Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the cover of our October 2014 issue. Due to the interest in the Johnson family as Woody Johnson is appointed to be the new Ambassador to Britain, we’re excited to share it once again in case any readers missed it the first time around.
At first glance, Suzanne Johnson (née Ircha) leads a life that is the very definition of New York City high society. With her degree from Cornell, high-powered Wall Street background, and happy marriage to one of the country’s most well-known businessmen—her hubby is fourth generation member of the Johnson & Johnson family and New York Jets owner Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV—all on top of her svelte beauty and savvy sense of style, Johnson certainly has all the necessary qualities to reign over the city’s socialite scene. However, as anyone who spends even just an afternoon with her can tell you, Johnson’s true self is far more down-to-earth—and centered around her sons, 8-year-old Brick and 6-year-old Jack—than the gilded portrait often painted of her in the press.
“I’m going to be completely honest—I am a total 1960s housewife,” Johnson admits over lunch—which includes tomatoes she grew herself—on a humid August day at her family’s summer home in East Hampton. “As glamorous as it all seems on the outside, I am a wife and a mother, and that’s first and foremost…I put on the black leggings and the black turtleneck and coat and take my kids to school. It’s not all fabulous.”
And while she’s steadfastly modest and gracious when it comes to some of the decidedly luxe aspects of her life, there’s one area of special privilege that she’s vocal about enjoying: Her unique access to her husband’s football team, the Jets (where she takes an active part in game-day operations at MetLife Stadium), and her role in the NFL as an ambassador of women’s apparel (she’s created past NFL tee-shirt collaborations with Marchesa and, for Super Bowl XLVIII, Andrew Rosen of Theory).
“Basically, I wanted women to see that they could come to the stadium, with or without their husbands, and really be part of that life,” she explains. “And if you don’t know so much about the Xs and Os, I always felt like fashion is a good magnet for women, and it gives them a way to feel involved and dress up and be part of a group—even if it’s home-gating.”
In addition to her involvement with making NFL apparel more female fan-friendly, Johnson also hand-curates and posts her favorite NFL picks for women across her social media channels (a task she doesn’t take lightly—she insists on seeing every item she picks in person before endorsing via her Twitter or Instagram), and is excitedly gearing up for the Jets’ most family-focused season ever. In addition to offering the Kids’ Zone arena on the plaza outside of MetLife Central, where there’s free face painting, a white board to write messages for the Jets on, and events in a mock football field setting before the game—like giving kids the chance to kick a field goal or throw a ball to a receiver—there will also be the Player Walk. This will be a time between 10:30–10:45am at 1pm Sunday games, where there will be one entryway where the players, the coaches, and the owner (Woody Johnson) will walk into the stadium together. Kids can line up and high-five the players and wish them good luck, and receive coins that have the player’s names and “Play Like a Jet” on them.
“It’s something to keep in your pocket and it could really keep a kid motivated [so] they feel like they’re part of an organization, and we want them to feel like they’re part of the New York Jets,” Johnson says of the souvenir coins.
Hearing Johnson describe the infectious energy of game days at MetLife Stadium, which also offer kids’ activities like bedazzling and button-making in its Clubs and Suites, it’s clear that the fusion of football and family—and making Jets games a place of wonder for the youngest of fans—is one that she really loves. “Just within our own family, we’ve really seen that football was a way to bring us together,” she says, adding that it’s her hope that the Jets can offer that same bonding experience to every family that comes to a game this season.
Naturally, much of Johnson’s excitement about the football season’s family-centric happenings is underscored by her equal enthusiasm for the team itself. At the time of our lunch and interview, the team was enjoying a promising pre-season, having recently defeated the Indianapolis Colts. Gang Green Nation members need not fret, as Johnson was feeling very optimistic about the months ahead.
“Our defense looks great—they’ll be really hard to reckon with this season. Rex Ryan is really known for his defensive mind and this year he’s put together a great defense… Between Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson—these guys are big, big men—we’re going to have a really good defense this year,” she says, adding that beyond just supporting the team, it’s also important to her to really soak up the unifying nature of football every Sunday. “I used to say to myself, as I got dressed in the morning: ‘77,000 other people are doing this right now. They’re getting psyched to go to a game and they’re getting psyched to cheer on a team that they care about.’ I think that feeling of collegiality and oneness and wholeness is really what I look forward to on a Sunday, because I feel like I’m part of something bigger than my daily routine—which as a mother can be just getting my kids to school, making sure my husband is set, making sure the home is good.”
Like many of her fellow NYC moms, Johnson knows first-hand that the routines and demands of motherhood have a way of putting themselves front and center. In her pre-“1960s housewife” days, Johnson—who grew up in Greenwich Village as the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant father and a second-generation Ukrainian-American mother—enjoyed self-made success with a thriving career in the fast-paced finance industry, selling institutional equities to hedge funds. It’s a lifestyle she sometimes misses, despite the fact that she presently relishes focusing her energies elsewhere.
“I really miss the relationships in [finance] because I dealt with some incredibly brilliant men at a lot of these hedge funds. Smart people are fun to hang out with and chat with—so I miss that camaraderie,” she admits. “But being married is great—I love being a wife and mother… It’s just different, it was time. You have to sort of grow in your life and this is my phase now.”
Johnson’s current “phase” is all about family time—be it wrangling her energetic young sons, spending time with her extended family, or bringing her children together with their half-sisters from her husband’s previous marriage (Woody’s daughters are Jaime Johnson, 32, and Daisy Johnson, 27). Safe to say, Johnson—who says that she’s the “disciplinarian” in the parenting equation—and her husband are both very hands-on parents, clued in to their sons’ academics, athletics, and values.
“We’re a regular family—making sure the boys do their chores and get good grades. We’re big on making sure they’re held responsible for what they’re doing, and that they understand the reality of the world is that it’s really tough out there and you’ve got to start young,” Johnson says. “They say if you really spend a lot of time with your children while they’re young, by the time they’re like 10, they’re definitely wired with your message… That makes me feel good because I think I’ve done that.”
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It doesn’t hurt that Brick and Jack—who, with their golden blond hair and twinkling eyes, are the picture of all-American adorability—seem to be naturally curious and joyful youngsters. Both speak French and Spanish (they attended preschool at Lycee Francais, as the Johnsons are “really big on the cultural exchange” and teaching their kids that “it’s a broad world, it’s not just New York City”), love playing football at Fastbreak Kids and Asphalt Green, playing soccer at Chelsea Piers and at Super Soccer Stars/Premier, playing tennis at Sutton East, and are absolutely die-hard Jets fans (in fact, by their mother’s account, they’ve even started reading the sports’ pages and have been teaching her a thing or two about the news on the gridiron)—in short, they’re a lot of fun.
“My eldest son is more introspective, he’s more of an observer, he’s more quiet. He reminds me of my dad—because my dad was very introverted and then my mother was very extroverted. But he’s very, very athletic and he’s very focused,” Johnson says of Brick’s personality. “My youngest son is like my mom—he can talk to a wall! He has made friends with everybody I know, he makes friends with a hundred million people…he’s just one of these out-going, out-going kids.”
In addition to enjoying quality time with her high-energy sons, Johnson also shares a positive relationship with her step-daughters, Jaime and Daisy. “They’re very close with the boys,” she says. “And now that the kids are getting older, the girls will come to their sporting events and they come to the [Jets] games…I think they’re amused by the boys because they grew up as girls, so it’s kind of fun seeing that perspective.” Of course, this sense of closeness is partially due the fact that Johnson has taken such a clear-eyed approach to her role in her step-daughters’ lives. “I’m never going to be their mother and I don’t want to take that role,” she says. “I respect their mother, and I respect the job of motherhood and that’s very sacred.”
Also sacred to Johnson is time spent with her husband, to whom she’s been married since 2009, after being introduced by a mutual friend—at a Jets game no less—several years previously. She notes that she and Woody have a ritual of regularly strolling in Central Park, an iconic city spot that she has loved since her own childhood (Johnson is also on the board of the Central Park Conservancy). Besides enjoying the atmosphere of the Park, the couple also often runs into friends along the way—even fellow Jets. “One Saturday we were walking in the Park and we ran into [Jets center] Nick Mangold, his wife, and their baby in the carriage,” she recalls. “We were like: ‘Hey Nick!’ And he’s like: ‘Hey Mr. Johnson!’ So you run into everybody in Central Park, it’s really crazy. But that’s one of our rituals, we walk.”
Johnson happily reports that one of Woody’s strengths as a partner in parenting is that he is diligent about helping her carve out time for herself amidst her busy schedule. “Usually on Mondays after the kids go to school, I really take that time in that day to do all the things I need to do myself, instead of like cherry-picking this on Thursday, this on Friday. Monday is my day and Woody knows it,” she says. “My husband has more energy than anybody I’ve met in my entire life…so he usually takes the kids a lot on Mondays. And if there are some extra things for them to do on Mondays, he’ll sort of pick up the strings there, and that’s a balance he does with me.”
The balance she’s achieved is one that seems to suit her well, as she takes on the demands of the football season and manages her sons’ active schedules. Though she’s using this season to rest up a bit after last year’s Super Bowl extravaganza at MetLife Stadium (think hosting a crew of NFL wives for game-day festivities, on top of her regular duties as an ambassador for NFL women’s apparel), Johnson is eager and optimistic about everything to come with the NFL, the Jets, and her bustling personal life.
“This year I needed a break, but as I take my break I am looking for collaborations and fun things to do,” she says of what’s next for her in terms of NFL apparel. “Maybe even expanding into different areas—maybe instead of just a shirt, doing some fun sneakers.”
Whatever it is that blossoms from the ideas she has churning—be it more high-fashion ventures for the NFL, additional family-focused happenings at MetLife Stadium, or shepherding her boys through whatever activity they take up next—it’s sure to be a total touchdown.