The Man Who Saved My Love of the Game
by Ivan Cole
“ If you haven’t noticed, though Dan Rooney is still technically Chairman, Art II is now the sole public voice of the Franchise. This, to my thinking, reflects a natural succession process, accelerated by health issues involving the elder Rooney. It’s Art’s team now.”
That was published on Monday, with no forewarning concerning how prescient it would turn out to be.
I never had the honor and privilege of meeting Dan Rooney, though I have had the good fortune of having interacted with others in the Rooney family. Sharing that experience is the best tribute I can make at this time. While meeting, and perhaps having the opportunity for conversation with the late chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers would have been a thrill, I believe it is important to not minimize the impact of influence that some wield in the life of others without touching them directly.
I find it difficult to be sad over a life, a race, if you will, that has been so successfully run. You sense that in the early reactions to Rooney’s passing. It would seem to be as much or more about pride and celebration than grief. No doubt the end was also easier to take because it could not come as too much of a surprise. Though my visits to Pittsburgh have grown more infrequent over the years, I have been a regular at training camp. It had become impossible not to notice how frail the elder Rooney had become in recent years.
On the other hand, death has had its say this spring in a very targeted way for me as it relates to my relationship to sports. It began a few weeks ago with Joni Sledge of Sister Sledge.
Unlike Rooney my connection with Joni was not just a matter of admiration from afar. We grew into adulthood together at Temple University. I had the unexpected experience of having a ringside seat to the phenomena of a young woman, along with her sisters, grow into fame. And how bizarre it was from my perspective that the form that fame would take, in part, for these native Philadelphians would be as Pittsburgh sports icons.
Pittsburgh Pirates fans had theme music in route to a world championship before, but, and I may be biased, We Are Family was a head and shoulders improvement over Beat ‘Em Bucs.
On Wednesday, my college football coach Wayne Hardin passed away at 91. He will be best remembered as Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach’s college coach, and leading the U. S. Naval Academy to a second-place national ranking in 1964. More relevant to Steelers fans was that he was Randy Grossman’s coach.
As an underclass walk on, we had virtually no interaction. He seemed like a nice enough man, but he was also representative of a culture that made it easy to walk away from football with dry eyes and not so much as a glance over my shoulder.
Which brings me to the Rooneys and an unexpected phone call.
Michael Bean, founder of Behind The Steel Curtain, had enlisted me to write for the Steelers Annual magazine. I got it into my head that I wanted to attempt to interview legendary Steelers talent evaluator Bill Nunn. Maryrose, another BTSC writer, arranged for a contact in the Steelers offices, but I didn’t expect much to come of it and was already mulling other options. There was nothing significant about me or my publication that would require that my request be honored. So, imagine my shock as I began to grasp the meaning of the 412 area code of the incoming call when I found myself talking to Art Rooney Jr (Dan’s brother).
Once I established my intent and my Pittsburgh roots it was almost as if we had been friends and neighbors for years. The logistical issues relative to my contact with Nunn were dispensed with in a few moments, then a wide-ranging discussion about family, growing up and living in Pittsburgh. After about a half hour, Art apologized because he had a scheduled phone call with a doctor. I thanked him profusely for the gracious gift of his time and attention. He ended by saying that if he didn’t get too hung up he would try to call back. That was a nice thing for him to say, I thought to myself as we ended the conversation. He didn’t have to say that.
About twenty minutes later he called back, and we spoke for another 20 minutes or so, ending with an invitation to stop by for lunch when I got into town.
A week or so later I met with Bill Nunn and this tone just continued. We sat for three hours on the back porch of the home in Schenley Heights where he grew up. It was a house, quite common when you grew up in Pittsburgh, that seemed preposterously small when you return from the wider world. An added benefit was that from where I sat I could gaze across town and see my old neighborhood, maybe even own house if it had still existed. And as I sat there trying to get as much as was possible from the gold mine of wisdom and experience that I was immersed in, I continued to come back to trying to reconcile the modest surroundings of someone who had risen to the pinnacle of success over fifty years in a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Nunn deflected the attention to Dan Rooney. You may read or hear over the coming days about how Rooney stood in the cafeteria line like everyone else. That deserves to be uplifted. Nunn chose to focus upon the fact of this billionaire still living in the home in which he grew up, in the not greatest neighborhood in the world.
We have allowed the advancement of the fiction that the demands of being a business success requires the necessary and willing embrace of qualities of character and practice that range from sketchy to barbaric. From there proceeds a torrent of anti- human, anti-humane practices: Hard heartedness and cruelty, greed, dishonesty, back stabbing, insensitivity, and a host of other objectionable postures that are supposedly justified by bottom line success.
Dan Rooney, like his father Art Sr., a Golden Gloves Champion boxer who gave serious consideration to becoming a priest, demonstrated that you could be tough and no nonsense, while not sacrificing empathy, compassion and humility. Unlike his father, he
also proved that these qualities were not necessarily mutually exclusive from success on the field or in the bottom line. Indeed, rejecting the orthodoxy concerning race, ethnicity, body types and other taboos, proved to not just be the right thing to do, but the best thing to do as well, and has resulted in competitive advantages for this franchise which, in some respects has not been matched by Pittsburgh’s rivals.
Humility is on display in one respect in just the nature of the business. We overlook what the Rooneys have accomplish because we trivialize the industry. But make no mistake, the same principles would work similar miracles if applied elsewhere. What is going on in the Southside of Pittsburgh is desperately needed a lot of other places. And it would work if someone had the wisdom to absorb the lessons and apply them.
Let’s hope that Dan Rooney’s ultimate legacy would come to be implemented in the wider world. For now, having it continue with the Pittsburgh Steelers would be just fine.
Thank you, Dan Rooney, and rest in peace.