Things Bigger than Football: The Younger Rooneys
As you reach my advanced age, words like “Younger” become entirely relative. They are younger than The Chief, naturally…
As I noted in my story about The Chief, it began as a story about the Rooney family in total. But a quick Google search on the founder of the Rooney empire made it clear that it was a stand-alone story. So today I tackle the next generations.
Because of his long history and the kind of man he is, I will naturally be focusing on Dan Rooney. But before I do that I want to mention his brother, Art Jr.
In a lovely 2013 Post-Gazette article, author J. Brady McCollough reveals that Art Jr. was somewhat of a black sheep to his father:
There were no gray areas as far as he [The Chief] was concerned. Art Jr. remembered him once saying “show me a musician and I’ll show you a bum,” and he assumed that logic applied also to actors. Still, after graduating from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Art Jr. decided to go to acting school in New York. His father paid for it — begrudgingly.
“He thought it was terrible,” Art Jr. says. “Terrible.”
Rooney Jr. didn’t stay in New York—drama school was not a success—but came back to Pittsburgh and took a job with the team selling tickets, which was not a particularly easy thing to do, back when the team was known as the “same old Steelers.” But Art Jr. had played football in college and persuaded The Chief to let him work on scouting. He eventually came to run the scouting department, and between him and Bill Nunn put together some unrivaled teams.
He would eventually be fired by Dan Rooney, and their father didn’t stand in the way.
There is a great deal of wonderful information about the early days of Steelers scouting by a writer who was the historian for the original Behind the Steel Curtain site. This writer, who used the name maryrose (after his daughter, a Steelers fan from her earliest days,) noted:
Art Rooney Jr., Dan’s brother, deserves the lion’s share of credit for stepping up the Steelers’ scouting department by teaching and coordinating the talents of Bill Nunn and Rooney’s other top scout, former player Dick Haley. Today Art Rooney Jr. is the forgotten Rooney, but his skillful work in pulling together all the Steeler scouting efforts cannot be overstated. By 1969, Nunn was on board full time and looked at his newspaper business in the rear-view mirror.
So at the beginning of 1969, while three rivers were converging upon Point Park in Downtown Steeltown, another convergence of sorts was taking place in the front offices of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The maturation of BLESTO, Bill Nunn, Art Rooney Jr. and a freshly-hired coach by the name of Charles Henry Noll all came together to form the team behind the team. This new group couldn’t care less about the color of a player’s skin nor the size of his college and ended up profiting against those who did.
If you have any interest in such things I recommend the article, which is happily still available.
Rooney Jr. never lost his love for the arts. I first heard of him from a fellow traveler at a bed and breakfast. A (very) successful author, she told me she got her first “validation” as a writer from Art Jr. He had established a writing scholarship at Seton Hill, and her teachers encouraged her to try for it. She told me she still has the letter from Rooney, which means a good deal to her. In it he was “very kind,” and encouraged her to keep writing. You can read about it here.
Ivan also tells a marvelous story about Art Jr. in his series on Bill Nunn. You can read the whole series here, but here’s what happened as Ivan tried to make contact with Nunn for an interview:
My attempts to make contact with Nunn were initially dead ends. Even if I were to succeed in reaching him, why would he bother to sit for an interview? Neither I nor my publication carried any particular weight that he needed to respect.
I wasn’t frustrated by any of this and even congratulated myself for having the foresight to have chosen an alternative subject, just in case. Then, remembering the line from the movie 2010, something wonderful happened. On a Wednesday morning I received a phone call from a number with a 412 area code. Before there was time for the meaning of this to register, a woman announced that Art Rooney Jr. was calling.
Now I have met more than my share of big-time politicians, entertainers, athletes, business people, educators, and media personalities—a lot of folk who most would concede to be important or merely famous. But speaking as an ordinary citizen of Steeler Nation this was… unexpected. Rooney was more than generous with his time and in providing Nunn’s information, as well as background on his own long relationship with Nunn.
On to the better-known Rooney brother, Dan. I began this series of articles thusly:
Recently Dan Rooney and his wife were honored by the United Way for their four decade involvement with the local United Way. You can read Teresa Varley’s article about it here. This got me to thinking about the many members of the Steelers organization who give back to their community…
Being a part of the local community is a concept embedded in the heart of the organization for many years.
One of the phrases which really struck me in Ron Cook’s 10-year Rooney retrospective after The Chief’s death was this:
…if you ask family members how Rooney would like to be remembered, they’ll mention the famous NFL United Way television commercial. He was filmed late in his life, surrounded by children at Three Rivers Stadium. He thought that represented the best of not just the Steelers and the league, but also Pittsburgh. He always was proud to call himself “a Pittsburgher” because, as he once said, “If you ask a Pittsburgher where some place is, he’ll stop and tell you, and if he has nothing to do, he’ll take you there.”
Dan Rooney followed right in his father’s footsteps. As Holly Brubachjan wrote for the New York Times in 2009:
Draw a straight line between the goalposts at either end of Heinz Field, extend it south, and you’ll find that they line up directly with the fountain at the Point, where this city’s three rivers meet…The axis was Dan Rooney’s idea, and in addition to its implicit civic gesture, there is another, more private geometry at work: follow the line in the other direction and it runs right into Rooney’s house, as if his life, the life of the Steelers and the life of Pittsburgh were aligned.
Nose tackle Casey Hampton said: “A lot of owners, this is a hobby, but for him, this is his business, what he does. He’s here, shakes your hand, talks to you every day. Every day.”
The Steelers family encompasses not only the current team but past players as well. “You come back, and you’re still a part of here,” Ward said. “We know the history of the team. Not only do we represent ourselves but all the players who wore the black and gold before us.”
Rooney has consistently looked not just for skilled ballplayers but for athletes who would hold themselves accountable to each other and the community. “Those are the kind of people he assembles here, and it makes it a fun place to work,” Tomlin said.
Prior to the time Brubachjan’s article was written Dan Rooney’s role in the organization had been changing. Rooney passed the daily oversight of the organization over to his son, Art II, but continues to be the Steelers representative in league affairs. One of those “league affairs” concerned the so-called “Rooney Rule:”
…the most conspicuous and far-reaching of his contributions is the rule that bears his name, adopted in 2003, requiring that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for coaching positions.
According to Paul Tagliabue, then the commissioner, the idea for a mandatory interview policy came from the league’s lawyers, who knew that it had proved effective in business. Tagliabue thought it would be better if the initiative came from the owners. He asked Rooney to take the lead. Mara said: “He was probably the only person in the room who could have gotten that passed. He obviously practices what he preaches.”
When people cite Tomlin’s hiring as an example of the changes that the Rooney Rule can bring, Rooney is proud to set them straight: the Steelers had already interviewed Ron Rivera, then the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator; technically, the interview with Tomlin was not required.
Bill Nunn, who began scouting black colleges for the Steelers in 1969, once said that Rooney “doesn’t see color” — a quality Rooney attributes to his father and his old neighborhood. “In those days growing up on the North Side, we didn’t think about your skin color or your accent or what church you went to,” he wrote in his memoir, “Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL.” “What mattered was that you lived up to your word, pulled your own weight and looked out for your friends.”
Dan Rooney is a public-spirited man. He served as Ambassador to Ireland, and I hope they realize how lucky they were to get someone like him instead of a lifetime politico. As Tunch Ilkin told The Washington Post writer Leonard Shapiro for a 2006 article on the family:
“Dan Rooney is very much like his father. A little quieter maybe…There really is a sense of family, community, service. It’s not phony. It’s just the way they are. Kind of normal.”
As Ilkin says, it isn’t just lip service. In addition to the various events they chair and their own private charities, the “Steelers in the Community” page on Steelers.com lists 39 different charities with which the team, coaches, and/or players are involved. You can view the full list here. Here is a sampling of them:
Academics in Motion
The Steelers and PPG Foundation partner to support Academics in Motion (AIM), which uses sport as a vehicle to improve the academic, career and personal development of students from economically disadvantaged communities. The program places a youth development coach in local high schools to work with student-athletes to improve GPA and college readiness, increase graduation rates, SAT and ACT participation, parental involvement and the number of students going on to college.
Steelers players annually participate in the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) backpack giveaway. CASA works with children in the child welfare system that are neglected or abused. The advocates serve as a voice for the children in court and other situations to help ensure that every child has a safe, supportive and permanent home.
Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
Steelers players and team mascot Steely McBeam make frequent visits to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh to bring a smile to kids who are battling health issues. Players participate in various events for patients and their families, including the WDVE Radiothon at the hospital. The team also annually holds a monetary collection at a selected home game.
Defensive end Brett Keisel has become known for his world-famous beard. When he is ready to shave the beard, he holds a fundraiser to benefit Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC’s Pediatric Cancer Center. “Shear the Beard” celebrity “barbers” have included Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney, President Art Rooney II, Head Coach Mike Tomlin and several of Brett’s teammates. The event annually raises more than $40,000 for the Research Center.
Highmark Caring Place
The Steelers support the Highmark Caring Place, a center for grieving children. The annual Hoge/Starks/Ward golf outing is held at Southpointe Golf Club and is chaired by former Steelers Merril Hoge, Hines Ward and Max Starks. The players also attend a luncheon honoring students who have raised money for the charity.
Homeless Children’s Education Fund
Defensive end Brett Keisel and his wife Sarah chair the annual fundraiser for the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, which serves as a voice for homeless children in Allegheny County to ensure they are afforded equal access to educational opportunities.
Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh
The Steelers, along with 84 Lumber, serve as sponsors of Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh. This annual program renovates the homes of veterans and low-income elderly in the Pittsburgh area with a goal of safety for the homeowner. Steelers staff and players participate in the program each year, along with 84 Lumber employees.
Urban Impact Foundation
The Urban Impact Foundation (UIF) is a faith-based, nonprofit corporation which fosters Christian community development on Pittsburgh’s North Side. One of the outreaches is through athletic programs and events. Several Steelers players participate in a football clinic held by UIF on Pittsburgh’s North Side each summer.
Just by way of comparison I decided to check out a couple of other team websites and see what they list in their equivalent section. The New York Jets list five, including Play60, which all the teams have to be involved with. The Kansas City Chiefs list seven. I looked at several other teams at random, and didn’t find any team that is involved in more than seven or eight community outreaches or initiatives. Some teams were listing individual visits by players to a school. If we go by this metric, what does that mean about Troy Polamalu’s weekly visits to Children’s Hospital during his entire career? Or any number of the other quiet ways members of the organization go about giving back to the community?
I won’t dispute that the Steelers’ organization has benefitted from the local community. Back before I was a football fan (or a sports fan of any kind) I wrote some new words to the old Wassail song to use as an encore on our Christmas concert. One of the verses was for Fred Rogers, one about Parkway traffic (some things never change,) and this one, addressed to Tom Murphy, then mayor of Pittsburgh, who had basically overruled a no vote from the populace for a bond issue to pay for Heinz Field:
- Now here’s to Tom Murphy, of sports a firm friend; when a stadium’s needed, on him they can depend;
- But we poor starving artists have just one small request: when the owners are happy, please send us the rest.
At the time I was fairly new to Pittsburgh, had no comprehension of what the Steelers meant (and mean) to the city, and what benefits the city derives from them, even the “poor starving artists.” And there’s no doubt the Rooneys drive a hard bargain, whether they are negotiating Hines Ward’s contract or trying to get the city to help pay for extended seating.
But, like The Chief before them, they are also remarkably open-handed and generous with their time and their care for the local community. As we move from the top to the lower levels of the organization, is it surprising that we see the same spirit infusing the whole?
In the past six years I first grew to love the game, then the guys that played it. Now I find myself coming to greatly admire the owners who have made this a team to be proud of cheering for, come what may.