Perfall, "and there's nobody quite like Dan."
His timing was impeccable, and eventually, through three public stock offerings, Snyder Communications raised more than $600 million. Snyder became, at 31, the youngest CEO to head a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He then went on an aggressive acquisition binge, taking over dozens of smaller advertising and marketing firms worldwide, building key businesses and laying off the unneeded. By 1998, Snyder Communications had become the largest direct-marketing firm in the world, with 12,000 employees in 77 offices in 16 countries, generating revenues approaching $1 billion a year. Snyder sold the company two years ago to a French firm for more than $2 billion.
In early July, I call him at home one evening to try once again to schedule an interview. Much of his life is lived on the cell phone, talking in quick sound bites, listening, giving orders, moving on. A close colleague once said he has "the attention span of a gnat." A not atypical telephone transcript of Snyder on the phone: "Yeah, yeah . . . What's up? What's up? . . . Okay, go for a 100,000 block at 16 . . . You da man! You da man! You da man!"
Trying to talk to him for any length of time can be an adventure: What follows for me is a 37-minute ramble, interrupted six times, four by other phone calls and twice for Snyder to play with his 7-year-old daughter, who is giving him a book with plastic hearts stuck on the cover. "Thank you!" he coos in a baby voice. "It's beautiful!"
Between interruptions, the conversation pinballs, Snyder talking randomly about his racquetball and golf games, both of which he is working to improve; his regrets about giving up his yacht; and, at one point, how he "inherited a building full of mediocrity [at Redskins Park], and I inherited resentment, like you're an [expletive] because you're coming in to change everything." He says he did not realize that entrenched Redskin employees would sabotage his relations with the news media. "It was an ambush. I didn't see it coming. I never understood. I was young and eager."
"Listen, I just wanna win. Just like Spurrier. He is similar to me. Gosh, I am so excited! It's gonna be something people enjoy," Snyder says. "Fans love me. They want an owner who will spend and be over the top . . . spending whatever is necessary."
I am trying to set up a time that we could talk at greater length about all this, perhaps at his home. Friends of Snyder have told me they see a softer side of him when he plays with his daughters, ages 4 and 7, who climb all over him when he comes home. But he demurs several times on a home visit.
When I ask him for the names of friends to interview, he gives me those of several close business contacts. When I ask about personal friends from earlier in his life, aside from Tony Roberts, he has no names to offer now. "My life basically started in business," he says. Snyder eventually loses patience with the idea of my interviews. "Just trash me! Why do your homework? Don't you want to just write some trash? . . . You are gonna trash me, aren't you?"
Snyder later suggests that the first week of Redskins training camp in Carlisle, Pa., might be a good time for an interview. I try, unsuccessfully, to schedule a time there. He lets loose a big yawn, and says, "Ahhh . . . I'm just stretching. I wanna be more than 5-9."
Training camp for the Washington Redskins is a bit like summer camp for the boyish owner. For Snyder, when he is not nervously watching his team develop and manically pacing the sidelines on his cell phone, Carlisle is a movable feast of junk food, a few beers, nice dinners, good wine, big cigars and racquetball games. His entourage of friends there will include Jurgensen, Drasner, Hall of Fame linebacker and broadcaster Sam Huff, sportscaster George Michael, high school buddy Roberts, now an ophthalmologist in Tysons Corner, and others who come and go, sometimes via Snyder's limo or helicopter.
On opening night, I happen upon Snyder's dinner party in the upstairs of one of Carlisle's finer restaurants, and, after some hesitation, he invites me to join his table. Snyder is sitting at the head of a group of eight, and they are sharing a laugh because Jurgensen had been smoking one of his big cigars in Snyder's hotel room at the Comfort Suites, and triggered the fire alarm and a tumultuous mobilization of the town's fire department.
Dinner is mostly a few hours of random guy talk and laughs: football, golf scores, great cigars, great meals of the past, great women. Then Snyder takes several cell phone calls from the Redskins' chief negotiator, Joe Mendes, and his mood darkens: Patrick Ramsey, Quarterback of the Future, is holding out for a bigger contract and not coming to Carlisle, and the owner is not happy. Snyder is accustomed to the haggling with players' agents and it usually is not that big a deal. Snyder jokes about how he once threatened an agent that he was going to send his player a "[expletive] Sony, because he's gonna be watching the [expletive] season on TV." Tonight, though, the owner seems genuinely irritated because he's been personally so involved and excited with his No. 1 choice. "We're gonna teach him a lesson," Snyder says, ominously. (The "lesson," 16 days later, turns out to include a $5.7 million contract.)
For dessert Snyder orders chocolate souffle a la mode--for everyone. Then he asks how many people want cigars. Snyder dispatches his friend and lawyer Norman Chirite, who has joined the party, to get some of Snyder's $60 Davidoff cigars from the hotel. Chirite returns and everyone prepares to light up, but the waitress says no smoking because there's another party of six people in the upstairs room. But when Chirite approaches the other diners on Snyder's behalf, they say that they had recognized the Redskin party and would be "honored" if everybody lit up, particularly the legendary Sonny. Chirite, as loyal friend and self-appointed protector of Snyder, takes on one other duty. The newly appointed general counsel of the Redskins stands up and announces to all of us that he has a relative who has been in federal prison, and that if I write a "bad" story about Snyder, "he'll slit your throat." It's an awkward moment: Snyder laughs and says Norm's had one too many; others laugh; I thank Norm for his input.
The next morning, I join Snyder at the Comfort Suites' complementary breakfast, where he is eating a bowl of Froot Loops. He laughs about Norm's performance last night and recounts it to George Michael of Channel 4, who is eating breakfast with us. Michael, like Chirite, feels compelled to speak up on Snyder's behalf. "This is a good man," Michael says. Last year, Snyder was successfully operated on for thyroid cancer, and recently Michael underwent similar cancer surgery, and they have talked extensively about that, among other things, and, over the years, become close. "He's a good man," Michael repeats, and adds, "I'll tear you apart if you trash him."
At Carlisle, Snyder's yearnings for food usually dictate the destination. Our choice of lunch venue the next day becomes clear as Snyder sits in the passenger seat of a Cadillac Escalade and finishes a cell phone call about the stock market, in which he is still a cautious player. "Burger! Burger! Burger!" he barks as he hangs up. At a local bar and grill, Snyder orders a Diet Coke and a cheeseburger, and Drasner gets a Philly cheese steak. Snyder takes a few bites and then asks Drasner if he wants a bite.
"No," Drasner says.
"Can I have half your cheese steak?" Snyder asks.
"No. I can't cut it," Drasner says, frowning. "Too messy."
"That's okay, I'll take the half you already started," Snyder says.
Drasner rolls his eyes and gives up the half-eaten piece. Snyder eats the cheese steak, leaving his part-eaten burger atop a pile of french fries. He pauses for a moment, and says, "Let's go get ice cream."
On Day 2 of training camp, I call Snyder's hotel room and he launches into a rambling monologue, loud enough for his friends there to hear: "I'm sitting by the window, smoking a cigar with the window open, so the alarm doesn't go off. We just played racquetball. Incredible game. Tony's on the bed. Vinny's on the bed. You know those football guys . . . We're having a good time. Tonight we're going out to dinner. Tonight we're gonna have a lotta beer, a lotta pasta, a lotta sausage."
"Hey, turn on ESPN!" he says. "They got the Redskins! Turn it on!" I turn on the TV in my room so now we are both watching ESPN. "They're showing us losing to Dallas!" he mutters. The Dallas Cowboys have now beaten the Redskins nine consecutive times. "I hate Dallas," Snyder yells. ". . . Would I cut off a finger to beat Dallas?"
"I don't know, Dan," I reply, "you might."
"I would," he says.
I ask again about the interview and he says, "Can't we just talk now? I'm here by the window, and my back's killing me. Hey, Bubba, can you give me some Celebrex for my back?" Snyder is now talking to longtime Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer, who has just come to his room to give him an injury report on a player.
"Here," Snyder says to me. "Why don't you interview Bubba?" So Snyder hands the phone to Bubba, who weeks earlier
declined to talk to me about Snyder. Now I ask Bubba what the difference is between working nearly 30 years for the Cookes and now for Snyder. With Snyder standing next to him, Bubba answers with surprising candor. "In those first days, he was standoffish and rude," Tyer says, "and now he has developed into a very understanding person. At first I thought maybe he had some idea, or somebody told him something, about how an owner should act, so he decided to come across as a really tough guy." Tyer says he didn't care much for that, but his opinion changed after the sister of the team's equipment manager was killed in a car accident. Snyder called Tyer and asked him to take charge of making sure the team did the right thing to show sympathy. Says Tyer, "I was very impressed that he cared about that."
Now Snyder is back on the phone, and ESPN is showing Snyder talking. "Look at that handsome devil!" Snyder exclaims. "I'm gonna write a book. I wanna write it before some sportswriter writes it. I got a lot of ideas for it: about beating Wall Street, beating cancer, beating the Dallas Cowboys. Whaddya think?"
I tell him it sounds interesting, but I'd just like to do an interview. He responds by pumping me about whom I've talked to about him so far. We talk for 26 minutes, and I get nowhere. Afterward, while I'm on another phone call, I get a message left for me by Snyder: "Hey, Peter. I thought I'd start leaving you messages, because I just think it's appropriate I start to call you now--often. See you, buddy."
Snyder's ambivalence about talking to me becomes most evident by the afternoon of Day 3 at Carlisle. Until now, he's allowed me to hang out in the media-restricted owners' roost, under a burgundy canopy where Snyder, Drasner and friends like Jurgensen and Michael can watch practice on the comfy boat chairs brought from Redskins Park.
As I approach, Snyder aide Karl Swanson intercepts me in a golf cart and tells me I can't enter this afternoon because Snyder and Drasner have "important personnel business" to discuss. As I walk past the tented area, Snyder muffles his cell phone long enough to tell me: "It's Fred. Fred feels uncomfortable" at my presence.
But Fred Drasner is an irrepressible kind of guy who rarely shows discomfort with anything. So as I leave the tent area, I ask him, "Fred, are you uncomfortable with me hanging around now?" Drasner looks at me, puzzled. "What? I don't give a [expletive]."
I encounter Snyder a few moments later, as he is stalking around outside the tent area, talking on his phone. I say, "Dan, do you have a problem with me being here? If you do, I'll go away."
"No, it's Fred. Fred doesn't like it," he says.
"No," I say, "I just talked to Fred and he's got no problem."
"Well . . ." Snyder seems embarrassed. "It's just, uh, we've been burned . . ."
I tell him I don't understand what he is afraid of, because basically what I am seeing at Carlisle is "a guy having a lot of fun with his friends." I suggest it is the picture of a man living a life that, to most people, would be an incredible fantasy.
"Yeah, but I'm not supposed to be" just doing that, Snyder says. He says he's uncomfortable being seen that way because he is now supposed to be part of the "serious old boys' club" of rich, stuffy NFL owners, rather than just a kid living a dream.
Tanya Snyder arrives in Carlisle on Day 5 to join her husband, en route to California, where they will attend the birth of their son, Gerald, who is scheduled to be born two days later of a surrogate mother. Jewish custom is to avoid naming newborns after living relatives, but Snyder tells me his desire to pay tribute to his father is so strong it compelled him to talk to his mother and decide to go ahead with it. Tanya Snyder's first two pregnancies were complicated to the point of being life-threatening, so the Snyders have opted to have their fertilized egg carried to term by a surrogate. Their first two births were so harrowing that the Snyders were moved to endow a new emergency medicine and trauma center in the family's name at Children's Hospital in Washington, where Snyder now serves on the board of directors.
That is one of several charitable activities for which Snyder gets little publicity. He is also a board member and major donor of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and is a leader in the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. He also founded the Washington Redskins Leadership Council, recruiting more than 40 Washington-area business executives to pledge at least $20,000 each annually and adding his own money to make it a $1 million-plus enterprise that uses the Redskin name and Redskin players to promote community development for youth, ranging from reading programs to renovating high school football fields.
Snyder "has been very, very generous in supporting and attending charitable functions. He and Tanya have been out many nights having rubber chicken," says John Schwieters, a former chair of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and a Snyder friend. "Dan is not doing this as social climbing. He is very much a giver."
Tanya Snyder's arrival in Carlisle has a softening effect on her husband. Just after she arrives by helicopter, he tells her about a rookie player whose first season has already ended. "I went to talk to the kid who hurt himself, and he was almost crying, and I was almost crying. I felt so bad."
The Snyders stand very close to each other, watching practice. She is three years older than he, a bit taller, and much more easygoing. A photographer approaches them, asking to take pictures for this story, and Dan Snyder retreats a step and refuses, curtly--"I want to be with my wife and my family"--although the rest of his family is back in Maryland. A few minutes later, Tanya Snyder tells the photographer that photos will be okay, but she does not want any published photo to include her because she does not like being recognized in public. She is a lively, friendly blonde from Georgia who is a former college cheerleader and model who went into the clothing business. Tanya and Dan were set up on a date and became "instant best friends," she has said. On their first date in 1993, she recalled, they talked about setting up the perfect business. Before Snyder got married, says Roberts, his longtime pal, "we loved to meet beautiful women, and he loved talking to the ladies. He was good at it." After meeting Tanya, though, Snyder was hooked. He barraged her with roses after the first date, including one bouquet that was so big it wouldn't fit through her door.
As the photographer sets up a tripod, preparing to photograph him, Snyder jokes that he'll only have his picture taken if I'm in the photo with him. Then he says he's serious. Then he walks back and forth, along the sideline, as the photographer is trying to position his camera, and then Snyder moves away. Tanya laughs and tells the photographer he'd better move more quickly to catch her husband. "He's like ADD [attention deficit disorder]. If you look up in the dictionary under ADD, there he is."
Later, Snyder somewhat reluctantly agrees to sit still, temporarily, for a photo shoot in his plush white chair beneath the burgundy canopy.
"Nice camera," Snyder tells the photographer. "How much is that?
As soon as the photos start snapping, Snyder's cell phone rings with still another call about the Ramsey holdout.
The photographer keeps shooting and Snyder is getting restless. "I have to go. I have to go," he says.
"One more," the photographer says.
"I have to go. I have ants in my pants."
"Is that it? Is that it?"
The photographer asks him not to smile, but Snyder has trouble removing his smile. "Are we done? We're done? We're done?"
All this has taken 10 minutes, but to Snyder it appears to feel like eternity. "One more," says the photographer.
"Man, this is a lot of 'one more,' " Snyder says.
When it's over, I tell him this is my final day in Carlisle and that we really need to sit down soon for an interview. He snaps out the cell phone, calls his secretary and has her clear time in his schedule for the next available date, two weeks later.
Snyder is sitting in a leather chair in the wood-paneled study of the impressive home he bought for $1.9 million in 1995 in a wooded section of Bethesda. We talk for more than two hours, but he frequently pops up out of his seat to answer the phone--or just to pace around the room.
"I like to walk around. This makes me nervous," he says. What makes him uncomfortable is visiting a place he usually chooses to avoid: the past. "This is a lot of stimuli," he says. "These are weird memories."
It doesn't seem very weird. It all begins and ends with the Redskins and the Snyder family. Throughout his spacious home are framed memorabilia of his struggles and triumphs in business and in football, but there is a virtually equal number of family pictures and keepsakes. Snyder's eyes brighten when he talks about Gerry and Arlette. "My parents had such a great effect on my life. They could have said, 'You gotta graduate college! Why do this crazy business idea? You're gonna ruin your life, blah, blah, blah.' But they didn't. They were very much 'Do what's in your heart.' "
And what was in his heart, ultimately, was the Redskins. The Snyders in the early 1960s had a black-and-white television and Danny watched the Skins play as early as age 2. But one autumn day when he was 6, his father took him to see the real thing in vivid color; the vast green of the playing field, the burgundy and gold, the whole spectacle and pageantry of it all. "The fact that my father took me, and we at the time were not financially that successful; we went to a game and I don't know how he got tickets. And it was just the whole experience. The NFL! A Redskins game!
I was just in awe. I grew up loving it, embracing it, and it became almost another piece of the passion of my life.
"And as I was doing all this Wall Street stuff and all this great building of business and stuff, I always had the Redskins in my heart and in my mind. And these businesses and things I have built would take a pause on Sunday or Monday night. I would stop. I would go to many games. I'd watch, wherever I was, or I would fly back, wherever I was."
The enormity of actually owning the team he loves overwhelmed him in his first few years, he acknowledges. "I was more emotional, and it made me more anxious and non-patient than I should have been."
Snyder feels strongly that he has worked doggedly and endured adversity to get what he has today, from the team to his own family. "We wanted kids, but we had to go through hell to have kids. I wanted to start a business and be successful, but I had to go through hell to get there; I mean rough times, times that would break you from stress. Times you see whether or not you are capable, and you are pushing the limits of extreme stress," he says. "And with the Redskins, I have been ripped sideways, and this way and that way. I've been trashed and called terrible stuff."
Would there ever be any circumstances under which he would sell the team? "Never." Has he ever given thought to passing the Redskins on to his children, particularly now that he has a newborn son asleep upstairs in his crib with a Redskins blanket? "I don't know," he says, but then Snyder cannot resist taking a shot at the late Jack Kent Cooke, who chose not to leave the team to his son. "I hope to treat my family with a little bit more dignity and integrity than some previous people involved in the Redskins." (John Kent Cooke declined to comment for this story.)
The special fame of owning the Redskins cuts both ways, Snyder says. "It's cool when you go to a black tie at the White House and the president says to you, 'How's the club gonna do this year?' That's cool," he says. "It's not cool when a fan gets up in a movie theater and recognizes me, and says, 'Marty Schottenheimer is a piece of [expletive] and you are a dumb [expletive].' My wife wanted to leave. She said it was horrifying, and she's right, it's kinda scary." That's one reason the Snyders are moving to the late king's secluded compound. He says he loves his current home, but even with an electronic gate, a security staff, an iron fence and hedges, there is not enough privacy when you own the Redskins.
Reflecting for a moment, he says, "I wouldn't trade this life for anything. I am enjoying myself. But I'd like to win . . ."
It always comes back to that. "This year, I just wanna make the playoffs. I just wanna get competitive. I want Steve Spurrier to enjoy himself, number one, and feel comfortable in the NFL and with the Redskins, and get acclimated, to enjoy me and my family as much as I enjoy him and his family."
Spurrier, for his part, was fully aware of Snyder's volatile reputation, but says that "it's been a joy to work with him. He lets me do my job, and I let him do his job. He's the owner. He's the boss. He doesn't tell me who to start at quarterback and I don't tell him how to run the Redskins . . . The day I arrived here, I told him, 'I want you to introduce me to the team.' And Dan said, 'Really? You want me to?' And I said yeah, and it was a great introduction." Like Snyder, the new coach envisions a long, fruitful partnership. "The thing is that we have to establish a habit of winning and then everybody will be happy."
But what if that just doesn't happen? I ask Snyder. What if you never win a Super Bowl?
He stares hard at me. "Well, look, we don't have a knife or anything sharp next to us for this conversation, but we just don't talk that way. We will win Super Bowls and championships. And I think we will get it done with Steve Spurrier in a big, big way. It may not happen this year, but soon enough, Spurrier will show--and we, as a Redskins organization, will show--that we can get it done."
And what will that mean to Daniel Snyder?
"It is one of the goals. It will mean we have one of the benchmarks we are supposed to get. My career is always about goals. There is that one trophy, and we will get it! We will! You'll see.