Lurie's Biggest Loss

Jeffrey Lurie exults after a TD , with Dorothy and David Binswanger, during a 44-6 rout of Dallas in December 2008. The win clinched a playoff berth.
Jeffrey Lurie exults after a TD , with Dorothy and David Binswanger, during a 44-6 rout of Dallas in December 2008. The win clinched a playoff berth.
Posted: July 20, 2010

Third in an eight-part series

In a quiet suburb north of Boston, aJewish cemetery sits next to a small lake bordered by a paved trail. Mothers pushing strollers and joggers pass the shoulder-high wrought-iron fence that for more than a century has enclosed the final resting place for the members of Temple of Israel synagogue.

Modest square limestones mark the dearly departed. Kaplan. Hanauer. Kahn. Weinstein. Golden. Smith.

Toward the center of the cemetery, three towering pine trees provide shade through the four seasons. Below one, a copper plate embedded in the grass has weathered over time, but its words are still recognizable:

Beloved husband and father

Morris John Lurie

June 12, 1917-April 14, 1961

It is here, under the tree, that Jeffrey Lurie comes to kneel and to whisper and to cry. Nearly 50 years have passed since his father died of cancer, and Lurie's grief remains as raw and as overpowering as it was when he was a boy of 9.

To most, it seems as if Lurie has it all. A successful, beautiful wife. Two healthy teenage children. More money than he could possibly spend. A Main Line estate. And the keys to Philadelphia's most beloved professional sports franchise.

But there is one thing Lurie longs for, one thing neither his wealth nor his fame can provide. It is why he's the upbeat, live-for-the-moment man he is today, why he embraces adventure and encourages free thought, why he indulged his dream and bought the Eagles in 1994, and why he gives his head coach and team president the freedom to make tough, sometimes unpopular, decisions. He is chasing a void he can never fill.

Jeffrey Lurie just wants his dad.

Not afraid of risk

Lurie breezes into 333 Belrose Bar and Grill in Radnor just a touch late on one of those sun-kissed May days that eases the memory of a rigorous winter. There's not a hint of humidity nor a cloud in the sky, and the fashionable eatery - with its colorful walls, expensive flower arrangements, gourmet chic menu and well-dressed patrons - is jumping during the lunch-time rush.

In the morning, Lurie had been at his stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, entertaining sponsors with an event held in the Eagles locker room. Now, with the afternoon free, he is fulfilling a promise made in March, before he signed off on trading his franchise quarterback to a division rival.

Although the Eagles traded Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins on April 4, Lurie has not commented publicly on what can be viewed as the organization's biggest move since using the second overall pick in the 1999 draft to select McNabb. It's one thing to hand the team over to Kevin Kolb, a young quarterback who has started just two games in three seasons with the Eagles. It's another thing to hand the team over to Kolb and to send McNabb three hours south to a team the Eagles play twice a year.

That Lurie hasn't commented on the move isn't that surprising. He's not media shy, but he's not a showy owner like Jerry Jones, who seemingly comments on every transaction the Dallas Cowboys make. Lurie's leadership style is to put strong people in place and let them do the job he's paying them handsomely to do.

Except for his annual state-of-the-team address at training camp, Lurie leaves the talking to his lieutenants - team president Joe Banner, head coach Andy Reid, and general manager Howie Roseman.

Given the option, Lurie picks an outdoor table and a seat where his back is to the door, but that doesn't discourage a series of people from approaching the table. Lurie is polite and courteous, laughs easily, drinks his Diet Coke through a straw, never once checks his BlackBerry, and isn't demanding of the waiter who brings his corn chowder, cheeseburger (medium rare), and garlic fries. He slips a black suit jacket off and is comfortable in an open-collared light blue shirt, slacks, and black loafers.

Aside from a gaping hole on the team's resumé - a Super Bowl win - the Eagles have been consistently successful since Lurie bought the franchise in 1994, with a .571 winning percentage and 10 trips to the playoffs. While winning five division titles and 10 playoff games, since 2000 the Eagles have won an NFC-best 103 regular-season games.

But with the change at quarterback from McNabb to Kolb, the Eagles are embarking on the third era of Lurie's ownership, one that is full of the uncertainty that accompanies a first-time starter at the most crucial position.

Lurie is a self-proclaimed risk-taker, but he hasn't typically gambled on players with sketchy backgrounds. Every spring, the Eagles talk about how certain players are off their draft board because of character issues, and the Eagles locker room is typically populated by players who don't get in trouble with the law.

That's part of the reason why it was so shocking when Lurie agreed to sign Michael Vick, a convicted felon who served 18 months in a federal penitentiary for ng dogfighting. Lurie put his reputation on the line for a player who hadn't taken a snap in two seasons and wasn't going to challenge for the starting quarterback job.

In June, after a codefendant in Vick's trial was shot outside a Virginia nightclub where Vick had celebrated his 30th birthday, the decision seemed even more short-sighted. Police have said Vick wasn't the shooter, but he used questionable judgment by attending a party open to the public.

Before the incident, Lurie refused to assess Vick's tenure with the Eagles and hoped the quarterback would have a larger impact than he did last season.

"Let's talk about it a year from now," Lurie said.

While Lurie was the last one in on the decision to sign Vick last summer, he did not have to be convinced that Kolb was ready to be the man. Lurie had gotten the practice reports and had seen for himself.

And Lurie said he trusted and respected Reid's analysis of the situation.

The decision to trade McNabb, Lurie said, fit the organization's overall philosophy on developing quarterbacks. And despite what some observers have suggested, McNabb's performance in the Eagles' back-to-back losses to the Dallas Cowboys to end the season did not seal the quarterback's fate.

"I really honestly can't even say that," Lurie said. "On the other hand, 11-4 going into those last two games, you say, 'Jeez, 11-4. Virtually any team would take that in a second.' "

But 11-4 gave way to consecutive blowout losses to the Cowboys, and just like that, another season was lost, another Super Bowl not won.

After much discussion, analysis, and thought among Reid, Banner, and Roseman, the decision was made to switch quarterbacks. Lurie didn't have to be convinced. He was already on board.

"Maybe this won't work out," Lurie said. "Maybe it wouldn't have worked out if we kept Donovan. But you can't be risk-averse. You can't be. I think I surround myself with people who are not risk-averse. I'm not risk-averse at all. We're all really confident, but [if] for any reason it [doesn't] work out, then we keep prioritizing that position and go after it."

With the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, St. Louis picked quarterback Sam Bradford. Lurie admired their pick.

"St. Louis, they may have gotten the ideal player by being a terrible team," Lurie said. "Sometimes it pays off. That's how we got Donovan."

Esther Blumstein is frail but feisty. Her two-bedroom oceanside apartment in Palm Beach, Fla., is filled with hundreds of framed photographs - on the glass coffee table, a round wooden end table, a desk, two towering bookcases. They provide the time line of her 99 years.

Horrible for everybody

Amid the masses on the coffee table is a stunning black-and-white of a man and woman dressed to the nines. The man, in his early 30s, is Cary Grant handsome, with dark hair and a knowing smile. He looks like a young Jeffrey Lurie, only he's not.

He's Lurie's father, Morris.

"When he died, it was the most awful experience that I've ever had," said Blumstein, Morris' older sister.

Blumstein is petite and proper, with white hair like her beloved nephew - a family trait, she explains. She uses a walker, speaks slowly, and sets a glass of water on a Super Bowl napkin. Although she frequently apologizes for losing track of her thoughts - "I am 100, you know," she says - Blumstein's mind is sharp and her memory amazingly clear. She holds the answers to at least part of Jeffrey Lurie's family history.

Joseph and Flora Lurie, both immigrants, lived in Newark, N.J., and had three children: Esther, Morris, and Erwin.

Morris "was a doll," Esther said. "He was so wonderful. . . . And as handsome as he was, that's how good he was."

In October 1941, Morris Lurie enlisted in the Army. He was a private in the engineers during World War II.

"He got out without a scratch," said Blumstein, who keeps her brother's military photo in her bedroom, "although it was an awful experience."

After the war, Morris became a salesman for a textile company, and he met and married Nancy Smith, the daughter of entrepreneur Philip Smith. During the war, Smith owned a collection of drive-in movie theaters. Throughout the 1950s, Smith expanded the business to include restaurants, bowling alleys and the first theater in a shopping mall.

Smith incorporated his son Richard into the Boston-based business, and then brought Morris on board.

Living in a Boston suburb, Morris and Nancy Lurie had three children: Jeffrey, Peter, and Cathy. Jeffrey was a curious, active boy who, like his father, loved sports. But Peter wasn't the same.

One day when Peter was 3, Morris Lurie asked his sister to lunch. Sitting in the Park Lane restaurant in Manhattan, after ordering their food, Morris broke down telling his sister that autism had been diagnosed in Peter.

"It was a shock to us," Blumstein said. "I mean we'd never heard of anything like autism. It was unbelievably unknown."

Around 1959, Morris Lurie was in the process of developing a chain of fast-food restaurants named after his firstborn when he went to a hospital in Boston after suffering an injury on the golf course.

"He was in observation, I think, in the hospital, and it was an awfully long time and we kept wondering, 'Why's he taking so long? What's wrong?' " Blumstein said. "Never in a million years did we think of anything like cancer."

But cancer it was. With Morris in and out of the hospital, Blumstein commuted to Boston from New York to help Nancy with the children. They turned the living room of the Lurie home into a makeshift hospital room, and at night, Blumstein would walk downstairs and talk to her beloved brother, who constantly had trouble sleeping.

"He was worried," Blumstein said. "About the kids, oh sure. He was worried about whatever was going to happen."

On April 14, 1961, Morris Lurie died.

"It was horrible for my mother, of course," Blumstein said. "It was horrible for everybody."

Including 9-year-old Jeffrey.

There was a catch

Jeffrey Lurie has too few memories of his father. He was but a boy when he died. But one memory Lurie clings to is of watching the NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants with his dad on Dec. 28, 1958.

Having grown up in and around New York, Morris Lurie was naturally a Giants fan. His son, 7 at the time, was rooting for the Colts because "I liked the Colts uniforms better," Jeffrey Lurie said.

That game was, and still is, one of the greatest of all time. The Giants went ahead, 17-14, early in the fourth quarter. But with two minutes left, Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas orchestrated a masterful two-minute drill - before there were two-minute drills - that ended with a field goal to force overtime. New York got the ball first in overtime but had to punt, and Unitas drove the Colts 80 yards to win the game, 23-17.

"That hooked me," Lurie said. "Hooked forever. Sudden death for a championship, and my dad."

On Sept. 9, 1960, Morris took Jeffrey, who turned 9 the day before, to the first-ever American Football League regular-season game, between the Boston Patriots and Denver Broncos.

"I can remember it like it was yesterday," Lurie said of the Patriots' 13-10 loss. "I can remember what happened in the game. And it was like, a team to call your own, the team you were rooting for. I don't know. It was powerful."

Seven months later, Morris Lurie was dead.

"His father's death was a big blow in his life," Blumstein said. "I think it has so much to do with who he is today."

While Lurie's mother, Nancy, was grieving the loss of her husband, her father, Philip Smith, the patriarch of the family fortune, died unexpectedly. Within four months, Jeffrey lost the two most significant male figures in his life.

He escaped his sadness by submerging himself in sports. A good student, Lurie loved all the Boston teams. He went to games and put himself to sleep listening to the Red Sox on his transistor radio.

"It probably was an early escape from losing my dad," Lurie said. "It was pretty obvious. If you look from afar, you say, 'You know yes, he loves sports, and his dad really introduced him to football, and then his dad dies when he's 9 years old, and you want to carry on something you shared with your dad.'

"And also the love. You loved it naturally. It made sense as an escape from the pain of losing your dad. It was such a gratification in a painful setting.

"So I can psychoanalyze myself, and that's how I would look at it. You had your mother, your sister, and your autistic brother, and then the very sad loss of your dad. What are you going to do for some joy? For me, it was sports. Football, baseball, hockey, basketball."

Lurie's mother, brother and sister are still alive and living in the Boston area. Lurie said he sees them frequently.

When Lurie was in class preparing for his bar mitzvah, the rabbi approached him. Lurie had smuggled his radio into class.

"What are you doing," the rabbi asked.

"I'm listening to the seventh inning of the Red Sox game," Lurie said.

The rabbi kicked Lurie out of class.

"I'm glad I got kicked out," Lurie said. "It was fine with my mom. She kind of understood where I was coming from."

That, Lurie says, was his last formal participation with the Jewish religion.

"I'm culturally Jewish or ethnically Jewish, but I feel organized religion often divides people too much," Lurie said. "I'm much more homed in on humans as humans. We're all humans. Let's get along great."

When he was in prep school in Cambridge, Mass., Lurie took a trip to Europe with a handful of other Boston kids and their chaperones. Their first night in London, Lurie's roommate was Arthur Greenburg.

"We bonded immediately because we both were sports enthusiasts," said Greenburg, who has maintained his friendship with Lurie. "You're with somebody you don't know much about, so you gravitate to what you know well. . . . I didn't know at the time, his dream was to own a sports team."

It might have been, but Lurie first had to go on an academic journey, from Clark University in Worcester, Mass. to Boston University, where he earned his master's degree in psychology. Lurie got a doctorate in social policy from Brandeis University.

Finally in 1983, after nine years of higher education, Lurie joined the family business, then called General Cinema Corp, as a liaison to the film industry. Two years later, he moved to Los Angeles and produced a string of unsuccessful movies, including a dark comedy called I Love You To Death.

In a pre-production meeting for that film, Lurie met the woman who would become his wife, Lori Christina Weiss. A former actress, Weiss was drawn to Lurie because he "was very grounded," she said, and "not a typical Hollywood person."

But there was a catch.

"He was crazy about sports," she said. "That was the only thing I wasn't sure about."

Self-made

In 1994, after losing a bidding war with Robert Kraft for ownership of the New England Patriots, Lurie bought the Eagles from Norman Braman for what at the time was the most money ever spent on a professional sports franchise in this country - $185 million.

A subsequent Wall Street Journal article about the Eagles sale included a quote from an unidentified investment banker who, the Journal said, was conversant with sports transactions: "The economics are terrible," the banker said. "There's nothing like doing business with a guy who was jilted at the altar on the last deal."

The implication was that Lurie had made an emotional buy.

"I was thinking, 'This is a big deal, and maybe they're right, and I'm way too emotionally involved here,' " Lurie said. "So I asked a few people, 'Am I really being that crazy?' And they said, 'No, you analyzed it, you felt this was something that was going to really grow into something much bigger, and you knew you'd love it.' So what perfect combination is that, to buy something you knew you would love and not go bankrupt doing it. In fact, it was a good investment."

That is an understatement.

Last September, Forbes magazine estimated that the Eagles were worth $1.1 billion, $943 million net of debt. That month, Lurie also made Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans, landing at No. 394 with a net worth the magazine estimated at $980 million.

In March, Forbes put Lurie on its list of the world's billionaires, ranking him No. 937 with a net worth of $1.0 billion. The source of Lurie's fortune, according to Forbes: "Self-made."

"He is cast as someone who made a wise investment at the right time," said Kenneth Shropshire, the director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. "From the owners' standpoint, he runs a successful business enterprise. A lot of it is the stadium. The business part really ramped up when they got that stadium. He's in a top-five television market. He doesn't have a whole lot of controversy, and he has had continuity and doesn't get held up by players.

"That's not a bad reputation to have."

Wants to win

In her book The Making of Harcourt General: A History of Growth Through Diversification: 1922-1992, author Bettye H. Pruitt described Philip Smith, the patriarch of the family business, this way:

"A composite snapshot of the entrepreneur in his early 50s, based on the recollections of those who knew him, suggests that it would be hard to find a flaw. From oral testimony, he appears to have been both brilliant and charismatic, yet never self-aggrandizing or overbearing."

Smith's grandson hopes he inherited some of those traits.

According to those who either work or have worked for him, Lurie is a reasonable, open-minded, thought-provoking boss who asks probing questions but who can be persuaded to try something.

"One of the best things about Jeffrey and Christina is they're very aggressive. They're very visionary, and they empower you," said Mark Donovan, who was the Eagles' senior vice president of business operations from 2003 until 2008, when he became the chief operating officer of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Donovan likened Lurie to some of his past bosses: former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

"You walk into a meeting, and you think you're completely prepared and you've got this whole thing figured out, and they ask you that question or two that you haven't considered," Donovan said. "They come at it from a different perspective. That's how Jeffrey was. He'd ask the tough questions, and once you reach an agreement, he's like, 'Go do it.' And if you failed, he'd want to know why."

Lurie is omnipresent at the team's South Philadelphia practice facility. He typically watches practice from the sideline wearing an Eagles T-shirt and black shorts, and he attends every game, nervously watching and cheering from a private box.

He does not target specific players in free agency or give suggestions on whom to draft. Lurie leaves those decisions to his management team of Reid, Banner, and Roseman. But Lurie does sign off on the big decisions, like adding Terrell Owens in 2004 and Michael Vick in 2009 and trading McNabb in 2010.

"I really think he does want to win," said Ray Didinger, who has covered the Eagles since 1960. "With Norman Braman, I never really got that feel. I thought with Braman, it really was about the money and the power. Whether or not he ever held up the Lombardi Trophy, I don't think he woke up in the morning thinking about that.

"I think Jeff does. I think Jeff really does want to be that guy. I think he wants to ride that float down Broad Street. I know some people question that. I don't. I think he's enough of a fan and enough of a historian that he wants to be in that company. He wants to be in that club. I think it matters to him. So in that respect, I think his heart is in the right place."

His father's son

With no father and no grandfather, Lurie looked to his mother's brother for direction. For nearly four decades, Richard Smith served as his family company's chief executive officer and turned the movie theater business into Harcourt General Inc., a publishing leader that also had controlling interest in the Neiman Marcus Group.

"I really admired him because he was very successful but very humble, always human and nice, and he still is," Lurie said. "The thing I think I learned more than anything from him is you don't walk around with your success in your head."

The other person Lurie looked to for guidance, even though he met him just a couple of times, was Red Auerbach, the architect of the Boston Celtics' dynasties.

"He always saw the big picture and wasn't afraid to make unpopular decisions," Lurie said. "He thought outside the box and was always trying to win championships and [was] very, very intense. I think he was able to isolate the key aspects of what it took to win. It wasn't the biggest names; it was forming the best teams."

Lurie might have tried to glean part of his management style from Smith and Auerbach, but he inherited traits from his father, Lurie's Aunt Esther said. He is his father's son.

"Oh yes, in nature," Blumstein said. "Oh yes, very much so. Both very smart, very keen, with a great sense of humor, appreciated everything in life with a gusto. Some people appreciate it, but they don't show. And they did. They were very much alike."

Don't be negative

The last time Lurie went to his father's grave was a year and a half ago. It was a chilly day, and as is his custom, Lurie knelt down and started trying to explain to his father just what has happened to him in the half century since they last touched.

His studies. His adventures. His movies. His wife. His kids. His football team. His undeniable financial success.

In football terms, Lurie couldn't make it through the first possession.

"It's hard to talk if you're crying while you're talking," Lurie said. "I miss him that much to this day."

The loss of his father is a loss Lurie will never get over. It's why he went to South Africa for the World Cup final. It's why Lurie took his only son for his birthday to the French Open final, why he recently went golfing with his buddies in Northern Ireland and why he took six of his players, including Kevin Kolb, up to Boston for Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.

"He was always somebody who loved to travel as we became older, and he used to go to the most exotic, unusual places," said Greenburg, Lurie's friend. "It was always places people didn't know about. He would go to Turks and Caicos and St. Barts before anybody knew what those places were."

It is why Lurie has no patience for negativity and why at work he has one unwritten rule: Don't be negative around me.

"If he feels like anybody's dragging us down by being negative or complaining, you'll hear about it. Or I'll hear about it," Banner said. "He lives with a very positive energy and he wants to be surrounded by people with a positive energy. He does have a [philosophy of] you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow so let's plan for the future, but let's live for today."

And it is why, according to his aunt, Lurie never thought he'd live long.

"The thinking there was really worrisome," Blumstein said. "He just didn't believe that he'd be here at the age he is now. . . . He talked about it, and you know you can't reassure enough to convince anyone that has that kind of thinking. And you know why it is."

Yes, you know why. It makes sense.

"People would think he's got it all," Banner said. "He owns the Eagles. He's extraordinarily wealthy. He can do whatever he wants, and he does a lot of great things. But he lost his dad when he was 9 years old, and he grew up in a family with a brother who was severely autistic and in and out of getting help.

"That's a lot of pain in a life that from the outside probably looks like, 'I wish I could be like him.' But everybody's got their story."

And Lurie's story invariably comes back to the pine tree in the cemetery outside of Boston, to the copper nameplate in the grass and to the man buried beneath it. It's a futile endeavor but one that brings momentary relief from a life spent chasing a ghost.

"You're there trying to explain to him what's going on, as if he can hear," Lurie said. "And I've sort of convinced myself that he can."


Contact staff writer Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.

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