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Jets owner Hess dead at 85

NEW YORK CITY (May 7, 1999) Leon Hess, the owner of the New York Jets football team of the National Football League and the oil industry legend, died early this morning at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. The cause of death was attributed to complications from a blood disease. Joe Namath said of Jets owner Leon Hess that he was phenomenal and it's a major loss for everyone. Funeral services will be held on Monday, May 10 in New York City. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the individual's charity of choice.

The passing of Jets owner Leon Hess
"is a major loss for all of us,"
Jets great Joe Namath said.

Leon Hess almost had his dream come true last season as his New York Jets came within 30 minutes of returning to the Super Bowl, but the Jets lost in the American Football Conference's Championship Game to the defending and eventual Super Bowl champion, Denver Broncos, 23-10. But Hess was still a happy man. In two seasons he had seen his team's fortunes turn around. From back-to-back seasons of 3-13 and 1-15 in 1996 and 1997, respectively, the Jets once again became a competitive force in the National Football League thanks to a bold move by Hess in February of 1997 when he hired one of pro football's outstanding coaches and organizers, Bill Parcells. Parcells changed the way the Jets were looked at. He engineered the second best turnaround in pro football history in his first season of 1997 taking the Jets from a 1-15 record to 9-7 falling just one game short of making the AFC playoffs. In 1998, Parcells and the Jets had a magical season winning a franchise record 12 games and capturing their first divisional championship since 1969 and the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. The Jets went on to win their first home playoff game since 1986 with a 34-24 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars and earned a place in the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1982. When Hess hired Parcells, he held one of his rare press conferences and displayed his pride in his accomplishment. "It's great to have (Bill) Parcells here and running the show. One team, one spokesman, one voice. It's his show. It's his team. We're fortunate to have him. He's been able to put life and discipline into the team."

HESS REMEMBERED

  • Joe Namath QB of Super Bowl III team "I've known Mr. Hess for 34 years and know we have lost a very caring friend of all our ours. I've never seen him in any other light other than caring. Personally I appreciated the fact that he led me in the right direction and I trusted his judgment. He gave so much to countless charities and institutions. The man was phenomenal. This is a major loss for all of us."

  • Don Maynard Jets Hall of Fame receiver"He was what every player would like to have as an owner. He treated all the guys great. He treated us like his own family. Besides being an owner, he was a super person. And he cared for everybody. We used to have get-togethers with the owner which made it a family situation. Getting together with the ball club and his family was part of it. He made his family part of us also. He was one of the greatest guys. He'll go down in history as a tremendous successful individual and a great, caring owner."

  • Wellington Mara N.Y. Giants owner "I have lost a very close friend and the NFL has lost one of its most beloved and respected leaders. Leon Hess was a man who was deeply devoted to his family, friends and team. He was a great friend to the Mara family and we will miss him very much."

  • Ralph J. Wilson, Jr. Buffalo Bills president "I was deeply saddened by the passing of Leon Hess and want to express my deepest sympathies to his family. Leon was a great owner who served as a catalyst for the New York Jets organization. I've always had tremendous respect for the job he did of putting together a team that has always displayed competitiveness and sportsmanship. I was very happy for Leon and the success he enjoyed with his franchise last year. He was a great asset to our league, many times in ventures in which he did not always receive the credit he deserved. I will miss him very much as a colleague, but even more so as a close long time friend."

  • "This is a terrible loss. He was a great owner and will be sorely missed. He was such a private man but he was so enthusiastic about his team. Here is a guy who ran a multi-billion dollar corporation but got his joy out of football.

  • Bruce Harper former Jets running back "It's too bad. He was a really great man, not because of his wealth, because he was a good guy. Our relationship went beyond the field. He was always good to the family. It wasn't about business, it was about people with him. I feel like it was a pleasure and privilege to know him."

    Hess was one of the original owners of the Jets. He and four partners, David A. "Sonny" Werblin, Townsend B. Martin, Philip H. Iselin and Donald C. Lillis purchased the Jets forerunners, the New York Titans, out of bankruptcy for $1 million on March 28, 1963. Hess, the president and chief executive officer of Hess Oil, later to become Amerada Hess, stayed in the background in the early days of the Jets and let Werblin run the show. But on May 21, 1968, Hess, with Lillis, Martin and Iselin, purchased Werblin's shares and Hess began a more active role. And it was in 1968 that the original New York American Football League franchise enjoyed its most glorious moment. The Jets captured the AFL Championship beating the Oakland Raiders at Shea Stadium 27-23 and went on to win Super Bowl III on January 12, 1969 defeating the Baltimore Colts 16-7 in Miami in what many experts call the greatest upset in pro football history. Throughout the years, Hess assumed total control of the club as he purchased the remaining shares of his partners eventually becoming chairman of the board and chief executive officer on June 6, 1977.

    Hess, was never one to interfere in the day-to-day running of the Jets, but gave the organization his unstinting support and enthusiasm by consistently providing the coaching staff, players and front office with first-class facilities. He recently oversaw the redevelopment of the team's office and training complex at Hofstra University, Hempstead (Long Island), NY. A new indoor training center was installed along with a new Astro-Turf field and a new grass field. The office complex underwent its fourth renovation since its beginning in 1973 (the Jets were the second NFL team to have its own training complex) with improvements in the weight room, locker rooms, training room and the addition of a new state-of-the-art computer system. Through the up-and-down times that the Jets encountered, Hess continually guided the franchise with a sense of integrity and leadership. Never one to seek the spotlight, Hess shied away from the public accolades that have been bestowed upon him for his many contributions in the world of football, the oil industry and in the community. He instead sought pleasure by watching his football team with its loyal fans. The Jets have been enjoying sold out games since as far back as 1965 at Shea Stadium and have had continual sellouts of regular season games since the final game of the 1978 season-165 consecutive sellouts.

    Hess, the long-time chairman of the board for the Amerada Hess Corporation, handed over the reins of the company to his son John in 1995, and held the title of Chairman of the Executive Committee. He started building Hess Oil from his father's one-truck heating oil delivery business in Asbury Park, New Jersey during the Depression in the 1930s. He delivered heating oil with a 615-gallon Chevrolet truck, for which he paid $24.60. "Everybody was broke in those days," Hess said. "I had to pay for the truck before I could deliver the oil." It was that single truck that became the basis for the toy trucks, tankers and fire engines that Hess gasoline stations began selling during the Christmas holidays of 1964 for only a few dollars. The holiday toys, which Hess insisted would always come with batteries included, earned a broad following with the public and have now become collector's items with some rare early models worth a few thousand dollars. From that humble beginning in 1933 he formed a multi-billion dollar oil and gas company with one of the world's largest refineries and with exploration wells in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Great Britain, Norway, Denmark, Gabon and southeast and central Asia.

    Hess, the son of a Jewish Russian immigrant who was a kosher butcher, took over the daily operations of the company, when he returned home following a tour of duty in the Army during World War II where he was responsible for supplying fuel to General George Patton's Third Army as it dashed across Europe. In 1995, Hall of Fame Jets quarterback Joe Namath introduced Hess for his induction into the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame along with his good friend, Giants owner Wellington Mara, former Giants all-Pro Al De Rogatis and former Rutgers fullback Paul Robeson. In 1983, Hess was an honored recipient of the Distinguished American Award at the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame dinner. He joined an impressive list of past winners including Vince Lombardi, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Bill Carpenter (the Lonley End), and Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. Hess was a quiet NFL owner, but earned the respect of his brethren serving for many years on the important broadcasting committee imparting his knowledge gained as a former member of the board of the American Broadcasting Company.


    NOTES: Some people who knew Hess, described him as demanding-there was an old saying that HESS stood for Holidays, Evenings, Saturdays and Sundays, but more often he was described as paternalistic often making sure that employees who were ill received proper medical care even if they couldn't afford it. Hess regularly visited employees and friends when they were hospitalized. It was rare that he didn't visit any New York Jets player who was injured and had to stay overnight at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital. In one of the more famous cases, it was Hess who made sure that Dennis Byrd, the young defensive lineman of the Jets, received the best medical care. He visited him at both Lenox Hill and Mt. Sinai, when he underwent an extensive rehabilitation program as he recovered from his paralysis. Byrd said at a major news conference at Mt. Sinai Hospital on Feb. 12: "I'd like to mention one individual now.... This man spent countless hours in my hospital room, something he didn't have to do. He visited me as if I was one of his own children. For that, I'm very grateful. This man has gone out of his way, and has spared absolutely no expense to see my recovery. For what I thank him most, what's been most dear to me, is the way he treated me. I've looked up to this man the last 2 1/2 months very much like I would look up to a grandfather. "This man is Leon Hess, as many of you could've guessed. To him, I owe everything-the success of what's happened and what he's done for me. Mr. Hess, thank you very much, and I can say I love you."


  • HESS RE: Bill Parcells (on Feb. 6, 1997): "I was born and brought up in Asbury Park, New Jersey. I even started in the oil business there. Bill Parcells is in love with Sea Girt, NJ. They're eight miles apart. Seventy years ago as kids in the summertime, at low tide, we used to have a rake and a little shovel and we'd go and dig up clams and sell them. The big ones would go for clam chowder at the restaurants and the little ones went to clam bars. We were lucky to make 50 or 75 cents a day. Little did I think, that 70 years later, eight miles away in Sea Girt, would be a Tuna. It's all the same ocean. Little did I think the good Lord would favor me in life and I could marry that Tuna."

  • HESS RE: Moammar Gadhafi: On the day of the announcement of Bill Parcells becoming the Jets head coach, Hess told the story of negotiating with New England owner Bob Kraft saying he was adamant about not giving up the No. 1 overall selection in the 1997 NFL draft. He related the story of negotiating about oil rights and money with a representative of Gadhafi's Libyan government. The man in combat fatigues, Hess said, stared at Hess and his fellow American oil executive, pounded his fist on the table, stood up and removed a revolver from his holster and put it on the table. Hess looked back at the man with his own stare while Gadhafi, dressed in his camouflage fatigues, looked on. "That doesn't scare me," said Hess. "Well, maybe your associate will be afraid of it," the man said. "He's not afraid either," Hess said. "We've given you the best deal possible, and we're not going to change it one iota, so why don't you accept it." Hess said several minutes passed and the gun was removed from the table. The deal was signed and Hess and Gadhafi shook hands and smiled.

  • HESS & THANKSGIVING: It was a tradition, dating back to the mid-1960s, for Leon Hess to visit with the Jets players and staff and watch practice on Thanksgiving Day. For years Hess and his Jets partners hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at Shea Stadium and later at the Long Island Marriott near the Jets training complex, for the Jets players, staff and their families. One of the highlights was a visit by Santa Claus and the giving out of toys, always sure to include the newest Hess Toy Trucks. The party became too big and unmanageable and Hess simply came to visit the players and staff and watch practice. His last visit was on Thanksgiving Day in 1998 (Nov. 27). Part of the ritual was a brief visit to wish the media a Happy Thanksgiving and sometimes included a rare interview. On his last visit, Hess told the media: "We have wonderful coaches, a wonderful spirit with the team. We may have a setback from time to time, but we'll come back. I hope that we do very well." Asked how close is this team to a Super Bowl Hess, who has the Jets' famous Super Bowl III victory to his credit, said: "I dream about it all the time." So is he enjoying this season? "I enjoy it a hell of a lot more than 1-15," he said referring to the Jets' record in 1996, the year before the arrival of Bill Parcells. "I'm cautiously optimistic and I stop there. It's a heck of a letdown when it goes bad. We'll let the coach do the talking. He's the boss. The whole team is his, as if he owned it. And it's his decision on what happens." When Parcells was asked about Hess, he said: "This is one of those guys where you don't have to have it written down. He never said anything to me about job description. It's just, 'Tell me what you think we need to do, and let's talk about how we're going to do it.' He doesn't say too much. It's always pretty much encouraging. He's very thoughtful and very supportive." Some Jets players spoke about Hess. Linebacker Pepper Johnson who played for the Jets and Giants: "He never ceases to amaze me. He reminds me so much of Wellington Mara because they care. They don't say much. When they do say stuff and do stuff, you know it comes from the heart." Fullback Keith Byars: "He's one of the old-guard owners. He reminds me a lot of old man Rooney (Art) in Pittsburgh at the time the Steelers won their first championship. The players really wanted to do it not only for themselves, but for the owner because he went through thick and thin for them." Running back Curtis Martin: "I think you can look at him as an example. You look at him and say, "This guy's 84 years old and he's real inspired about winning.' It says something about his character. I believe that that says a lot. It's something that people can pick up on."

  • HESS TOY TRUCKS: The popularity of the Hess Toy Trucks has reached such a height, that it has its own web site www.hess.com/trucks/toy-alltrucks.html.

  • WEEB EWBANK: Within the past year the Jets have seen two of their most important figures in the club history die. Proceeding Hess's death, was the passing of Weeb Ewbank. Ewbank, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Jets to victory in Super Bowl III and who had led the Baltimore Colts to back-to-back world championships in the NFL in 1958-59, died on Nov. 17. Ewbank would have been 92 yesterday, May 6.

  • Leon Hess, Chairman of the Board, New York Jets Chairman of the executive committee, Amerada Hess Born: March 14, 1914 Wife: Norma Hess, daughter of the late David Wilentz, former New Jersey Attorney General and long-time political activist in the Democratic Party. Married: 51 years (Dec. 10, 1947). Children: Daughters: Marlene Hess, married to Jim Zirin; Connie Williams, Member of Pennsylvania House of Representatives, married to Dr. Sankey Williams; son John B. Hess, Chairman of Board and chief executive officer of the Amerada Hess Corporation, wife Susan. Grandchildren: 7 (4 grandsons and 3 granddaughters)


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