To Rooney, life was more than just football

April 13, 2017
FILE--This Nov. 2, 2014 file photo shows Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Greene, left, hugging Steelers chairman Dan Rooney following a ceremony to retire Greene's jersey number 75 at half time of an NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers announced that Mr. Rooney died Thursday, April 13, 2017. He was 84. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar/File)

In 1997, the Steelers made a trip to Ireland to play the Chicago Bears in a preseason football game.

It was one of a hanful of preseason games played in Europe by NFL teams during that period, but for Dan Rooney, it was another of many trips he made there in his lifetime.

Dan Rooney died Thursday. He was 84.

I was fortunate enough to follow the team for that week. Rooney spent the week not talking or thinking about football, but rather howing off various parts of the country, from the plant where Waterford Crystal was manufactured to Trinity College. We also travelled from Dublin via train to Belfast in Northern Ireland to a Catholic church that bordered one of the Protestant neighborhoods.

The neighborhoods were separated by a large wall to keep the two religious groups from killing each other over the issue of succession from Great Britain. The Catholics largely supported pulling out while the Proteststants did not.

Sometimes the wall worked. Other times – as graffiti on them attested, often quite bluntly, it did not.

At the church, the parish priest spoke about Rooney’s work to try to bring the two factions together. It was a subject that was near and dear to Rooney’s heart.

“My people are from here,” Rooney told Steelers Digest at the time while watching his team practice at University College Dublin. “It’s a labor of love.”

Life was a labor of love to Dan Rooney.

He didn’t often show pride but he certainly did when he was named the United States Ambassador to Ireland in 2009. It meant more than anything else he had accomplished in life.

That included helping construct a record six Super Bowl champions.

That included being the person who came up with what is now known as the “Rooney Rule” to push NFL teams to hire more minority head coaches and general managers.

That included helping lead the negotiations that ended the NFL players strike in 1982 and being one of the main architects of the league’s salary cap structure in 1993 that is still in use today.

That included being named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

That includes receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jackie Robinson Foundation last year.

In a lifetime filled with accomplishments, there is not enough room here to list them all. Rooney didn’t just live life, he embraced it and put his imprint on it like few others.

Rooney’s roots weren’t just in Ireland. They were in Pittsburgh. It’s hard to think about Pittsburgh without thinking of the Rooney family, first Art and then Dan.

It’s no coincidence the Steelers started to win when Dan Rooney took over the day-to-day operations of the team in 1969. He knew football. Just as important, he knew people. And he knew that if you found the right people, then you allow them to do their job.

He did that with the three head coaches he hired, first Chuck Noll in 1969, then Bill Cowher in 1992 and finally with Mike Tomlin in 2007.

Much like his beloved father, Dan Rooney garnered respect in the team’s locker room.

Don’t bother trying to find an official bio of Rooney in any of the team’s media guides. There isn’t one. Never has been. He always wanted to make everything about the players and coaches.

Even last season, at an age when many people were long retired, Rooney, his body wracked by the trials and tribulations of age, after each game would walk around the locker room and shake the hands of each and every player, telling that player how much he appreciated his efforts.

At training camp each year, he would be there on the field, watching the team work, just as he had done as a ballboy early in life.

His office door was always open.

“When we first met in 2010 you embraced me with open arms,” Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, a sixth-roud draft pick in 2010, wrote on his Instagram page. “You made me feel welcome. You looked at me as more than just another jersey number. One of the most genuine and humble human beings I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. You motivated me not only to excel on the field but also in life. This season, the No. 84 on my uniform will represent the 84 years you spent on this earth making an impact on the lives of others. I’ll miss you my friend. Thank you for everything.”

Other players, whether they be current or former team members, stars or guys who spent just a short time in Pittsburgh, also took to social media to express their regrets and reflect.

Unlike some NFL owners, who have bodyguards shuffle them around from place to place or are constantly preening for the TV cameras, Rooney never made anything about him. He drove a Buick to work each day. He still lived in the same house in which he grew up on Pittsburgh’s North Side, just a handful of Ben Roethlisberger throws from Heinz Field.

Rooney ate in the team cafeteria and stopped to talk to the people there. And though he had trouble getting around in recent years, he never wanted anyone to make a fuss over him.

But we often do fuss over great people. And Dan Rooney was most certainly that. Of that, there should be no doubt.

The world was a better place because he was in it, whether it be his office overlooking the Steelers’ practice fields in the facility that now bears his name, the city of Pittsburgh or Ireland.

Dan Rooney’s legacy, not just in football but in life, will be felt for a very long time.

Dale Lolley can be reached at dlolley@observer-reporter.com.

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