Friends, fans honor Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney at public viewing
Reporting contributed by Colin Deppen
PITTSBURGH — The line started forming outside Heinz Field two hours before the public viewing for longtime Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney, who died Thursday at the age of 84.
Friends and fans arrived in suits, dresses and, sometimes, Steelers jerseys. They brought their children, and they brought their Terrible Towels. Together, they all waited to enter the PNC Champions Club for a chance to say goodbye to the man who served as team president from 1975-2012 and chairman from 2003 until this death.
At 2 p.m., the first arrivers were allowed to enter the Great Hall. There, they waited as photos of Rooney appeared on television screens and Celtic-sounding hymns pumped through the overhead speakers.
Some spoke proudly of Rooney as one of their own. They recalled him as a benevolent patriarch and a constant source of civic pride, a massive presence who would gladly give you an autograph without the latest hesitation.
Bruce and Barbara Bakan of Plum were two of the fans who made their way to the North Shore to pay their respects to the man they called a Pittsburgh icon.
“I feel like Dan Rooney and all the Rooneys just represent Pittsburgh,” Barbara said. “Somebody to look up to.”
Bruce briefly met Rooney in 2013 when his son flew in for a visit from Kansas City. The two got the opportunity to get Rooney’s autograph on several copies of his book. Shortly after, Bruce and Barbara had plans to go to London to watch the Steelers play the Minnesota Vikings. Bruce, a lifelong Steelers fan, told Rooney he was making the trip.
“He looked up at me,” Bruce said. “We made eye contact and said, ‘That’s going to be a tough game.'”
Once inside Heinz Field, fans worked their way to the Champions Club, which was partitioned with jet black curtains. A crush of floral arrangements stood outside the room, including one from a local Catholic school and another from Jerry and Gene Jones and the rest of the Dallas Cowboys.
The tributes and flowers continued inside the viewing space, where Rooney’s closed mahogany casket was flanked on either side by the flags of the U.S., Pennsylvania and Ireland. Rooney served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland under former President Barack Obama from 2009-12.
Mourners then moved to the waiting members of Rooney’s family, who greeted each of them and thanked them for coming. The turnout would’ve meant a lot to him, they said. The mourners said he meant a lot to them, too.
The leader of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, Bishop David Zubik, attended the viewing. He’s known Rooney for more than 30 years and will participate in Tuesday’s mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which will be celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Zubik called Rooney a “humble man” and a “quintessential Pittsburgher,” saying he was able to rub shoulders with everybody.
“I think that’s a powerful lesson for me,” Zubik said, “to try to grow that kind of humility.”
Rooney never missed mass, Zubik said, and there are many examples of how he put his faith into action. He pointed to Rooney’s support of what’s become known as the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for vacant head coaching jobs and senior football operations positions.
“I think he was able to take his own relationship with God and challenge everyone to see that means we have to take a look at every single person we meet is equal in the eyes of God,” he said. “We need to be able to give each other the respect that every person deserves.”
Sandra Francis of Pittsburgh, who is a friend of Rooney’s daughter Patricia, also visited. Francis described Rooney’s death as a personal loss, but also a loss for the city of Pittsburgh. She described the mood in the line as “reverent.”
“Just a very good-hearted, loving, faithful human being,” Francis said of Rooney. “Very real. … Just a very generous, spirited soul.”