For a small man, Dan Rooney was a giant

Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman and former US Ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney died last week aged 84.

Owner Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates their 24 to 19 win over the New York Jets in the 2011.

Dan Rooney, who passed away last week at the age of 84, had a particular knack for being on hand for momentous events in American football history.

A philanthropist and diplomat, Rooney was the long-time chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers team: when they turned the corner in their rivalry with the Oakland Raiders back in 1972, Rooney had a front-row seat for the most controversial call in American football history, the Immaculate Reception. 

Thirty-two years later, NFL official Roger Goodell opened his hotel room door to find Rooney standing there.

“Commissioner,” said Rooney, confirming Goodell in the most powerful role in American football, and possibly in all of American sport.

A long way from Rooney’s beginnings with the team his father founded in the early 30s.

“I started to work with the Steelers when I was 14,” Rooney told this writer five years ago. 

“I went with my father to the training camp and he wasn’t a guy who’d mother you — he left you to it. It was a great thing for me, because I got to know and respect the players, and they got to know and respect me. 

"And that helped when I had to negotiate with the players’ union, that helped because they knew me.

“After college, I went to work for them full-time, and we had a coach at the time who didn’t like dealing with the league, with the bureaucracy, so when the league would call us, they found that I was a person they could reach, so they’d call me. 

"That meant they knew me, and I just happened to grow with the whole thing.”

In time, Rooney came to dominate administration in the NFL unobtrusively but decisively. 

He introduced the now-famous ‘Rooney Rule’, a law which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for high-profile positions, and in the 60s, he was a key figure in the merger between the NFL and AFL when his ability to resolve contentious disputes was key.

This was borne out by his contribution to expanding the league by locating teams in both Seattle and Tampa, as was his ability to negotiate collective bargaining agreements between players and team owners in the 80s, a time when relationships between the opposing sides were badly strained.

His loyalty to his own team was unquestioned, however. By the late 60s, he was effectively managing the day to day operations of the Steelers, and his eye for talent was crucial to their progress. 

In the 50s, he had been overruled when pleading the case for a promising quarterback to be retained, Johnny Unitas, and Unitas departed to win immortality with the Baltimore Colts, but Rooney got his way with a significant appointment in 1969, personally selecting Chuck Noll as head coach.

Rooney became team president in 1975 and was thus in place as they dominated the decade, collecting Super Bowls in 1975, 1978 and 1979 to add to the 1974 victory.

In time, NFL Films would recognise one of his Steelers teams of the 70s as the greatest ever — the 1976 incarnation (“Yet they didn’t win the Super Bowl,” said Rooney) — and the club boasted immortals in every department.

They had Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, Lynn Swann, Jack Ham, and, above all, the man who was the key enforcer in their defensive line, the feared ‘Steel Curtain.’

“The guy who was the most impressive to me was Joe Greene,” Rooney told me in 2012. 

“A phenomenal person. He did a lot for the team — if guys got out of line, he straightened them out. In his first year with the team, towards the end of the season, we were playing Philadelphia, in Philadelphia, and we were trying to win a close game, got to fourth down and went for it — and we didn’t make it.

“Joe picked up the ball and threw it into the stands. Everybody said, ‘this is terrible’, but I said ‘he’s tremendous — he wants to win’.

“He was so mad we didn’t make the down he threw the ball away. As time went on he helped show how to conduct yourself, stuff that’s very important to a team. He really helped in that respect. Is that important to a team? Surely it is.”

T

he player, a ferocious presence better known by a nickname that didn’t contravene the trade descriptions act, Mean Joe Greene, was in tears when speaking to Pittsburgh media last week. 

Greene visited Rooney near the end: “He recognised me then. He didn’t say anything. He was very weak. I just... tried to tell him how important he was in my life.”

Dan Rooney was important in a lot of lives for a lot of different reasons. Back in 1976, he and Irish businessman Tony O’Reilly — who was then based in Pittsburgh — helped to co-found the Ireland Funds, the philanthropic organisation which has raised over $550 million for projects in education, community development, and peace and reconciliation.

Rooney also set up the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, which is specifically aimed at Irish writers under the age of 40.

When this writer met Rooney, he was holding down another significant position: US Ambassador to Ireland. 

Towards the end of our chat, he referred to Irish sport: “I knew Tony O’Reilly when he came to Pittsburgh and I’d talk to him about rugby in particular. 

"I always liked hurling, and you can see our game emanated from rugby, but I wasn’t keen on Gaelic football — the kicking the ball up every three steps, I couldn’t understand that. But I went out and saw some games this year and I could see these guys are really great athletes.” 

(I said to him that that was a pretty diplomatic answer. 

“Well, that’s my job,” was the answer.)

Rooney lived to see the Steelers pick up another couple of Super Bowl wins in 2005 and 2008 to go with the four they won in the 70s.

The quarterback on those sides was Ben Roethlisberger, who posted a picture of himself and Rooney on Twitter, the two of them chatting at a training session.

Roethlisberger, who tops out at six five, towers over Rooney in the photograph, but don’t be fooled.

For a small man, Dan Rooney was a giant.

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