The House of Cooke
The Washington Post
Joe Gibbs recalls that the first time he met Jack Kent Cooke, in January 1981, Cooke hired him and then outlined the future of the Redskins: "When I step down from running it, after we win some Super Bowls, I am going to let John run it. He is the same age you are. I'm going to turn it over to John, and this will be perfect for you two."
But Gibbs adds that "over the years with Mister Cooke, you sensed he was never turning it loose. He loved having control and making decisions." John Cooke assumed more responsibility every year, Gibbs says, but it was evident that his father wanted to preside over still another Super Bowl, always another season. "He did not want to give it over," Gibbs says. "He was not ready."
That reluctance to give up the Redskins may be reflected in Jack Kent Cooke's will and its eight revisions between 1988 and January 1997. He did not give the team to his son. Originally, the will directed the executors "to use their best efforts to have my son, John Kent Cooke, manage and operate" the team. But in 1993, Jack deleted that clause because he believed it conflicted with his instructions to sell off all his assets to fund the tax-deductible charitable foundation. His 1993 codicil asks only that the executors "defer to my son . . . to the extent they deem reasonable" in allowing John to keep the team. Even from the grave, Jack set John's salary at $250,000 as Redskins president, adjusted annually for inflation.
Few would doubt Jack's intent about the future of the team. As he said in 1992, "I want to be buried in a burgundy-and-gold coffin. And when I'm gone, someone named Cooke is going to run the team. And when he's gone, someone else named Cooke is going to run the team."
But Jack's mercurial nature makes it "pure guesswork" why he didn't explicitly leave the team to John, says Milton Gould, Jack's longtime lawyer. "My guesswork would be that there would be periods in their relationship when they were not compatible. But in the last few years, he expressed more and more confidence in John . . . John became, in Jack's mind, his link with the future . . . I got the feeling his increased confidence in John and obvious demonstration of affection included the intention to leave him the Redskins."
John knows that his father might have tried to make it easier for him to inherit the team. He will not discuss details of the will, but he attributes the problem not to any ill intent, but to the complexities of tax laws and to his father's impatience with and distrust of lawyers. If John harbors any hard feelings about it all, they do not show.
Nobody knows why Jack waited until he was 76 to draft his will, but it coincided with his reconciliation with his son Ralph, who by then had been through business failures, bankruptcy and two divorces, and whose oldest son, Jack Kent Cooke II, was suffering from drug and alcohol abuse.
After talking to various friends-including Pete Rozelle, who was then stepfather to Jack's grandchildren-Jack called Ralph in 1988 and went to California to see him. "I've been missing you," he told his son. At his father's invitation, Ralph moved to Kentucky with his third wife, Anita, to run the storied Elmendorf horse farm, which his father had bought for $43 million in the hope of someday winning a Kentucky Derby.
"Jackie," as Jack's oldest grandson was called, died at 26 of alcoholic liver disease the following year. His mother, Carolyn Rozelle, says a high point of Jackie's life was attending L.A. Kings hockey games in the owner's box with his grandfather. Jackie, who was learning-disabled but "mad about hockey," hoped someday to help run the team, and was devastated when his grandfather sold it, she says. Jack Kent Cooke II was buried with a hockey stick signed by the L.A. Kings in his coffin. Ralph said of his son's death: "It's very, very sad, a damn waste. Who's to blame? I don't know if there is anyone . . . It's a tough thing to live under the family name."
Ralph and Jack's reconciliation was, by all accounts, genuine. Ralph and Anita loved the horse farm. Jack visited them, and he and Ralph shared interests in jazz, orchestra music, vintage movies. The old man renewed his relationships, to some extent, with his estranged grandchildren. In 1995, Ralph and his wife were charged with possession of cocaine, but they were never prosecuted because several months later, Ralph died of liver failure at age 58.
For Ralph's funeral, his brother wrote and tearfully delivered a poem, which read, in part: "Little boys close in years and love,/ Brothers in adventure, defenders in school./ Then young men, best men . . ./ Now adult, wiser and confident,/ Still brothers but also friends./ Coming old age, with memories treasured . . ./ Not now./ Too soon, too soon,/ Death and parting, too soon./ Always."
When John delivered Jack Kent Cooke's eulogy last April to a packed church near his father's country estate in the Virginia hunt country, he said: "I have only one regret today, that my brother Ralph, who died 18 months ago, was not permitted by fate to see the respect and love you all have for our remarkable father.
"I was the most fortunate of all," he continued. "He doted on me when I was a boy, he trained me as a young man, and he trusted me with the daily operation of the entity he prized most-his Washington Redskins-in the last years of his life."
John's oldest childhood friend, Barry Haywood of Ontario, says that Jack did not bestow these benefits freely. "John loved his father and had immense respect for his father. But I would say that John gave much more to his father than he took from him. His father liked to be the center of attention and liked to be in control. And those kind of people are more inclined to take than to give."
It is a monument and it is a money machine. The new Jack Kent Cooke Stadium looms like a modern-day pyramid over a hillside in Landover as a memorial to one of the most successful professional team owners in America's sports history.
At first glance, this coliseum is so massive that when Jack first saw the superstructure he exclaimed to his son: "My God! What have we done?" The old man visited the construction site nearly every week until his health failed, and toward the end, crippled by arthritis, he would sometimes wear his robe and have his chauffeur drive the Cadillac right onto the ground that would become the playing field.
On the day of his death, he'd made a date to meet John for still another look at the construction progress, but they never made it.
Now, on a blistering July day, John takes a Redskins '97 hard hat out of his car trunk and escorts a visitor on a tour of his father's stadium.
"Isn't it majestic?" he asks, his voice rising. "The trees are already growing . . . The view from the top is spectacular . . . Isn't it something? Well, what do you think?"
He leads the way upward, up four levels, past bustling construction crews and piles of pipes and railings. He is about to show off the dramatic view of the nearly completed bowl of the stadium, but then he backtracks and chooses a different entrance, looking for the most spectacular vista of the burgundy-and-gold interior.
The sheer vastness of the multicolored oval and the crisp, clear sight lines down to the playing field and across the bowl make it almost surreal in its magnitude.
"Isn't that something?"
There are 78,600 seats-including 280 luxury boxes (up to $160,000 each annually); 15,000 premium seats (up to $2,000 each); and 60,000 stadium seats ($320 to $480)-plus 23,000 parking spaces, most costing $10 or 15 a game, plus food and drink concessions, plus corporate advertisers, plus anything and everything else you can sell. Even the view of Washington, which fans will be able to capture for 25 cents through tourist binoculars on the upper level.
"Aren't you Mister Cooke?" asks a sweaty drywaller as Cooke walks by. "Would you autograph my hard hat?" The worker, Allen Baumgardner, a lifelong Skins fan who is 39, says he wore his hard hat-a replica of a burgundy Redskins helmet-for 15 straight years. "I retired this hard hat the day your father died," he tells Cooke solemnly. "And I've got it out again," he adds cheerfully, since he started working on the stadium.
John smiles, signs, thanks him and shakes his hand.
There was a time when many among the Redskins speculated that he didn't have the old man's fire in the belly, that he was not the win-at-all-costs guy that his father was, and that he likely would sell the team. That time is clearly past. John says he will pay heavily and fight hard to keep the Redskins.
"I will continue to have a lot of fun," he says, "I am not worried financially, or in terms of ability." He will not discuss his plans for getting control of the franchise, but he will say he is optimistic that the stadium will be so successful it will pay for itself in "a couple of years."
Walking around it, he says, "I think of my dad and what he built. It sounds corny, I know, but I just feel sad he is not here. It consumed him for nine years, and it's a shame he is not here to see it." Later, he adds, "I feel nostalgia. I think of myself as a little boy running around Toronto Maple Leaf Stadium, and I think of the Forum, which, in its day, was the best."
John Kent Cooke will have an owner's box at the 50-yard line, with 18 swivel chairs, four sofas, a buffet table, a mirrored bar, and wallpaper designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. But it will be reserved for family and close friends, much more intimate than his father's celebrity box. He is a man whose mission is to draw crowds, but he'd rather not be part of them.
One final part of the planning, he says as he is leaving the stadium, is a larger-than-life statue that he will commission of Jack Kent Cooke. The statue will be a permanent reminder of the Cooke legacy, he says, and it will stand at the particular stadium entrance that was his father's favorite spot. It will have the most beautiful view in all of Raljon.
Peter Perl is a staff writer for the Magazine.