President-Elect Donald Trump relishes every opportunity he’s had to tout his close friendship with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft. But in the late 80s, the “Flying Elvis” came dangerously close to having a dirty-blonde combover of his own.
In 1988, Patriots founder Billy Sullivan found himself in dire straits. The Lowell native and Boston College alum was awarded the AFL’s eighth and final charter franchise in 1960 for $25,000 ($200,097.97 in today’s dollars), after the NFL denied him a Boston franchise the year prior. The Pats found occasional success after the 1971 NFL-AFL merger, appearing in Super Bowl XX, only to get trounced by the ’85 Chicago Bears. Off the field, Sullivan’s finances were a mess.
A players strike in September 1982 dealt a devastating blow to revenues. A disastrous involvement by Sullivan’s son Chuck in the Jackson Five’s 1984 Victory Tour cost an estimated $22 million, nearly the whole of the family’s fortune. Things were so bad, Chuck, who was also the Patriots’ executive vice president, converted one of the luxury boxes in Foxboro’s Sullivan Stadium, then under the control of federal bankruptcy court, into his personal bedroom while he sorted out his divorce. (He was stumbled upon by a Sun-Chronicle reporter, to great embarrassment.) In a particularly bold move, Chuck Sullivan later asked Michael Jackson for a sequined hand, to no avail.
Three years earlier, Trump turned heads, as he’s wont to do, by signing Boston College legend and 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie to a six-year contract worth $8.25 million with his New Jersey Generals of the star-crossed USFL. Trump’s bullying and ill-advised push to compete with the vastly more established NFL head-on are generally blamed for the collapse of the league, which operated for three seasons between 1982 and 1985. He was so loathed by his peers, the owner of the Tampa Bay franchise once threatened to punch him in the mouth.
— Jeff Pearlman (@jeffpearlman) March 3, 2016
On February 16, 1988, the Patriots announced that Trump was negotiating to purchase the team. He was only the latest in a star-studded cavalcade of more than 20 potential buyers who failed to reach a deal, including: future owner Bob Kraft (1985), New York accountant Ira Lampert (1985), a group led by St. Louis Mayor Vincent Schoemehl (1987), real estate developer Jeffrey Chodorow (1987), and the tandem of businessman and former Harvard baseball captain Joe O’Donnell and Wonderland Park dog track owner Charley Sarkis (1987).
But Trump lost interest in the Pats just 13 days after the team’s announcement. The same day, former U.S. Postmaster General Robert Tisch began his own failed negotiations to purchase the team.
“Donald had a real interest and he felt the Sullivan family was honorable in their dealings with him,” a source with knowledge of the negotiations told the Globe. “But his people told him between the team and the stadium there was $104 million in debt, and that was too much for him to handle.”
Victor Kiam and Fran Murray finally purchased the Patriots for $85 million in October 1988, a deal hammered out in a hotel at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. “I didn’t go to bed at all. In fact, I almost missed the plane. I pulled an O.J. Simpson running through the airport,” said Sullivan’s other son, Patrick, a full four years before that analogy meant something entirely different.
“Now I can relax,” Billy Sullivan told the Globe aboard a first-class American Airlines flight back to Boston. “It’s finally over. I’m both happy and grateful.” The team changed hands once more before Kraft, a season-ticket holder since 1971, purchased the Patriots for $172 million in 1994. To this day, Kraft owns a poster from the Victory Tour.
The same week as Kiam and Murray finalized the deal with the NFL, Trump was rumored to be interested in buying another football team—this time, the Dallas Cowboys. From the Globe:
Donald Trump supposedly is one of those interested in the purchase of the Cowboys. Trump tried to buy the Patriots last spring, but a deal could not be worked out. Reports said former Cowboy star Roger Staubach might be involved with Trump, but that is not the case. Staubach is too involved with his own real estate company, even though he still has a rooting interest in the Cowboys.
Of course, neither Trump nor Staubach, a staunch Republican, would purchase America’s Team. Instead, businessman Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys for $140 million in 1989. Twenty-six years later, he was spotted in the midst of one of history’s most awkward hugs with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who would later endorse Trump when his own presidential bid crumbled, not unlike Tony Romo under pressure.
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