At the age of 20, as a junior at Washington and Jefferson College, Jamestown native Roger Goodell set his sights on becoming the commissioner of the National Football League. At 47, he reached that goal. The story, one of dedication and single-minded focus, takes him from young NFL intern to the "most powerful man in sports." Respected by team owners and players alike, he is first and foremost a great fan of the game. That's where NeXt found him, among the Bills faithful at Ralph Wilson Stadium on a sunny Sunday afternoon earlier this fall. He agreed to the following interview, which was conducted later by email.
>NeXt: Who were your biggest influences in life when you were growing up?
Roger Goodell: My parents were the biggest influences on me. They instilled in my brothers and me values that are still so important to us today. We always wanted to make our parents proud.
>NeXt: Did you plan or hope for a career in sports at a young age?
Goodell: My dream was to work in football. In fact, I slept with a football starting at age 6. My passion and vision was to work in the NFL.
>NeXt: Your father was a respected U.S. congressman and later, senator (appointed to fill Bobby Kennedy's seat). You often have to play the role of politician. What did you learn from your father?
Goodell: I learned to have the courage to do what I think is right. My father took a stance against the Vietnam War. I use it as an example of how I think I have to approach my job. He did it knowing he might lose his seat in the Senate, something he loved, but he did it and he was proud of it. He also taught me to listen to what people say but not take what they say personally.
>NeXt: How did majoring in economics benefit you in your path to become NFL commissioner?
Goodell: I don't think that a specific major is the key to becoming commissioner. The commissioners of baseball, hockey and basketball are all lawyers, which I am not. The sports and entertainment industry is so different now from when I went to college that it is important to learn as much as you can on a breadth of subjects. I would say that goes for many professions.
I am fortunate to have spent most of my career in the NFL, but I've worked in many different areas. Challenge yourself and do different things. I'm still doing that. I have been studying medical issues the past few years in ways I never imagined because of our priority on player health and safety.
>NeXt: You first got your internship with the NFL through an extensive letter-writing campaign. Tell us about that.
Goodell: It was a long process. In 1981 when I graduated from college, I wrote to every team in the NFL. I got rejected by every team multiple times. I think I sent out 50 letters and got rejections to each one of them. It is just a process of being persistent without being a pain, but you want to make sure you show your passion and what you want to do for a living. It is probably no different than any career you want to choose. You want to find what you want to do, what you love to do, where you think you can make a difference and keep working at it and try to get your foot in the door. I was fortunate enough to get an internship. It was an opportunity for me to get my foot in the door and show them what I was all about and how I could contribute. Fortunately, they asked me to stay on a little longer, a little longer and a little longer. Here I am.
>NeXt: What is your proudest moment as NFL commissioner?
Goodell: My favorite part of my job is being able to interact with fans, especially getting out to the stadium and watching people enjoy what we work so hard on to produce and seeing the impact it is having on people's lives. There are not many businesses and not many organizations you can be involved with that have the kind of impact in the communities that the NFL can and that the Buffalo Bills have in Western New York. That is very rewarding. We like to say football brings people together and gives them a chance to be together as families and friends.
>NeXt: You've worked hard to reduce violent hits in the NFL. It wasn't a popular decision with many players and fans. How has it faired overall?
Goodell: Player safety is our No. 1 priority. We are working with doctors and athletic trainers on all aspects of player health and safety. We have implemented more stringent return-to-play rules with regard to head injuries and will continue to work to make our game safer. We think, and many players have said, that players making tackles have taken notice of our more rigorous enforcement of the rules, which as a result is making the game safer, while at the same time the league is becoming more popular.
>NeXt: You've said a challenge to the NFL is keeping momentum in a changing media landscape. Players and coaches tweet. You tweet. How about live tweets to coaches from fans on the umbotron at games?
Goodell: We think Twitter and other forms of social media are great because they bring fans closer to the game. We do have a rule that coaches, players and other football personnel cannot tweet from 90 minutes before the game until their postgame obligations are complete to ensure their focus is on the game.
>NeXt: What innovation do you see on the technology front that will benefit the league?
Goodell: The fact that fans can get the NFL wherever they are, whenever they want it -- whether it is in stadiums, on television, radio, mobile devices, and tablets -- is a great thing. Our goal is to bring more football to more fans and we will consistently work and innovate to make that happen.
>NeXt: You've been called the most powerful man in sports. There's no question there, I just think it's cool.
Goodell: The NFL is the greatest game in the world. I am privileged to be in this position and work hard every day to improve the NFL.
>NeXt: What do you think of the idea of having a new network, "NFL Network Jr.," hosted by and geared to young fans of the game?
Goodell: Sounds like you are looking for a job! There are many ways our younger fans can get closer to the game, including our www.NFLRush.com site, which includes information on NFL Play 60 and NFL RushZone. With improved technology offering more opportunities to offer video on these websites and others, we are certainly interested in delivering more for our young fans.
>NeXt: What's your best advice for someone interested in pursuing a career in the business of sports?
Goodell: As you develop your career, seize every opportunity. And know that you will make mistakes. Ryan Fitzpatrick completes a lot of passes, but he also throws some interceptions. Many things aren't going to go as planned. The world is too complex to be known, so life is about navigating uncertainty. You have to be resilient. You have to adjust. You have to be determined. You have to evolve. You often make mistakes when you challenge yourself. But you need to do that. Don't let yourself get too comfortable. Avoid the comfort zone. Being uncomfortable will motivate you and cause you to grow faster.
>Next: Need an intern to work at the NFL? Or NFL Network?
Goodell: Now could be a good time for you to start your own letter-writing campaign.
Chris Kirkland is a senior at Amherst High School