The Redskins Family Mourns a Great Loss
By Richard Justice
It was the final game of the 1996 season at RFK Stadium, the last time Cooke's beloved Redskins would occupy the stadium where so many memories had been born. With his health failing, Cooke was unable to attend that finale, so Casserly dropped off his wife and daughter at the stadium, then drove to the owner's home in Northwest Washington.
For one final time, the two men watched the Redskins on television, with Casserly listening and explaining as Cooke offered his rapid-fire and frequently emotional critiques of the day. Sometime around the third quarter, Cooke turned to his general manager and said: "You'd better get back down there."
Casserly departed, leaving Cooke to enjoy the final moments of RFK Stadium alone.
"That's the one I'll always remember," Casserly said.. "I wanted to be there with him. Hey, I'd been watching games with the guy for eight years. He's your boss, and you share the same will to win. Something was missing if he wasn't there."
That raw December afternoon turned out to be the final time Charley Casserly and Jack Kent Cooke watched a game together. During eight seasons they sat near one another for every home game, when Cooke's emotions ran the gamut from excitement to anger, when Casserly, more than any other person, bore the brunt of those feelings.
Yesterday, Casserly, Redskins Coach Norv Turner and others spoke of their feelings for Cooke, who died Sunday morning after suffering a heart attack at his home. They spoke with emotion and feeling for a man who demanded so much of them, who could be difficult to deal with, but who also gave them the resources and responsibility that allowed them to succeed.
One of his final acts as owner of the Redskins was to extend both their contracts because, despite three seasons under Turner and three straight seasons out of the playoffs, he was convinced he had a top-flight management team in place.
Casserly saw Cooke only one other time after that final game, but the two stayed in touch, with almost daily telephone conversations, including three separate talks on Friday.
"I think there's a part of you not here today," Casserly said. "You hope that comes back."
Outside of family members, virtually no one knew Cooke or worked with him more closely than Casserly, first in his role as assistant general manager for eight years, then as general manager for seven. Casserly's wife, Bev, was a former Cooke assistant.
"I think the things you loved about him was, number one, he was always there 365 days a year, 24 hours a day," Casserly said. "If you had a question, you called him. If you had a problem, you called him. It didn't make any difference if it was 10 o'clock at night, 11 o'clock, midnight, 7 in the morning. A lot of people want to win. A lot of people spend money to win. But not many people know how to win. That was one of the great things: he knew how to win. Was he tough? We all know he was tough. More importantly, he was fair."
Casserly and others in the organization expressed optimism that business would continue as usual, with Redskins President John Kent Cooke assuming control of the team. John Kent Cooke has had wide-ranging responsibilities for several years and employees up and down the masthead are effusive in their praise of him.
"I think this franchise will not miss a beat because of John Kent Cooke," Casserly said.
With the NFL draft only 11 days away, Casserly and Turner struggled through a day that had normal offseason business. They worked out a free agent wide receiver on the field. They formally signed new cornerback Cris Dishman. But their hearts and minds were elsewhere.
"It's very difficult to work on a day like this," Casserly said. "But what choice do you have? We've got a period of grief to get through, but we also have work to do."
Casserly disagreed with reports describing the Redskins' new stadium as the final act in Cooke's remarkable life.
"The stadium was Jack Kent Cooke's pride and joy," Casserly said. "Somebody asked me if this was going to be the last great thing he did. It wasn't going to be the last great thing he did. There was going to be something else after the stadium. He just hadn't figured what it was going to be yet. That's just his personality."
Turner had spoken to Cooke on Saturday.
"He talked about being healthy enough to be at minicamp," Turner said. "He said he was getting better and was looking forward to it. I've never been around anyone who had the presence of Jack Kent Cooke."
Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs recalled the time Cooke offered him the job of head coach in 1981. When Gibbs sent agent Marvin Demoff in to negotiate a contract, Cooke threw him out.
Then when Gibbs demanded a three-year contract, Cooke wanted a five-year option in effect an eight-year deal. Gibbs knew the deal couldn't be a good one because if he failed, he knew Cooke would not pick up the option on the final five years. If he succeeded, he would be badly underpaid.
"I said to him, 'Mr. Cooke, I'm putting my entire financial future in your hands,' " Gibbs said. "He said, 'That's right, that's what you're doing.' "
Gibbs signed that deal, trusting that Cooke was a man of his word. "He ended up renegotiating the contract three different times to give me raises," Gibbs said. "I ended up making far more than I was asking for in the beginning. If Mr. Cooke told you he was going to do something, he was going to do it . . . It's very sad and emotional for me. It's like losing a member of the family. We were together for 12 years. We had some great times, some real highs, and we argued some, but he was always there for me. He had the guts to hire me when I was 40 years old and no one else would even take my calls. Every time we were in a tough spot, he'd do something to let me know he was beside me. He could be tough we all know that. But I can't imagine there being a better owner."