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The World's Richest Man

Published January 29. 2010 05:00PM

When Jerry Wolman wanted to announce the upcoming publication of his book, he went back home to do so.

Home in Wolman's case is Shenandoah, and the Schuylkill County community welcomed back one of its native sons.

Wolman was the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League from 1963-1969 and his story is told in the book, titled The World's Richest Man.

The book, as told to co-authors Joseph and Richard Bockol, details Wolman's rags to riches story as he became one of America's youngest and richest self-made entrepreneurs in real estate development, construction and professional sports.

Wolman owned the Eagles during an important time in the NFL's history, the days that led up to the creation of the Super Bowl and the merger with the rival American Football League, an era when pro football was becoming the institution it is today.

A week ago, Wolman, 82, held a press conference in the Shenandoah Valley High School cafeteria to discuss the release of his book.

"Over the last 40 years, I've been asked about 10 times to do a book about my life," said Wolman. "I thought it was time for my family, grandchildren and the public to know what my life is about."

One attempt to get started was aborted when Wolman didn't have any chemistry with a potential author. "I felt he couldn't care less about what Shenandoah and Philadelphia were about," related Wolman. When he met Joe Bockol, he found the man he was looking for.

Wolman, who is one of nine children, never forgot his roots, which he promises are prominent in the 256 page book.

"People think this book is about me," he said. "I'm just a character in it. Shenandoah is a character in it, too."

Football has long been a part of life in the Anthracite coal region. High school gridders imagine themselves playing on Sunday afternoons for an NFL team.

Now, imagine actually owning a pro football team.

"It was a childhood dream," said Wolman, who bought the team for $5 million in 1963. "In the coal region, all we had was football. We'd hitch a ride (to Philadelphia), wait until halftime, and the guard would let us in to see the team."

Wolman also had a hand in the building of the Spectrum and in forming the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers, but financial troubles while attempting to build the John Hancock Center in Chicago eventually forced Wolman to sell the Eagles to Leonard Tose.

While he regretted parting with the Birds and later attempted to put together a group to buy the Washington Redskins, he said he wouldn't enjoy being in the league now. It was as much a fraternity for the owners as it was a business.

"I wouldn't want to be in the NFL now, because it's totally different," he expressed. "Back then, guys would kill to win a football game, but you could make a deal with them on a handshake. I don't think I could live with the Eagles today."

Wolman recalled people like Art Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner, who he called "a saint", and Papa Bear, the late George Halas.

Wolman said he envisioned the NFL's growth as well.

"In 1969, I was interviewed by Time magazine and I told them that within a certain period of time, the Eagles would be worth $800 million, and they were," he remembered. "When I had a group and bid on the Redskins for $760 million, I tolf the leader than in five years, they'd be worth $1.2 billion."

That will continue as the NFL goes global. "I predict that the league will be going overseas and you'll see franchises going for $2 billion," Wolman added.

Wolman also saw the potential in a company that wanted to film the NFL's games.

"I was very close to (late NFL Commissioner) Pete Rozelle," stated Wolman. "In my first year, the league turned down a deal with Ed Sabol and NFL Films. Pete and I talked about it. It was proposed that each owner would put in $14,000. Back then, owners threw nickels around like manhole covers. One of the owners objected because there was no place for them to work out of, so I bought a building for them to do their work."

Like the league itself, NFL Films has become an institution. "Last year, NFL Films paid the league $50 million," Wolman remarked.

Wolman now resides in Silver Spring, Maryland. He bounced back from backruptcy ("I have no complaints," he said) and is donating a portion of his book's proceeds towards the Miracle League, a program for mentally and physically handicapped youth.

He might not be the world's richest man in a dollar sense, but Wolman has led a rich life worth reading about.

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