"We could have beaten God's team Sunday," Jack Kent Cooke said. "And just think of the team God could put together."
Jim Thorpe might run on the side of the angels. Not to worry. Cooke's team, the supraheavenly Redskins, has a middle linebacker named Neal Olkewicz, who, the owner says, "is playing so splendidly." And Olkewicz would not be alon against the haloed George Gipp. "I'm so proud of all these Redskins," Cooke said.
The Redskins are hot again. Henry Kissinger is calling for tickets. Jack Kent Cooke, who owns the 87 percent of the Redskins that is not in Edward Bennett Williams' pocket, is loving it.
"Last Sunday (when the Redskins beat Philadelphia, 17-7) was the most satisfying, enjoyable afternoon I've spent at RFK," said Cooke, who for the first time since he bought into the team in 1961 is at RFK Stadium for every home game. "It was," he said, laughing his way along a tightrope of hyperbole, "one of the most enjoyable, satisfying afternoons I've spent anywhere."
Cooke always has been the owner no one saw. He was in Californian, a Bel Air millionaire who was busy running his hockey team, basketball team, a grand arena and a 16,000-acre ranch. The Redskins he left to the team president, Edward Bennett Williams. A divorce suit drove Cooke into a Las Vegas tax shelter in 1976 and we would get reports that EBW had talked with Cooke by phone before making this decision or that. The Howard Hughes of sports.
Now the divorce has been made, at a reported cost of $42 million, and Cooke has come East. He sold his California interests for a reported $57 million. With some loose change, he put down about $1 millin to buy a place between Middleburg and Upperville, Va., about 50 miles fromRFK. It is a nice place. The bushes are trimmed into shapes of running dogs and sitting peacocks. The house, while large, has no moat.
"I love life here in Northern Virginia," Cooke said. "These are solid people,really solid people in this neck of the woods. Rather conservative, and I like that. Cautious, prudent, highly sensible people. They're earthy people. Yes, earthy is it . . . And even if the sky is glowering today (it was), this is beautiful country. My God, the leaves."
At 66, Cooke has, oh, a hundred years left on his battery. He gets excited about leaves turning gold and he gets excited by the symmetry of traingular cucumber sandwiches delivered to his den and he will race to a bookshelf in pursuit of an idea without which a visitor's life is incomplete. "Have you read Arnold Bennet's 'How to Love Life 24 Hours a Day'?" he might say. "Oh, you must."
More than once, more than a dozen times, Cooke has said the Redsins will operate now just as they have for a decade. Anyone exposed to Cooke's manner wonders how that can be. How can a man of Cooke's enthusiasm live 50 miles from RFK and not take over the running of an enterprise in which he owns 87 percent?
"I can't imagine Jack Kent Cooke sitting in the Virginia woods and whittling," said another Californian who has known Cooke 20 years. "They could make a movie of it and call it 'When Egoes Collide.' The had the perfect relationship before. Jack was 3,000 miles away from Ed."
How, then, will Cooke's move East change the Redskins?
"The answer is very simple," Cooke said. "Not a jot. Ed Bennett Williams is still the presiding man. We've had a telephonic dialogue for years. Regularly. It's been stepped up since I've come to Upperville."
There has been one thing. The Kissingers and Califanos and Buchwalds have a soda pop with Williams and Cooke before games in a little room at RFK that was called "The President's Room." The name has been changed to "The Lombardi Room."
"Ed and I did it," Cooke said. "We agreed. It was a little too pontifical calling it The President's Room."
Cooke said he has done nothing else with the team.
"And I have no intention of doing anything," he said. "The club is in first-class hands. Colon. Ed Bennett Williams. Period."
(It has been said of Cooke, by his friends even, that his rush to punctuate sentences, theirs as well as his, and to correct pronunciations, theirs always for he is certain of his, is symptomatic of runaway pomposity.. He would have several commas removed from that last sentence. Pomposity? Or vigilance on the walls that gurad the language? More later, when we also learn that a mountain lion ate George Allen.)
Jack Kent Cooke and one or two palmreaders are not surprised by the Redskins' good work through the first half of this season.
"Surprised? Not particularly, because I have such confidence in Bobby Beathard (the general manager)," Cooke said. "During a very pleasant, informal meeting I had with Bobby sometime in August, he predicted pretty much what the Redskins have done already . . . We don't know what the future holds, but I imagine, especially on their performance against Philadelphia, the future is bright."
Does Cooke forsee playoffs in the future?
"Yes. The answer is an unequivocal yes. Even in August, yes. Always. An indomitable optimist."
Even with George Allen's guys one to seed?
Yes, Cooke said. "Basically, I had such confidence in Bobby and Jack Pardee (the coach) that I didn't worry too much. I would have been disappointed had Bobby and Jack not produced according to the predictions made, which is the other side of that coin, isn't it?
"But I'm pleased and Ed Bennett Williams shares the same pinnacle of pleasure with the performance of the team to date. And just think, it's going to get better and better as the years go by. Take a look at their ages.
"Pardee and Beathard have been so successful to date I can't imagine them not continuing their winning ways. I like what they've done, Ed Bennett Williams likes what they've done and I think most all observers do. Don't you?"
An observer said he believed Pardee and Beathard had wrought a wonder. They not only changed a team's personality, they improved its ability at the same time and won six of eight games doing it. If Jimmy Carter outran Bill Rodgers while bringing down inflation and outsmiling Ted Kennedy, he would in in the Pardee-Beathard class.
"More kudos ever to Bobby and Jack and the coaches and the players," Cooke said. "The players, they are the ones that have to perform. And they are doing just that. The are doing.
"I think they could have beaten any team in the National Football League on Sunday. Last Sunday, I think they were unbeatable."
This is a new life for Cooke. Friends say the divorce from his wife of 42 years struck a telling blow. "He was satunned by it," a friend said. "He seemed to age more rapidly. He had the heart attack in '73 and he and Jean hadn't been communicating for X number of years. He wanted to get away from the scene of his one big failure in life. He's come of of it happy now."
"'This is my third life,' I've been quoted as saying a number of times," Cooke said."My first was in Canada, the second in California and now here. I might as well start over."
What Cooke has done in his first two lives is enough for a football team of men. At 21, broke and stuck in mud up to the fenders of his 1930 Ford Roadster, he sat outside Veregin, Saskatchewan. He was on his honeymoon, selling encyclopedias. At 66 this summer, he bought a skyscraper in New York City for $80 million. He is excited about the nifty elevators in the Chrysler Building.
"Veregin, Saskatchewan," Cooke said. His water-blue eyes disappeared when his face danced into a smile. As his voice is rich and strong, thanks to relentless exercise, so is Cooke's laugh, here used to tell everyone in Fauquier County that a good story is coming up.
"Veregin. Named after Peter Veregin, who was the leader of the Doukabhoors. D-o-u-k-a-b-h-o-o-r-s. They were a strange sect in western Canada who, whenever in hell they didn't like what the local government was doing, used to parade in the nude. So help me, God."
(The Encyclopedia Brittanica knows nothing of the Doukhaboors. Maybe Ken Beatrice knows. Anyway, we're getting closer to the mountain lion that ate George Allen.)
So the newly wed Cooke, his once prosperous family broken by the Depression, is stuck in mud with his bride outside a plains town a thousand miles from anywhere. He had sold lots of copies of the New Educator Encyclopedia, but everyone paid with post-dated checks. No cash.
"I went out and saw the local grain elevator operator and the local minister and the local doctor, whatever the hell, I couldn't stop," Cooke said. "Until, finally, school was out and I saw the local principal.
"He didn't want to buy a set of books. I was with him from about 4:30 to 7. His wife had dinner on the table. She kept giving me dirty looks as much to say, 'Get out of here.'
"I was hungry. I knew my wife was hungry. By now, she had walked from the car and was sitting in the kitchen of the hotel. And I think more to get rid of me than anything else, the principal gave me a $5 deposit on a set of books.
"The New Educator Encyclopedia.
"A perfectly dreadful set of encylopedias.
"And I got the car out of the mud, we bought a sandwich or two and from then on my luck, in terms of post-dated checks, began to turn."
That was 1934.
By 1943, Cooke was a millionaire. Once a dance band leader -- his stage name was "Oley Kent" -- he moved from dreadful encyclopedias to soft sopa to radio stations, then bought newspapers in partnership with Lord Ray Thompson and acquired plastics companies and die casting plants, never once selling anything for less money than he paid for it.
Anyone ever stuck in the mud outside a town named for a leader whose people practiced civics in the nude is entitled to believe that California is a nice place to retire to. Cooke put his money in a golf bag and rolled it around Pebble Beach Golf Course every day, sometimes twice a day, thinking that he was retired. This was 1961.
"That was a dopey idea, retiring," he said this week.
So he created Teleprompter Corporation, which for 1978 reported an operating profit of $58.4 million from its cable television, Muzak and children's TV programming divisions.
As a kid, the small but sturdy Cooke played hockey, baseball and rugby. Among the first things he did when these big wads of money filled his pockets was buy the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team in the Class AAA International League. He tried to get Toronto into the big time in 1959 in Branch Rickey's brain child, the Continental League.
The league failed, though, partly because major league baseball, fighting it, created the New York Mets and Houston Astros.
When Cooke ended his retirement in California, he bought first the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team and then the Los Angeles Kings hockey team. Because he didn't like the rental stipulations at the primary arena in L.A., he built his own playground. For $16 million he put up a palace with white columns all around it. What's good enough for the Caesars is good enough for Cooke: he named the building "The Forum."
Cooke was in every league but the League of Women Voters. George Allen, coaching Cooke's Redskins, knew where the 87 percent rested. As a present for Cooke's new home by a five-acre lake on the 16,000-acre ranch, Allen once took Cooke a pair of swans. Allen named the swans Jack and George.
"A mountain lion ate them," Cooke said of the swans.
And it came to pass, by and by, that Allen himself was removed from Cooke's world -- by mountain lion or what we do not know, for Allen and the divorce are two subjects on which Cooke chooses to remain silent.
He will talk for days about anything else. F. Scott Fitzgerald? Read every word he wrote. Mencken? Has all the first editions right here on a shelf. He collects Japlanese antiques, composes music, writes snooty letters to laywyers who do injury to the language, plays with his two grandchildren -- "Johnny Cakes and Tommy Face, I call them" -- and loves to leap into the small crevices in a conversation, such as . . .
Speaker: "I'm going to Pittsburgh this Sunday for the Steelers-Cowboys game. It's a preview of --"
Cooke: "It is not a preview of the Super Bowl."
Speaker: "A preview of the next Redskins' game after Sunday's."
Cook (smiling): "All right, then."