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Jets owner Johnson dealing with tragedy amid Super Bowl run

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Woody Johnson watches his team practice as often as he can, standing on the sideline while letting football push the sadness aside for a few moments.

The New York Jets owner is a win away from the Super Bowl, but it has been a bittersweet postseason -- one during which he had to bury his daughter, Casey.

"This has been a brutal couple of weeks, personally," Johnson said softly, his eyes watery.

In a 20-minute sitdown with reporters Thursday, Johnson spoke for the first time publicly about the emotional seesaw he has been on during the past month. While his team is in the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the 1998 season, Johnson is still mourning.

"I think what you do is, what I found myself doing, is it's two different worlds," he said. "That's the way you can handle it. One doesn't really help the other. The other's the reality. I mean, I lost a daughter. There's no way to bring her back or any of that."

The oldest of Woody Johnson's five children was found dead in her Los Angeles home on Jan. 4, a day after the Jets clinched a playoff spot. An autopsy on Johnson, 30, was inconclusive and the results of toxicology tests weren't expected for weeks. She lived her life on the tabloid pages with the likes of Paris Hilton, and her sudden death was a major story in certain circles.

"I don't think it makes it any more difficult for me," Johnson said of his daughter's highly publicized death. "It really doesn't affect the outcome. It's the outcome. I wish I could change it, but I can't."

Johnson acknowledged he has cried plenty the last few weeks, such as in front of the team after coach Rex Ryan presented him with the game ball when the Jets beat the Cincinnati Bengals in their wild-card playoff game.

"That was just too many things hitting me all at once," he said.

It was uncertain if Johnson would even be at that game, considering it was less than a week after his heartbreaking loss.

"I still, just on a personal level, think of it all the time, obviously," Johnson said. "But, so do other players who have played. The reason I went to that game, I thought, 'Geez, it would be kind of weird if I asked the players to come play the game after they've had a tragedy in their family and I don't come.' So I had to do it."

Ryan and his players have chosen to not speak about Johnson's loss, saying only it's a personal matter and they want to respect his wish to grieve privately.

"I'm sure it's got to be tough," center Nick Mangold said.

Long snapper James Dearth, a member of the Jets since 2001, said Johnson made a point of coming to him when his mother, Jan, died earlier this season.

"He gave me his best and said he was sorry for my loss," Dearth said. "He was real comforting and real sympathetic. He told me he was behind me and if I needed anything to let him know."

As it turned out, Johnson has needed his players -- especially during this difficult time, when winning has served as a momentary distraction from the tears.

"On a happiness index and judging by looking at the players and the fans the last couple of weeks," Johnson said, "I've never seen anything like it."

Certainly not since he purchased the team 10 years ago for more than $600 million.

"He's a passionate guy and it's always fun to talk to him because he's always excited about something," Mangold said. "That's just infectious."

Johnson spends lots of time before games in the stadium parking lot, talking with fans and trying to get the pulse of the people rooting for his franchise. He accepts the criticism that has accompanied the personal seat licenses for the new Meadowlands stadium, but makes it clear he just wants to win.

"It seems like he gives us everything we need, and he makes it a point to talk to all of the guys," Dearth said. "He knows each and every guy on this team. That's a big deal."

One of Johnson's best moves clearly has been hiring Ryan, who has the Jets in the AFC Championship Game for just the third time since the merger in 1970.

"I guess you've got to be respectful of the good fortune that's fallen our way," Johnson said.

Johnson has enjoyed Ryan's bold approach, never cringing even when it seems as if the coach might have gone a little too far with his mouth.

"It fires me up," Johnson said. "I think he set it up right at the beginning, what his expectations were, and he's accomplished those."

Johnson was still just a fan watching on TV when Vinny Testaverde went to Denver, guided the Jets to a halftime lead, but came up short of leading New York to the Super Bowl.

"I think we'll come closer this year," Johnson said, grinning slightly. "I have a lot of confidence."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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