Still the man of steel

SEVENTY years ago Billy Conn, weighing 174 pounds and fighting out of East Liberty, Pittsburgh, took on the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, for the heavyweight title.

Louis outweighed Conn by over 20 pounds, a vast difference between boxers, but everyone in Pittsburgh thought Conn could do it.

Almost everyone, that is.

“When Billy fought Joe Louis, we were listening on the radio,” recalls Dan Rooney, who was 11 at the time.

“We lived in a mixed neighbourhood, and I had two black kids there, two friends, and when Billy was winning, they didn’t say anything.

“When Billy got knocked out, they smiled and left, they went home to celebrate. Talk about race relations!

“I was thinking, ‘Billy’s here all the time, he’d come out and play baseball with us’, but when we were listening in the kitchen, as soon as he lost, they left.”

Ahead on points, Conn went for the knock-out late on and was flattened by Louis.

The hero of Pittsburgh was a familiar sight to the young Rooney.

“My father was one of his supporters, with backing when he was starting. It took a lot of money for training and so on.

“So he was close to my father, and I went to the same school as Billy’s wife — I was in third or fourth grade, and she was in high school, so when he picked me and her up together, he’d drive me home.”

Though Rooney is associated with American football, boxing was a family passion.

His father Art could have gone to the Olympics in 1920, having beaten Sammy Mosberg, who made it to the Games as America’s representative in the lightweight division (when he came back with a gold medal, Sammy didn’t appreciate the talk that Art Rooney should have gone instead, so they had a rematch. Unfortunately for Sammy, Art won that fight as well).

“He [Art] put on boxing matches in the Depression, with a nominal charge for people and got involved with Billy [Conn],” says Dan.

“Pittsburgh had great fighters — Harry Greb was my father’s favourite, but you had others, like Fritzie Zivic.

“Fritzie was from Lawrenceville in Pittsburgh, an Irish-Italian area, and when he won a fight he’d have a parade through there, with a big barrel of dimes, and he’d throw handfuls of dimes out to the crowd as the parade went on.

“But television killed boxing. They started Friday night fights, but soon it was on every night of the week, and then it was gone.”

The Rooney family connection with the Pittsburgh Steelers dates to the early 1930s, when Art founded the franchise. Dan wasn’t long getting involved with the team.

“I started to work with the Steelers when I was 14, 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.”

Rooney didn’t just grow, he eventually dominated administration in the National Football League, helping to negotiate the Collective Bargaining Agreement between players and owners in the 1980s.

He also introduced the ground-breaking ‘Rooney Rule’, which requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for coaching and management jobs.

He built up the experience that helped him in those rules the hard way.

“One time we were playing the Redskins and the weather was bad, so we said we’d get the train from Pittsburgh rather than fly down to Washington.

“Six players didn’t make the train. I stayed back for them in the station and the coach travelled with the team. While I was waiting the weather cleared up, so when the six guys arrived we headed for the airport and caught a plane.

“When the team arrived in their buses at the hotel from the train station, we were already there in the lobby.”

So that’s what a general manager does?

“That’s what a general manager does.”

A good general manager also wins, of course. Rooney’s club is always associated with the great team of the 70s, a decade he describes as “just ideal”.

“We had built a great team — Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham. When they walked on the field in the 70s they had no doubt they were going to win.

“Now, we lost games, but that was their attitude. Tremendous. The NFL Films rated teams and said the Steelers 76 team was the best NFL team ever.

“Yet they didn’t make it to the Super Bowl. We had a record of 12 and two, won our play-off game, beat the Baltimore Colts 30-7 — but our backs got hurt, and when we played the Raiders next, they beat us. We had a great rivalry with them. The ‘Immaculate Reception’, the most famous play in the league, happened against them.”

One of the most famous plays in NFL history, this incident has generated controversy since it occurred at Three Rivers Stadium in 1972.

Why not let one of the eye-witnesses walk you through it?

“We’d led that game the whole way but the Snake, Kenny Stabler, ran in for a touchdown for the Raiders, says Rooney.

“We tried to get down the field and with seconds left it was fourth and 10. Bradshaw dropped back but they rushed him and he threw the ball to Frenchy [John Fuqua].

“He was hit by Jack Tatum and the ball came out, and Franco [Harris] just caught it, real low, and went in for the touchdown. Those are the bare facts. Rooney’s immediate reaction was more visceral.

“I was upstairs in the control room, but I ran downstairs to the press box, and I answered the phone there when the officials rang [to clarify the call]. Art McNally was the head of the NFL officials but Art said on the phone, ‘Call what you saw — talk to your officials, see what they saw, and call what you saw’. He didn’t say ‘the Steelers won’ or ‘the Raiders won’ — just ‘call what you saw’.

“The Raiders said it was fixed but that’s what happened. The officials went into a huddle down on the field and then they put their hands up for the touchdown, and that was the game. And that started us off, that particular play.”

The team helped Pittsburgh through a difficult decade. Known for its steel mills, international competition murdered that industry: Rooney can recall being told that steel could be shipped into America from Japan and Berlin cheaper than the local mills could make it.

“The Steelers were something people could enjoy at every level — it wasn’t just something for the rich people or the poor people. It was for everybody.

“And they have a position — if the Steelers win, everyone’s upbeat on a Monday morning. They’re the biggest team in town — the hockey team is good, and well liked, and the baseball team has a tremendous history — they have a beautiful stadium, probably the most beautiful in baseball — but they haven’t won.

“We also have the University ofPittsburgh, which has a good basketball and football programme. But the Steelers have a special position in the city.”

It’s notable that when asked for heroes, Rooney runs through the great quarter-back Sammy Baugh and (Byron) Whizzer White, whose unusual career trajectory sent him from the Steelers to a Rhodes Scholarship and, eventually, appointment to the US Supreme Court by John F Kennedy.

“But the guy who was the most impressive to me was Joe Greene. 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.”

Rooney is too polite to give Greene his full name: known around the league as Mean Joe Greene, the fearsome lineman terrified opponents for years, but his old manager saw a different side to him.

“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.”

The Steelers could have done with Greene last weekend as they lost to the Denver Broncos in the play-offs, but that’s not Dan Rooney’s concern.

Nowadays he’s based in Ballsbridge, where he occupies the big office in the US Embassy. The Ambassador was no stranger to Ireland before being posted here by President Obama, and no stranger to Irish sport.

“I knew [former Ireland international] 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.”

With respect, that’s a pretty diplomatic answer.

“Well, that’s my job.”

More in this section