Steelers co-owner sees 'Dark Knight' ahead


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You can't get the complete kinetics of Thomas Tull on the telephone. His voice doesn't deliver the latent intensity of his gaze. It can't transmit the subtle confidence of his bearing.

Still, from California the other day, you could feel his ready passion about the Steelers, now just a week from the start of training camp, and the energy comes in a typical Tull microburst.

"I'm nervous because I actually feel good," said the CEO of Legendary Entertainment. "Keep your eye on No. 51 because he may be like Maurkice Pouncey, play himself right into the starting lineup. I mean Sean Spence has that kind of football intelligence. I thought Chris Rainey looked unbelievably quick, and David DeCastro is such a beast. I'm still stoked he fell to 24th."

OK, David DeCastro fell to the Steelers late in the first round of the NFL draft almost three months ago, but stoked is as stoked does, and if the Steelers could put the pads on any of their new ownership partners at Saint Vincent who might actually maintain the collision level, it would most likely be Thomas Tull.

Who knows?

It might get louder.

But this is about nights like tonight, in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers gather for what's become one of their most favored social occasions, the debut of another blockbuster film co-produced by Tull.

So at the Byham, at 7, "The Dark Knight Rises."

Turns out Tull is stoked.

"First of all, I'm a lifelong die-hard Batman fan," Tull said with the same conviction he delivers to Steelers football. "To be involved in this trilogy ['Batman Begins,' 'The Dark Knight'] is an incredible experience. To have the privilege of working with [director] Chris Nolan, as good a filmmaker as there is in the world, and with our partners at Warner Bros., where nobody does a better job of rolling a film out, it's incredibly exciting.

"It would be hard to draw it up any better."

The synergies between the football players, themselves such primary conduits of popular culture, and Tull, one of its most successful traffickers, has been readily evident to anyone who has been around the Steelers since Tull came aboard three years ago.

"It's not like he's always trying to put himself in the forefront," said recently retired Steelers great Hines Ward. "But you can see he loves the city and tries to do as much as possible to put the city on the map. I've always tried to do that, too, and I've been blessed in my life with a lot of great things, but being asked to be in the Batman movie was just such a big honor."

The Rooneys, of course, while not being the kind of people you would usually associate with the red carpet, have enjoyed the relationship Tull has cultivated with the players, and don't think they've forgotten how investors like Tull helped them execute a rather urgent financial reconstruction that did little else but save the Steelers as we know them.

"There's no question that this group of partners that came on board allowed us to continue to own and operate the franchise; we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to them," said Steelers president Art Rooney II. "Everyone really enjoys the relationship and all of them bring something to the table. Thomas really enjoys Pittsburgh. He's going to be buying a house here."

It was Tull and Rooney, working actively with the Pittsburgh Film Office and with Warner Bros., who made Pittsburgh one of five primary backdrops for "The Dark Knight Rises," a film that might generate $1 billion while footnoting the screen debuts of Ward, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Mike Wallace (whom you might not see anywhere else anytime soon), as well as former Steelers coach Bill Cowher and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Steelerstahl.

The scene at Heinz Field, home of the fictional Gotham Rogues, leaves Ward a little breathless to this day.

"I've run scared before but I really ran scared that day," Ward laughed. "They told me, 'Don't look back.' I felt the explosion when I was running. I had to wear earplugs. Usually, I'm smiling when I'm running, but that day I was actually screaming."

Tull and Ward, as it happens, have life narratives that aren't terribly dissimilar. Both raised by single moms, Ward in East Point, Ga., and Tull in Binghamton, N.Y., they shared more than humble beginnings. Both believed at a very young age there was virtually nothing they couldn't do.

Tull went to tiny Hamilton College to be a lawyer, but remained a movie nut who parlayed an untapped financial aptitude into one blockbuster after another, even as they spanned a significant artistic scope. Ward, the best receiver in Steelers history, was always ready to tell you who it was that said he couldn't do what. He'd never danced in his life before he won the Mirror Ball Trophy on "Dancing With the Stars." He had no apparent activist leanings and yet wound up on President Barack Obama's Advisory Council on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

For the record, I don't think either of them is fully convinced he is not Batman.

"When I was growing up," Tull said, "it was like Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, they all came from Mount Olympus. That's why it's such a privilege to call myself a partner of the Rooney family; it's unbelievably humbling. They're the classiest people you'll ever meet.

"I've spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh and I think it's just one of the very sophisticated cities anywhere, with world-class universities like Carnegie Mellon and Pitt for research, robotics, for friendly people. But what I always tell people is that you've never been to a football game until you've been to Pittsburgh on a Sunday afternoon."

No one has ever been to one like the Rogues played for the cameras last July certainly.

Not until "The Dark Knight Rises."

Steelers - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published July 17, 2012 4:00 AM


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