Remembering Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers are full of myths.
Dan Rooney made the club into an entity that could inspire, host and be them.
In myths, though, boasts, exaggerations and outright lies swirl around and obscure the truth. Rooney is as close as it gets to that truth.
I didn’t know him very much at all. I covered his team for the last two seasons of his life, which ended Thursday, when Rooney was 84. In that respect, it’s hard not to feel shortchanged. But you didn’t need much time with Mr. Rooney to learn from him.
He was unyieldingly present.
And not in the manner we understand hands-on owners to be, meddling, but in the way the patriarch of a self-sufficient family unit is — there, comforting to see, even without need.
You could watch him move around the Steelers’ facility and realize that at least this part of team lore was true. I saw it when I first saw him, during the 2015 NFL draft. The owner really did hang out with the players and staff. He waited in line for food with them, too, and ate that food with a plastic fork when he got it.
Not believing any of this would’ve been so much easier. As a 22-year-old reporter jumping onto an NFL beat with a publication whose business model took too many phrases to explain – “You see, we’re a website, attached to a newspaper that you can’t get out here, but it’s real. I swear.” – thinking of the organization I covered as a purely cold, corporate entity would’ve made life a little simpler.
Rooney ruined that possibility.
When I introduced myself to the then-82-year-old team chairman, I was more in his way than anything. He just happened to be hanging by the water fountain outside the Steelers media room in front of the entrance to his offices. So I stuck out my right hand and told him my name. He removed his hand from his cane and told me his name.
I had to repeat myself, but it wasn’t his fault. I mumble. Still, one of the warmest welcomes I got to Pittsburgh was from the man who needed me the least.
When I tell you Rooney was present, I wonder how and then I realize it was through the people he talked to and the conversations – in passing or not – that they shared. This could and did happen in a golf cart rolling around training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, in a cafeteria or a parking lot anywhere.
I saw it most when he grasped the hands of his players in the postgame locker room. They would lean over and he’d tell them something I couldn’t hear that had clearly become the highlight of their day. He paid them, but he thanked them, too.
It’s difficult to be gracious with a cane. It’s harder still to imagine looking as young as Rooney does in the picture that sprawls along the right wall of the main entrance of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, where he smiles up toward a camera with his father by his side after the Steelers picked Terry Bradshaw first overall in the 1970 draft, then to reconcile that image with the man shuffling in front of you.
And when you’re young – frankly too young – to get the point of getting old, you think it’s just a thing that happens and eventually allows you to not worry about other people too much.
Yet the least polite thing I ever saw Rooney do in his last two years of life was ignore an elevator he didn’t feel like taking. The elevator didn’t take it personally and the stairs didn’t mind his company.
Because while age certainly hobbled Rooney, it never stopped him from looking up to say hello to someone new to the building that bore his name and face. Rooney was more at ease with seemingly anyone he spoke to than any of those people could be with themselves.
You don’t need to buy into the hero narratives that make up the stories we tell ourselves about football teams to enjoy them. I don’t believe in the legends of Bradshaw or his generational successor, Ben Roethlisberger. I can’t believe that “Steeler defense” is or ever was anything more than a series of schematics combined with some well-placed, extremely talented and motivated people.
Modernity eats mythology and it breeds some level of doubt, too.
But on Friday, the first day the Steelers will live in a world without Dan Rooney, you should believe in him. I still do.