By Jason Keidel
He didn’t snap, catch, run, or pass a single football. Look up his stat sheet and you won’t yield a single number. He never held the ball, wore a uniform, or blew a whistle.
Yet Dan Rooney lorded over more football, and remolded it, more than any of his endless string of Hall-of-Famers.
When the NFL was becoming our nation’s most important sport, the Pittsburgh Steelers were becoming it’s most important team. When football leapfrogged baseball as America’s preeminent sport, the Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years. And at the center of that dominance was Dan Rooney, who slowly took over the family business.
The patriarch, Art Rooney, Dan’s father, whom the players affectionately called The Old Man, was the first face of the team’s revival. The old man, with so many wrinkles you needed a bookmark to find his eyes, a stogie forever pinched between his teeth, had become more than an NFL owner in Pittsburgh. He was a symbol, a saint, a man renowned for handing out money to the impoverished, for being a kind man in a cruel game.
In the world of Mark Cuban and Dan Snyder, and the endless line of loud, meddlesome owners, Art Rooney was the man behind the scenes, running his club behind it’s legendary Steel Curtain.
And he passed his skill, will, and wisdom to his son, Dan, who just died, at the age of 84.
When wealthy men die, you won’t find oceans of tears to follow. But the Rooneys are a bit different, the last of a breed, a hybrid blue-collar billionaire, whose wallet may have nine or ten digits but whose purpose and perspective was still in the endless mill towns that circle Pittsburgh.
The Rooneys are more than owners of an NFL team. They’re the high rung of a fanatic football culture in Western Pennsylvania, keeping the blue-collar masses inspired during the downturn of their economic lives. The industries that fueled the area – steel and coal – are no longer the titans of the glory years. By the time “The Deer Hunter” was racking up Oscars, the area was already losing jobs and steel mills were closing its gates. But the Steelers were a black and gold bond that kept an esprit de corps among the suddenly unemployed people of the rust belt.
My old man is from Western Pennsylvania, a few field goals from West Virginia. And I heard the old tales of the men who worked hard, played harder and died young, from black lung or bad luck or the endless list of maladies that befall men who work in the hardscrabble world of that era.
There was something in the food, water, or blood of those people of that area in those times. The list of legends is just absurd. Hall of Famers grew like grass along the endless ‘Burgs that dotted the map, so renowned we don’t need their first names. Namath. Unitas. Marino. Kelly. Montana. Dorsett. Ditka. It became a thing of pride that a kid from New York City not only loved the Steelers and visited Three RIvers Stadium, but was perhaps the only kid in Manhattan who could actually name those three rivers – Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela.
But the Rooney family did more than stack Super Bowl Trophies and give a hard-luck town a sense of pride. The Steelers’ meteoric ascent in the ’70s was greatly aided by their willingness to draft players from historically black colleges. The Rooneys and a scout named Bill Nunn swung open those doors, and broke those barriers. They unearthed pure gridiron gold in doing so, with icons like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount and John Stallworth on their roster.
The Steelers were also the first NFL club to open a season by starting a black quarterback (since the AFL-NFL merger), Joe Gilliam. While football fans see Terry Bradshaw as the face of the ’70s dynasty, Gilliam opened their 1974 season under center, their first Super Bowl campaign.
It not only gave the Steelers an aura of cultural awareness, Dan Rooney was also the progenitor of the rule that mandated team owners interview a minority candidate before hiring a head coach. The world now knows it as the Rooney Rule.
Football is now regarded entirely as a business and blood-sport, a cutthroat endeavor whose haunting moniker has become, “Not For Long.” But there are still a few family-run operations, literally mom-and-pop places that still have a lingering sense of the old world. Among them are the Rooneys and the Maras, who even produced a rather gifted actress, fittingly named Rooney Mara.
Dan Rooney transcended the financial algorithms of big-business football. While the Pittsburgh Steelers, like any NFL club, are a business, it’s run by a family, and the current head of that family is now gone. But Rooney leaves a legacy far beyond dollars, and plenty of sense.