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Leroy Neiman: Artist on the Sideline


Updated, Friday, June 22, 4:38 p.m.

Leroy Neiman has been described in tributes since his death in New York on Wednesday at the age of 91 as many things: official painter of five Olympiads, iconic contributing artist at Playboy, depicter of Muhammad Ali and Frank Sinatra.

It should not be lost in the eulogies that Neiman has a pivotal place in the art and imagery of the National Football League and the New York Jets.

Neiman brought his splashes of color and crisp black lines, his studies of motion and mood to the Green & White in 1968. All during that season, through Super Bowl III and into the 1969 season, he became the quasi-official portraitist and painter of Joe Namath and the Jets.

"Leroy was a part of the team and traveled with the team to most of the games," Jets owner Woody Johnson said. "He chronicled many of the most important moments in Jets history and his work hangs prominently throughout our team's headquarters at Florham Park. His special relationship with the Jets will be greatly missed and our thoughts are with his family during this time."

"It was flattering to be the subject of some of his works," Namath said in remarks he just posted to his Website, "When I saw them, I was always impressed. The way he captured the emotions was spectacular. Seeing the position, the posture — he really had a way of understanding you."

Neiman's Jets art first received wide viewing in the book authored by Dave Anderson of The New York Times, "Countdown to the Super Bowl." Many of those renderings have remained a part of the team scene over the years. They hung on the side walls of the second-floor auditorium at the Jets' four-decades-long headquarters at Hofstra University. And as Johnson said, they traveled across the Hudson in September 2008 to their new home, the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center.

You can see five of Neiman's major Jets works, of Namath, Gerry Philbin, Matt Snell, Bill Mathis and Curley Johnson, ornately framed at the entry to the team's business offices. Smaller "neimanism" treatments of Pete Lammons, Billy Joe, George Sauer Jr., Johnny Sample, Bob Talamini and Earl Christy line the walls of the nearby hall.

Frank Ramos, the Jets' longtime public relations director, recalled that several different influences brought Neiman to the Jets' Long Island base and their Shea Stadium home. For starters, Neiman, already established as a major of sports and entertainment artist, asked to come aboard.

"Leroy had approached me about following the Jets that year," Ramos told "I gave him the passes to be on the sideline. He was on the field, similar to a photographer, near the bench. He worked very quickly and his illustrations, being able to capture a play or a mood on the spot, are fabulous to this day.

"Then he wanted to travel with the Jets, and he did. At that time the media flew on the charter flight with the team and Leroy went with us. He chronicled us every single week."

But to optimize the Neiman benefit, the Jets needed the cooperation of head coach Weeb Ewbank, perhaps not considered by many as an avant garde kind of guy. Not so, said Ramos.

"Weeb was so conscious of marketing the team and pro football, making sure the media had access, telling our story," he said. "Part of it was the American Football League, but Weeb was that way in Baltimore before we came to the Jets. Part was also owner Sonny Werblin, who was big in show business. We had Johnny Carson, when he first did the Tonight Show, come out and run a couple of plays in full uniform against the Jets — for a long time he showed that clip on his anniversary highlights show.

"And I don't know any other team that had an artist on the sideline."

The flamboyant gentleman with the handlebar mustache and, well, jet-black hair left the team for other pursuits in the Seventies and beyond. Yet for many years he continued to design the holiday greeting cards that the Jets sent out to fans and friends.

An Associated Press story on his life detailed his assignments as the official computer artist at the Super Bowl for CBS, at the Olympics when he produced live drawings for TV, and at the world chess championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykjavik.

"It's been fun. I've had a lucky life," Neiman said in his June 2008 interview with AP. "I've zeroed in on what you would call action and excellence. Everybody who does anything to try to succeed has to give the best of themselves, and art has made me pull the best out of myself."

And for a small window of time, he and the Jets came together to produce the actions and images of the very best that the AFL and the NFL had to offer.

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